Velimir Perasovic: «We want to reach the Euroleague Final Four»




The first interview of the head coach of BC UNICS Velimir PERASOVIC in Russia - about the competition in the Old World, star newcomers and much more for "BUSINESS Online".

On October 1, UNICS will start in the Euroleague - this is the forth season of the club in the most prestigious tournament of the Old World. Kazan residents have strengthened as never before. Among the newcomers - one of the main talents of Europe, Mario Hezonja, the third NBA draft pick O Jay Mayo, three-time Euroleague champion Andrei Vorontsevic and others. Head coach Velimir Perasovic can also be called a newcomer - he headed the team only in June. Before his 12th season in the Euroleague, the specialist talked to BUSINESS Online.


Kazan is a familiar city for 56-year-old Velimir Perasovic: he has been here with his former teams. Velimir should remember especially well 2014, when his “Valencia” won the European Cup here. Five years later, Velimir is faced with the task of achieving high results already in UNICS and in a more status tournament. Perasovic's office in the Basket Hall has not yet been furnished. Of the excess on the table - only a set of T-shirts with UNICS logos, ironed and neatly folded. There is a large board on the wall, while it is clean. There is a gray blanket on the sofa: it was bought by Dimitris Priftis. Perasovic's predecessor spent so much time in the Basket Hall that sometimes he preferred not to return home, but to sleep in his study. Priftis worked for three years to bring UNICS to the Euroleague, but when he achieved his goal, he decided to move closer to his family and left for Athens Panathinaikos.
UNICS reached an agreement with Perasovic in a matter of days. He had been waiting for proposals from the Euroleague for a whole year, so he did not hesitate. "A club with a long history, a great city, a chance to play in the Euroleague - what else do you need?" - the coach describes his vision of the situation. Speaking about the team's prospects for the upcoming season, Perasovic is careful in his predictions: with such experience of participation in the Euroleague, who, if not him, knows how many tests await the team. Only in the regular season - 34 matches with the giants of European basketball. “We can only set a goal for the next match,” the specialist says.


- Velimir, why did you choose UNICS this summer?
- This is a club with an excellent reputation, one of the best in Russia. Next season the team will play in the Euroleague, which was important for me. After Baskonia I received offers from different clubs, but they were all not from the Euroleague. I wanted to return to this tournament, so I decided to wait and, as soon as the opportunity arose to lead UNICS, I would use it.
- You are one of the most experienced coaches in Europe, but you completely missed last season. Why?
- I worked for 19 years without stopping, and this pause was generally the first for me. I will assume that it arose due to a pandemic. Clubs were unable to plan ahead and avoided coaching reshuffles. Even one year without basketball was hard for me. I played from 15 to 37 years old, then began to work as a coach, all this time I was in the teams of the first division. I'm so used to the daily process that it's hard for me to imagine my life without it. Basketball is already in the blood.
- What team would you like to see UNICS this season? What principles did you start to build?
- Basketball in the Euroleague is getting faster every year, and talent is needed to be successful. And finding the latter is not so easy. When you start searching, making lists, it seems like there are many candidates on the market. But it is worth digging deeper, and it turns out that someone has already agreed with the NBA club, someone with China, and someone does not like the weather in Russia. Many did not fit the financial conditions - and this despite the fact that the club offered solid money. For example, we could theoretically compete for Mike James - I already worked with him at Basque Country, but he chose Monaco. If I had been told earlier that Monaco would be able to offer such conditions for a player, I would not have believed it.
- What is your assessment: is the UNICS squad for the Euroleague?
- Yes. Our roster allows us to fight top teams. You could see this in the match against Fenerbahce in the Istanbul Cup, where we played without Mario Hezonja (the meeting took place on September 12 and ended with the score 79:81 - ed.). But, as I said earlier, it all depends on the talent. Teams such as Real, Fenerbahce, Barcelona have a lot of talent. You can ideally prepare for them, impose a fight on them, keep up to the very last minute, but in the end they have a super performer who will win for his team.
- Do you set yourself a specific task for the next season, for example, to reach the playoffs following the results of the regular season?
- Of course, we want more than just reach the playoffs - we want to reach the Final Four. Why not? At the same time, we cannot set ourselves such a task. You just have to move from game to game. We can only set goals for the next match. Ask all 18 Euroleague coaches what their goal is, everyone will answer: next match.
What kind of basketball do you want to play for UNICS?
- It's very strange to describe your basketball. We want the same thing as any other team: to play aggressively in the transition from defense to attack, to defend well, to rotate ... Everyone understands perfectly what kind of basketball is needed to be successful in the Euroleague, but it is not so easy to place it. Hope we can do it. I cannot say yet what kind of basketball we will show next season. We're showing one game now, but if our two newcomers - O J Mayo and Jarrell Brentley - adapt and can be useful, it will be different.


- When you came to UNICS, what did you do first of all?
- We decided who should stay and who shouldn't. We signed the Russian players, kept Canaan and Brown. John Brown is a very important player for us: he always plays 100 percent and has big ambitions. I think he will progress. Isaiah has a good attacking arsenal. He showed himself in the European Cup, but this is not the same level as in the Euroleague. Let's see if he can handle it. I would also like to Jamar Smith stay in the team (UNICS captain, played in Kazan for three years, last season was recognized as the MVP of the European Cup - ed.), But I did not have such an opportunity: he accepted the offer from Turkey even before I got to work. It is not clear why he chose this path: he played in a good team and went to a lower level.
- Then there was, probably, the main transfer of the summer in Russian basketball: Mario Hezonja, one of the most talented European players with five years of experience in the NBA, joined UNICS. Why did he choose UNICS?
- I have already spoken about money and the role it plays in the market. So, we have proved to some extent that finances do not solve everything. I am not aware of all the details of Mario's contract, but I am more than sure that he moved here not for money. He is driven by other motives. If we talk about negotiations, I would say that we have chosen the right moment. Bogdan (Bogachev, adviser to the UNICS president - editor's note) did an excellent job and came out with an offer to Hezonja exactly when it was needed. Sometimes timing is more important than anything else.
- You were one of the best Croatian players, and for sure Hezonja grew up in your matches ...
- It's better to ask him. I first noticed him in 2010 when I was coaching Cibona. Even then it was clear that this is a player with high potential. We got to know each other better in 2015, when I was already working in the Croatian national team. He was then about 20. I know his father well and periodically call him.
- If you look at Hezonja's interview, at his game, you might get the impression that he is extremely ambitious. Not confident in myself, but self-confident. Is it really so?
- No. I understand what you are hinting at, but believe me, he is not like that. If you talk to him, you will understand that he is a great guy!
- Do you treat him like a superstar?
- I don't treat anyone like that. We must deserve this attitude towards ourselves. I have worked with players with a great past on several occasions, but they didn’t show anything. We're really talking about a unique basketball player. He should be in the NBA now, but for some reason he chose Europe. He doesn't need fame and records - he just wants to enjoy basketball, play, and not sit on the bench. He has great potential, which he is ready to realize.
- What do you expect from him on the set? What role does he play?
- He is a very good scorer and one of our team's most important offensive weapons. We are ready to entrust him with a big role. At the same time, he needs to progress in many things. For example, in the rebounds in the attack: with such dimensions (height 203 cm, weight 100 kg - editor's note), he should take more of them.
- How big is the risk that UNICS will have one-player basketball, that everything will depend on whether Hezonja's shot went or not?
- We definitely do not want our game to depend on one person. As I said, Mario will play a big role in the attack, but this does not give him the status of the leader. This status must be earned, for which it is not enough just to take on a lot of shots. For me, a leader is generally, as a rule, a point guard, the person who leads the game, creates opportunities for others.
- In UNICS, the main point guard is Lorenzo Brown, who spent last season at Fenerbahce. What do you expect from him?
- He had a bad last season, and for me this is only a plus - I am always looking for players who have something to prove after a bad season, except when it is due to health problems. In Fenerbahce he had to fight for a while with Nando de Colo and other strong guards. In my understanding, it was difficult for him to prove himself in such an environment. In UNICS, he will have a different situation.


- In August, UNICS parted ways with forward Will Thomas. He managed to spend only 10 days in the team. What caused the breakup?
- Thomas played last season at a very high level - in every match for Zenit he showed excellent basketball. I remember him from the times when he played at Unicaja. In every game he gave my teams problems. I mean, we were counting on him this season, but I felt like he was just coming to do his job. I managed to talk to him for only three days, after that I was forced to leave Kazan, and when I returned, the process had already started. We decided to part ways with the player. I cannot tell you about the reason - this is an internal affair of the club. I will only note that there was no point in keeping such a player. I tell everyone: if you don't want to play for us, leave. We will always find a replacement. A club with a long history, a great city, a chance to play in the Euroleague - what else does a player need? Yes, there is a flight factor. Some cities need to be reached by transit through Moscow or Istanbul, but what can you do about it? It only remains to accept. Personally, I don't see a tragedy in this.
- UNICS recently signed Jarrell Brantley to replace Thomas. He has played in the NBA for the last two seasons. Why did you stop there?
- It was the best option available to us on the market. Of course, our choice was limited - there are several times less free players now than in the summer. Brantley plays as a light forward and a heavy forward. Thomas could play a heavy forward and center. We will lose in size and rigidity, but we will add in mobility.
- Almost simultaneously with Brantley, OJ Mayo joined the club. He spent 8 seasons in the NBA, but at the same time he has not played in America for a long time, and he has no experience in Europe. Why did you decide that he will prove himself in the Euroleague?
- We needed a player who can create a moment for himself out of nothing, someone who would help the team when the game is not in their favor. Therefore, we were looking for another shooter. We settled on the candidacy of Mayo - an extremely famous player in the NBA. We understand the doubts, because the last five he played in China, Thailand and Puerto Rico. But we are sure that he can still play at a high level. He is not an age player (33 years old - ed.), And, as we understood from communication with him, he has a great desire to show himself in the Euroleague. For us it is very important.
- What can you say about the Russian players from UNICS?
- I'm happy with the way they work and fight. Each of the Russian basketball players performs at a high level and meets our requirements. I am ready to flirt with them in VTB United League and Euroleague matches. And I would like to see in their performance not only stubborn play in defense. If they have a moment to attack, they should use it. I'll even reprimand them if they don't.
- Do you often have to reprimand? Are Russian players afraid to attack?
- Yes. At first, they showed too much respect for foreign newcomers, but, in principle, this is a normal reaction. In Turkey, Spain, I faced the same thing. When you sign some status newcomer, local players immediately downplay their role on the court. But in our team, everyone has the right to throw. We are trying to add confidence to the Russians.
- The most prestigious Russian player in UNICS is Andrei Vorontsevich. He is the only one in the team to win the Euroleague, and three times. What role does he play in the team?
- He plays as a heavy forward, but understands basketball so well that sometimes he can be considered a point guard. Of course, in physical terms, he is not the same as 10 years ago, but he is very energized and wants to prove himself. When you miss one year (Vorontsevich was left without a club for the first half of the 2020/21 season - ed.), People immediately begin to think that something is wrong with you. But in the case of Andrey, this is not true. He is one of our two captains in the new season. The second is John Brown.
- On the question of the captains - who can you call the leader of UNICS in the locker room?
- So far, no one. I can only say that we have a good team. Players interact well with each other. They work, they don't talk, they don't whine about hard training or anything else. This is important because our path in the Euroleague will not be easy. Each team will go through a series of defeats - even the champion Efes did not escape this last season. Too many matches in a short period of time ... It is at such moments that the leaders should be determined, then it is necessary to speak with teammates.