I had first planned to interview Nikos Zisis a few weeks ago. For those that don't know him, he is the starting point guard for AEK Athens, one of the biggest surprises in this season's very competitive Euroleague. Starting for the first season of his career at the point guard position, Zisis isn't the type of player who believes that everything depends on luck. He only had a few games as a PG in last year's playoff games, which he now admits that "these first games [as a PG] were more of learning ones for me. Having (now Detroit Pistons fourth Point Guard) Horace Jenkins out of the team for the first time during the season, I started swimming in deeper waters, knowing that this would be the first time in my career that I would start at PG. I can't say that I did so well in those games, except for the last game of the last series in the playoffs," says Nikos, who had to jump in and handle a lot more playing time (from 25 mpg in the regular season to about 35 mpg in the playoffs) while also increasing his scoring output to 11.0 ppg and his passing to 3.6 apg.
Just to explain what the situation was like before, Zisis was a starter for the previous two seasons at the SG position, but not the type player who could carry that much weight for his team. Nope. Before Jenkins left the team, he was not touching the ball that much, as the team's perimeter game was built more or less around the 30-year old American guard. Zisis was averaging 9.1 ppg and 2.7 apg as a SG. He was a starter, with plenty of experience for his age and was looking for a chance to shine. The chance arrived at a different position in the lineup than he probably expected, but the challenge of moving to a completely new role was difficult to handle.
There were moments during the playoff series against the overachieving team Iraklis that Zisis did not look strong enough to contain the PG position. His numbers took a significant dive in the 3rd-4th place games in the playoffs vs. Iraklis, where he had to match up against the eventual A1 (Greek League) MVP, Dimitris Diamantidis.
Let's not lie to the people who will read this interview. Diamantidis had a party. He played in two full games before getting injured and almost had a triple-double in both of those games. Despite putting up weak numbers against one of the best PG's in Europe, Zisis never gave up, instead realizing that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in order to cope with the new position that he just started playing at.
The problem is, Zisis didn't have much of a chance to focus on improving his PG skills during the summer, as the coach of the Greek national team Panayiotis Yiannakis chose him to make his international debut as Greece's back-up shooting guard at the very competitive Olympics held in Athens. After all, he was mainly known from his experience as a shooting guard, both in AEK and the younger Greek national teams.
Let's leave this excellent opportunity for him to blossom aside (and be sure that he did just fine during those two weeks at the Olympics, averaging a little less than 7 ppg in 17 minutes while impressing many NBA scouts in practices), in order to focus mainly on his season starting in September. The season was still going on when this interview was conducted in mid-April, so we'll let Nikos explain for himself how his season has gone so far.
"I started the season off in not a very impressive way. You see, my philosophy of the game is more of being a part of a specific group or a team, than it simply just revolving around me. This isn't the smartest way to look at basketball from an individual standpoint. So, when the season doesn't start well for the team, it cannot start well for me. There isn't a contradiction in this statement. When we began the season winning two out of four games in A1 and only one out of five in the Euroleague, then it is clear that we aren't doing well, neither the team nor me."
Always thinking before commenting, Zisis does not proceed to make easy judgments before he weighs both sides of every statement. He seems to like reality. "I think that by working on your weaknesses, it may not mean that you'll make it to the end of the road, or that you'll be the best, but at least one day you will become better. I know that my potential is up to a point, I know that I lack speed and athleticism, but working on it on a consistent basis does not hurt at all. It will only make me improve."
What else does he lack? "I definitely need to get better at creating my own shot. That's a skill that I have to improve so that I can expand my scoring abilities. Also, I think that it is necessary to use my left hand more when slashing towards the basket. I am getting predictable when I only use my right hand in finishing. I don't think that it hurts trying to improve your game."
Well, it doesn't hurt being realistic either Nikos, be sure about that... Especially at age 21.
With such a mentality, you wouldn't expect for Zisis to give up and let any critics go after his young coach, his young team or especially himself, again, a young leader. There is no secret that in Europe it is very rare for a team to trust a 21-year old player to guide them throughout a tough and very competitive season, especially at the PG position. In the first round of the Euroleague, there is usually no way for a team to come back from a 1-4 record and qualify in the top-16 round. AEK did it, though.
In 's recap of the best performances by draft prospects in the Euroleague regular season, Zisis was ranked first.
He started the Top-16 round of the Euroleague very aggressively, as the need for wins was necessary. In our Euroleague preview, before the season started, when I was analyzing AEK Athens, I couldn't even dare to suggest him as ...an NBA Prospect? Only Yiannis Bouroussis was notable in the squad. Even now, I can't understand how quickly Zissis' improvement came. "Well, I can assure you that it wasn't a miracle. We worked a lot in practice and I took all things one by one. It took some time, but when I needed to step up, I was ready. Nothing depends on luck."
Five months later, his team had only finished 3rd in its group in the Top 16, coming just one win shy from making it in the quarter finals, but Zisis led AEK in scoring in those six second round games and paced the team in all the three crucial first wins of the first round that kept his team's qualification hopes alive. The Euroleague season is over for him now. The mission has certainly been accomplished.
But what was his mission? Looking at the official Euroleague site, Zisis had finished 3rd in passing during the first round of the competition, while his top-16 stats are nothing but the best he has ever accomplished at the Senior level. I am getting confused. The guy sitting in front of me tells me that he needs to work on his game more and more. This time mentally. "I can't fool myself. I am a part of a team and the coach gives me a chance. When I am not good in a role, I will understand it and try to get better. Otherwise there is no point of participating in the game."
But he plays in a new position. This means that he is still learning his role as a point guard.
"Well, being a point guard isn't an easy task at all," he adds. "Although in modern basketball there is not a clear-cut âseparation' of each position and every player must have the skills to do many different things on the court, there are still some little things that make the PG a very important player for each team. He is the guy who is gonna take the initiative to find out who will be in charge of the offense. He has to organize the game, therefore he will decide when will the players move around every set play. You need to have the brains to separate the âhottest' player and try to isolate him, so he'll get the open shot."
Talking with him, I am trying to understand whether he tells me the truth. The guy is young, but he doesn't trick himself. I don't remember any other Greek player carrying his maturity at this age. This isn't a compliment. We don't misjudge players here. It is just the same way that Greece must have produced a hundred or so more talented players than him during the last decade. I don't remember any of them accomplishing anything compared with what Nikos has right now. And what looks more important is that he has it all clear in his mind.
The NBA? It's simple. Nikos doesn't have the "package". He isn't an NBA type of player, my grandmother can see that. He will not dazzle any scout with his speed. He is just an average athlete. He is not bulked up at all. He is not your strict PG either. He doesn't focus on passing and leave other fields for the rest of the team. He is just a very good Euroleague player, which might mean that he isn't necessarily specialized at something. He is just a very good player, with experience and eagerness to cooperate with the others.
"Well, yes, why lie about that? I know who I am. I don't have the physical tools that other players have, I wasn't gifted athletically. I am not so impressive when slashing. But, apart from that, I insist that I am a guy who really works on his game and tries to become better every day. It is a matter of practice, schedule and organization. It all depends on the mind, I think and if you are strong enough mentally, then there is no reason not to improve in all the other fields. Accusing a player of not being athletic enough doesn't make sense. Accusing them of being unstable or not ready when their team needs them, well those are good reasons."
Marco Jaric, Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni are the last really good Euroleague players that decided to cross the Ocean, having reached a peak in Europe. Nikos isn't at their level yet and he will probably never reach them, concerning their athleticism and speed, but he will probably become a big star like they did, if he stays for one or two more seasons in Europe. Did all those go to the NBA and had an easy life there? No way. This should scare him, but it doesn't.
"I'm an ambitious man. I know that I may even go undrafted, but this isn't a worry for me. I don't think that's the real issue. For some players who are athletically gifted and they base their hopes on their body and potential, well, yes, going undrafted would be a reason to worry, because in NBA, if you have those skills, then you have more chances. Concerning me, though, I believe that the real issue is improvement. I know that I am more suited for European basketball and I deal with it, without any problem. On the other hand, if an NBA team wants me, then it is a serious challenge and I can go there as a free agent. It isn't only a draft issue. The reason is that the NBA is different. It isn't necessarily better than Euroleague, it is more of a show. More impressive and glamorous, definitely more money to earn. But still, it is a real challenge."
But what is the player's opinion about the NBA? What is the reason for going there? The money is one, he claims, but a player wants to improve. Especially a guy like Zissis. "Well, there is lately a lot of discussion concerning the NBA's efficiency. That topic first occurred when other National Teams started beating the Dream Team in the International competition. This was the end of the NBA's superiority concerning its game, plus the fact that many players who come from Europe, Asia and Latin America, like (Pau) Gasol, Tony Parker, (Dirk) Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Manu Ginobli and (Andrei) Kirilenko have become Franchise Players for their NBA teams. And the most important is that even the teams and their coaches are strongly affected by International Basketball. You see zone defenses now more than ever. You see the best coaches in the world, Larry Brown and Greg Popovic using offensive systems which aren't based on individual players only. A person that appreciates modern basketball can now understand that that's the main reason that the Pistons and the Spurs or vice versa are the best NBA teams. The two teams of the highest quality. I think that this is a really good thing. A sign of global affection for the world's basketball. This might be hurting the individual star system, but it still helps the teams become more effective. But, by seeing all that, the NBA has lost its magic. It became reachable. Something that's not necessarily bad."
And he is right on that. Does this mean that the NBA became worse though? "No, it hasn't, but it isn't taboo either anymore. Actually, it isn't like the 80's or the early 90's, when Drazen Petrovic, Europe's best player then, needed to sit for 2 seasons on the bench, in order to become a star there. Now, things look like more simple for any player. But, concerning its myth, the Euroleague has caught up with that. You were hearing the name of Michael Jordan and you were not even thinking of him as an opponent you could beat."
Does the NBA make you a better player? "Well, probably yes. I remember seeing Beno Udrih attempting to drive versus Miami and Eddie Jones early in the season and Jones only needed a second to catch up with the kid. Two weeks ago, I saw Udrih again. The guy was practically dominating all the guards of Detroit. Well yes, the NBA does make you better."
Is Zisis ready to go to the NBA? "Well, I don't speak for myself in those cases. I think that if they come to me and tell me that they want me, then there should be a reason for that."
Well, I don't know if scouts judge players strictly by their athleticism and potential, but right now, except for maybe Andrew Bogut, there is no other player in this upcoming draft who carries Zisis' experience from playing in so many different types of competition, along with his thirst to get better so that he can help his team. As they say in Greece, if you can't teach talent once, then you can't teach brains twice.