By Antonis Stroggylakis/ email@example.com
Playing in Euroleague might not be such an easy thing for a guy that goes to Europe straight out of College. Not even for one that has experience from international tournaments with his country’s national team. For Olivier Hanlan, adaptation seems to run smoothly. The Canadian combo guard who plays for Zalgiris Kaunas, averages 10 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists per game in 23 minutes of playing time, having already added to his bio some great performances against Euroleague powerhouses like Panathinaikos and Barcelona. And while his feet are above the ground when he is on court, his mind is not as you can read below.
We bumped into Olivier Hanlan in the Zalgiris Kaunas’ locker rooms, after his team’s biggest win of the season. The one against Olympiacos for the Euroleague Top 16. Although he was tired he shared with us his thoughts about this particular game, the experiences he gathers from playing in Euroleague, the areas he is been improving and what basketball means in Kaunas. Also, he describes how he feels being coaches by an icon like Sarunas Jasikevicius, while he also speaks about his friend, and teammate in the Canadian national team, Kevin Pangos.
Our conversation takes place after Zalgiris’ biggest win in Euroleague this season. For a rookie like you it must have been great?
I knew they are an experienced and successful team. They have a great combo guard, Vassilis Spanoulis, that has a lot great history in his career, both personal and with his teams. And Olympiacos is a big team, you know. They have a deep bench, pretty good foreign players, great Greek players. An all around strong roster. But our coach did a great job in terms of scouting and putting down everything that we needed to know in order to fight against them the way we should. He explained us everything in order to be as prepared as possible, especially when it came to stop them in defense.
But perhaps you even surpassed your expectations. I mean… you won by 20 points.
Yes (laughs)! Look, obviously we probably did not expect a 20 point victory. But we definitely expected to win. Because that’s what we prepared ourselves for. Our mentality was ideal. We were positive and our practices have been very strong. Especially this last week of practices changed a lot on the way we approach our basketball.
Also our mindset played a big part in our victory. We entered the game ready to give them nothing. Even if we did made a lot of fouls it didn’t matter because it showed our aggressive attitude, which eventually won the day. By 20 points!
While you did not particularly shine on offense, you did your job pretty well on defense. What was your strategy against your opponents?
Against their many years of experience there was a Euroleague rookie, like me! While we were preparing for this game, I was seeing them reading the game on offense and being comfortable. That made me feel that I had to be physical from the start and keep it like it that for the whole game. The team, in general, was like that for 40 minutes. Every guy helped. This caused us to win this game and with 20 points.
Not many Euroleague rookies, especially those who come straight from colleges, pay so much attention to their defensive duties. But you have generally managed to do so, in the season.
I have to say that i got a lot better on defense since my arrival here. When you are new in a team of course you want to get a good deal of playing time, but also you want to learn new things. More importantly, you have to do what you are supposed to on court. So, playing in Euroleague has kind of made my defensive role more important than it was in the previous years. It also improved my understanding of how crucial this part of the game is, in order to win games.
So you like it, don’t you?
Yes, of course i do. I want to get stops against my strong opponents. When you are tough on defense, good offense will eventually come. When you are aggressive on making stops and you break the rhythm of the team you play against, you will build an appropriate, perhaps great even, offense for you or your teammates. I have that constantly on my mind. What is more, our new coach, Sarunas Jasikevicius puts a lot of attention on that part of the game. He emphasizes on defense a lot.
How do you feel having a basketball legend, not only in a European, but a global scale, like Saras, as a head coach?
First of all he is tough on me, which is always good. I like that part (laughs). But seriously, having a coach that used to play in the same position as I play, is so very important. Because he doesn’t see me only with the eyes of the coach, but with those of a player. One who, as you said, played the game as successfully as it can probably get. He understands a lot more of what I am.
Also, he was a guard, like I am. So that inspires me and motivates me in so many different ways. It makes me read the plays a bit more and improve my general outlook in the game. Hey, you can say that it even forces me to become a better player. He always talks to me and he tells me where I should focus my attention. Having someone like that in my first year of playing in Euroleague, fresh out of college… is probably the most perfect fit, and the best thing, that could have happened to me. Ever!
And your first stop out of college is Kaunas, Lithuania. One of the basketball capitals in Europe. How do you feel about playing here?
It’s all about basketball here. Sure, you play games and you go to practice all the time, but there is so much more than this. Even when you are off the court. You are in the mall and everybody talks about basketball. You go to the movies and you can understand that everybody talks about basketball! As you said, this is a serious basketball region. That, in a way, makes it easier for us, especially newcomers in Europe, to be motivated to play even harder than we wanted to. Our city has our back, the arena is amazing, the facilities are fantastic and the fans are the best. As a player, not only you can’t complain, but you can’t ask for more.
Your NBA rights belong in the Utah Jazz. You also played in the Summer League with them. Is it easy to be put that on your back of your mind, for the time being, and stay focused on what happens here?
Yes, it is. Definitely. Since college I was always focused on the team I was at. What i do right now and in that particular moment, is what matters. If I keep having the correct focus and mindset, keep working on my game and improve myself, make my skills better and correct my weaknesses, things are going to take the road they are supposed to. Right now, the focus is the Top 16 and getting many wins and go as far as possible. Then we will see what the future holds.
How do you see Kevin Pangos’ (of Gran Canaria) European venture? You had played together in the national teams of Canada, and he is a rookie here, like you.
I saw a few of his games, but I heard a lot more than what i have watched. I know he is doing pretty well and he is doing that in a pretty good League, in Spain. Eurocup, where he also plays in, is tough as well. I keep hearing good things about him and, more importantly, I know that his team is winning. Especially here in Europe that’s a big part of what we should do.. We haven’t talked yet in order to share experiences, but we do that on summer. There’s always love between me and Kevin you know. We will most likely bump into each other hopefully soon enough. Definitely on Summer with national team. He is a great guy and to be honest… I am not surprised at all that he is doing so well in Spain.