New Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul power forward Achille Polonara is finally getting rewarded for his humble attitude and hard-working approach. After culminating his domestic experience with Varese, Reggiana, and Sassari, he finally reached the EuroLeague level with Baskonia two years ago. Under the watchful eye of Dusko Ivanovic, he won Liga Endesa in 2020.

Achille Polonara

Achille  Polonara
Team: Fenerbahce Istanbul
Position: PF, C
Age: 29
Height: 203 cm
Weight: 93 kg
Birth place: Italy

Despite narrowly missing the EuroLeague playoffs last season, Polonara improved his numbers to 12.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists per game with 44% three-point accuracy. If that was not enough, Polonara succeeded with the Italian national team as the Azzuri surprised Serbia in Belgrade and reached the Olympics Games in Tokyo.

BasketNews connected with Polonara and talked about his recent success and expectations for the upcoming season with the Turkish powerhouse.  

Achille, thanks for joining us. Let's start with last summer: It was an exceptional one for Italians. You won Eurovision, Euro 2020, and made it to the Olympics, then to the quarter-finals where you lost to France. Were you surprised? Considering all these, do you feel like that game against France was a missed opportunity to write further history? Or reaching the quarter-finals was overwhelmingly satisfying?

Well, like you said, it was a very very important summer for our country, because we won Eurovision, we won European championships in Euro 2020, and we qualified after 17 years for the Olympics. I think for all the Italian fans, this was a very important summer. We went to the quarter-finals, and we lost against France, who ended up with a silver medal, losing against the USA. They are a tough team with a lot of NBA players and EuroLeague players as Nando De Colo. I think we did a great job.

First, we needed to win in Belgrade for the qualifying round, and we won against Serbia. Nobody expected that we would win there in front of a lot of fans. It was a tough game, but I think we deserved to win. We qualified for the Olympics after 17 years, and this was a great experience for everybody. None of the players in this summer's Italy played on the national team in the Olympics before. So, it was a very exciting experience. I hope that we can repeat this in Paris 2024. 

I believe that this success story of the Italian national team was not made in one day. After Montepaschi Siena's demise, the scene was not looking very bright regarding finances, but there emerged many interesting projects, as your previous teams, Varese, Reggiana, and Sassari. Many of the Olympic team components had a solid background from the domestic league as your fellow teammates Pietro Aradori, Stefano Tonut, Michele Vitali. Do you think this success also comes from the competitiveness in the Legabasket? 

Not many teams have important budgets like it was the case some years ago like Siena had. Siena had a strong roster where they had 15 high-quality players, and they were rotating every game. Now, there are just Bologna and Milan who have budgets of similar type. And after them, there comes Venice and Sassari, the type of teams that compete and try to show everybody that they can reach important results. Sassari won the Italian league seven years ago. They won the Italian Cup and Supercup. Venezia won two domestic titles. Therefore, it is not just Bologna and Milano, but there are also other teams. I can say Legabasket is a very competitive championship. 

Well said. This brings us to Meo Sacchetti, the Italian national team coach. His authentic 'run and gun' style brought those titles to Sassari and recent success with the Italian national team. What do you think of him?  

I remember that final series all too well because I was in the other team in the finals against Sassari, playing for Reggiana. He is a very good coach and a very good person. The thing that I like about him is that he lets you play with a lot of confidence and gives you room to play. This is very important for a player because you don't need to think a lot; you need to play your basketball without any pressure. Actually, this helped us a lot in the summertime during the Olympics. We were a young group who came to the Olympics for the first time, and the first time many of us had this much responsibility. So it was important that Sacchetti let us play with a lot of confidence. 

You were always a solid player, but last year, you exploded with the performances in Baskonia. After such a big individual success, it was natural for top-level teams to approach you and offer you some bigger contracts. If the rumors were true, CSKA was also in the line. Is that true? What made you choose Fenerbahce Beko?

Well, I think that rumors about CSKA are not true because my agent didn't tell me nothing. There were other teams that were interested in me, but CSKA never offered me nothing and they weren't interested in me. And when I knew about Fenerbahce, I didn't think so much because this is one of the best teams in EuroLeague, one of the best fans in EuroLeague. 

They have a lot of ambition. I think they have an important goal because for sure, our goal this year is to reach playoffs in EuroLeague first and then reach the Final Four. This is why I like this pressure, if we can say, but I think we have a long roster. We have a lot of experienced and talented guys. We have everything for a great season.

Obviously, you talked with Maurizio Gherardini but did you also talk to Nicolo Melli about Fenerbahce before signing? 

Yeah. I talked about that with him. And also, I talked a little bit with Gigi Datome as well. They are my friends, and we played with Nicolo in the Olympic tournament this summer. He told me that "You will be fine in Istanbul because you will like the club, you will like the city, you will like the food and everything. Anything that you need, just let me know because I can help you with everything because I played there for two years. But for the moment, I didn't need to text him because everybody helped me here. Whatever I need, I can also ask someone like my teammates I know before, like Dyshawn Pierre. I played with him in Sassari before. He helped me so much.

When we look at your career, you played at the domestic level for a long time. The first time you signed a contract abroad (with Baskonia), you were already 27. Was this your choice to stay at home? Or do you have the feeling that top-level teams failed to understand your full potential for a long time? 

This is my third year that I found the chance to play in EuroLeague. Like you said, I was 27 and when I signed for the first time with a EuroLeague team. Nobody before that believed in me, believed in my potential, my way of play. I think many people think that I'm too skinny to play as a number 4, or I'm not that kind of a player to play as a number 3 at that level. So maybe this is why many people didn't believe in me. I took it like a motivation for me because I'm really competitive guy and take many things as motivation, especially when somebody doesn't believe in me. I worked hard, really hard to reach this thing. I actually thank Baskonia for believing me as the first team in EuroLeague. And now, I'm very happy to be in one of the best teams in the EuroLeague. For me, it's like a dream to be here.

Last season you made 44% behind the 3-point arc in the EuroLeague. Was that something that Dusko Ivanovic brought in you? Was that about playing style? How did this big jump happen?

Since when I arrived in Vitoria, Dusko Ivanovic gave me a lot of responsibility. He was like a positive guy, a positive coach since day one. So, everybody worked hard in practice. Everybody thinks that Dusko Ivanovic is a very tough coach. He is like that, but he gives you a lot of confidence, a lot of responsibility, especially to me. He gave me things that before, I did not I have. I started to play more minutes, I started to play with more confidence, and I had the chance also to miss something. But I stayed on the court. So, these are all the things that helped me so much. And this is why I played my best season last year.

Can you compare the pre-season of Dusko Ivanovic and Sasha Djordjevic? Because many people think that Ivanovic has a very tough pre-season training program. 

I think that Ivanovic is a tough coach, but I think he's one of the best in the EuroLeague. He got a lot of experience, coached a lot of teams, very important teams like Barcelona, and Panathinaikos, so he is obviously a great coach. Likewise, Djordjevic is a great coach, as he also worked with Panathinaikos. Last season, he won the Italian League with Bologna against Milan, showing his coaching skills. Also, he was a great basketball player, and he has a very high knowledge level about basketball. 

I think this pre-season is pretty good. We didn't play a lot of games at the moment, but I think we practiced hard. We have a long roster, and some players arrived late, like Pierria Henry, because of his national team duties in the African Basketball Championship. We need some time to know each other. It is something important to know about each other. But I think we have everything to do a great season. It's up to us. 

Have you talked to Sasha Djordjevic about your role on the team? After few pre-season games, there might be an impression that it could be different from last season. Maybe a diminished role on offense? 

Well, we didn't talk a lot about my role. But one of the best things that he wants to see from every player is, first of all, the attitude. He wants to see that aggression on defense. I mean, everybody has the skills and talents to score. But first things first, he wants to see something like that. And after that, I don't know how much I will play. But I'm ready to play five minutes, and I'm ready to play 20 minutes. Whatever he asks me, so I'm ready for that. I'm a team player. Whatever they want, I will do it.

So far, you have played against UNICS and Partizan in the Istanball Cup and Turk Telekom in the Cevat Soydas Tournament in Bursa. With regards to your role, the offensive schemes were different in these games compared to last years' Baskonia. Last year there were a lot of staggers and even multi-layered staggers or pick and pop actions that allowed you to shoot on weak side spot-up 3s. But you say, if that changes this year, you will be ready; is that correct?

Yeah. There are a lot of players that their talents brought them to the NBA, like Marial Shayok, like Jan Vesely, like Nando de Colo. A lot of players that played in the NBA and won EuroLeague titles. So, they got more experience than me, because this will be my third year in EuroLeague. But I have that much experience that they may allow me to play 30-35 minutes in the high level to reach the playoffs or the final four. I'm working hard to get better every day. Today I'm almost 30 years old, so I'm not so young anymore. But I want to improve day by day. I want to get better. I will do this from now and until the last day of my career. 

As an early impression for the limited number of preparation games, this years' Fenerbahce appears to be strong defensively. Is this team going to be more defense or offense-oriented? 

For our coach, the most important thing is to play defense. After that, he knows that everybody can score. We have good skills on offense, and if we share the ball and move the ball, we can have easy buckets in every possession. So, first of all, we must play tough defense. Because as many players and coaches say, talent may win one game, but intelligence and teamwork win a championship; defense wins a championship. 

So, it's up to us. If we want to win something important and claim some trophies in Istanbul, we have to play tough defense. On offense, we know that everybody can score. Maybe in one game, I can score 10 points, another game 0. But there are a lot of players that can contribute to the scoring part. So I think our first goal is to play defense, starting with the first minute of each game. 

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