Credit: SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire - Scanpix
Credit SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire - Scanpix

Zenit Saint Petersburg's guard Billy Baron talked to BasketNews about his role with the revamped Russian team, life without Kevin Pangos and Austin Hollins, die-hard Red Star fans, and the Lithuanian coach who benched him, thus providing him with the best motivation to get to the EuroLeague.

Billy Baron

Billy   Baron
Team: Zenit Saint Petersburg
Position: SG, PG
Age: 30
Height: 188 cm
Weight: 88 kg
Birth place: United States of America

If Zenit Saint Petersburg's 2020-21 campaign could take up many pages in the club's history books, Billy Baron is without a doubt one of the main reasons for it. The 30-year-old combo guard was one of the leading figures for Xavi Pascual's squad which came only one win away from the EuroLeague Final Four, losing the battle to FC Barcelona, and finished first in the VTB regular season, before being eliminated by CSKA Moscow in the playoff semi-finals.

Baron played all 39 EuroLeague contests for Zenit, averaging 9.6 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 7.8 efficiency points. The Pennsylvania native was recognized as the MVP of September-October in the VTB League. He played 25 games in the tournament, averaging 10.4 points, 1.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists, and finishing with 9.3 in PIR. Baron and the Russian club recently decided to extend their deal until 2023. One of the questions ahead of next season that begs for an answer is whether he will keep up his 29-game streak with at least one three-point shot made.

His European journey started in 2014, after an uneventful run with the Chicago Bulls Summer League squad, and included many destinations: Spirou Charleroi in Belgium, UCAM Murcia in Spain, Eskisehir Basket in Turkey. In July 2018, he moved to Serbia and signed with Crvena Zvezda, where he stayed for two years. With Red Star, the American sharpshooter won the Adriatic SuperCup and the Adriatic League in 2019, becoming the ABA League Finals MVP, in addition to making his EuroLeague debut in 2019-20.

However, of all the teams that Billy Baron has played with, Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius was probably the one that left an indelible mark on his mind and soul - not necessarily for all the right reasons. Back in 2014, the club had hired Lithuanian coach Virginijus Seskus, who coached the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo at Prienai during the 2017-18 LKL season. Alas, Seskus could not communicate directly with the squad's US players because of his inadequate command of English. As a result, Baron had to sit out many games.

"It was probably the most bizarre thing that has ever happened to me in Europe because it actually forced me to think about stop playing for that year. But that moment motivated me more than ever to prove that guy wrong," the Altoona, Pennsylvania native told BasketNews, in a discussion which included his goals with Zenit, Xavi Pascual, Austin Hollins, the uniqueness of playing for Red Star and - of course - the experience that made Baron determined to reach the EuroLeague level.

First of all, did you and your family recover your passports? That was the last tweet you've made, about a month ago.

FedEx didn't deliver our passports to where we were. So, they were stuck in a place, and finally, after some stressful moments, we got it back.

One burning question for many fans in Europe is how Zenit can repeat or top last season. You made the EuroLeague playoffs, were one game short of the Final Four and also ended up first in the VTB regular season. What would your answer be to that question?

Obviously, we had a lot of success last year and I don't think a lot of people expected that from our team. I think that we can't compare last year to this one. Every team is different and it's difficult to repeat success. We don't hold ourselves to that every single day because it causes unneeded stress. Every team's path is different. We met some bumps on the road last season but finished off strong. You never know when the highs and lows will come but you have to try and get better every single day. Last year's team was special but this team also has the chance to be special. I don't think we should do any comparisons.

Xavi Pascual is a coach who takes good care of his shooters. You are one of those players that can create his own shots. How is it like working with him?

He's specific and detailed. You start to appreciate details in a long season because they can help you stay in rhythm. I mean the ways in which plays are run and going 100%, whether it's the morning shootaround, practice, or a game. I think he knows what to expect out of me and I know what to expect out of him. It's the luxury we have, being able to come back and play for the same coach. So, we know each other's expectations.

Zenit lost one of their cornerstones in Kevin Pangos who moved to the NBA. With Shabazz Napier, Jordan Loyd and Conner Frankamp coming in, is there any shift or change in your role? How can this version of the team be as functional as last year?

We have more depth, for sure; more guys capable of stepping up big-time. I believe my role will stay the same. If I am needed to run more ball screens, I will do it. If I need to come off screens and shoot threes, then that's my role. It's important to see what the team needs from game to game. Kevin was obviously very good last year for us, but we got guys who can get the job done as well. It will take some time but we have the chance to make something special, as long as we're getting better in practice.

After having spent two years with Red Star, did you and Jordan Loyd give Austin Hollins any advice before he moved to Belgrade?

Austin messaged me a couple of times and I told him a lot about Red Star and my experience there, like the crazy fans. The basketball experience there is much different than 99% of the places in Europe because they really love the game of basketball. You got to know that they are expecting a lot out of you and be ready for that. You're going to have some loyal fans with high expectations, but stay the course. It's one of those places that I always look back on as a special place that I got to play at.

Yet, some of those games can be extremely stressful. Thank God my teams ended up on the right side and won those games. Therefore, I'm extremely grateful that I got to experience that because every player that loves basketball deserves to play there, see and feel the emotion and the energy. You'll really appreciate it at the end of the day.

Credit Crvena zvezda mts

When you extended your contract with Zenit until 2023, Manos Papadopoulos, the club's Sporting Director, called you "the most important player on the team," referring to your basketball qualities and character. It will be the first time in your career that you will be staying with a team for more than two years. Do you feel like one of the leading figures, a franchise player - to use the American term?

I don't know... franchise? I see my role differently here because in the NBA franchise players are not viewed as they are in Europe. I want to be a cornerstone, a leader; help guys make the transition to Zenit and Xavi's system, to their expectations.

Last year was constant travel for everyone, playing VTB and EuroLeague in high-level games that you had to win. Knowing that - and also the energy that it's going to take - I want to be able to help guys that haven't been here before. Just lead them, talk to them and be a sounding board for those who need to ask questions.

Hopefully, the club sees me as that type of guy. That's kind of what I want to be at the end of the day, when I'm done playing. I want people to say not that I was a good shooter; I want them to say that I was a good person, teammate and leader.

Are you still watching Stephen Curry's highlights on YouTube prior to a game, as you used to do while in college?

For sure. I always do that.

Your brother Jimmy retired last year. You played together in Belgium for a season. What did he tell you before calling it a career?

He didn't give me advice. When he called it, it came a little unexpected for him. He had the quality and the skills to play a few more years. For everyone, when you're done playing basketball, if you don't have a Plan B, you have to jump into a role all of a sudden. Whether it's coaching or something off the court. There's obviously a big transition there that every player and athlete goes through.

We talked a little bit but not about how it's like to not play anymore. I think he has kind of struggled with that because he still has that competitiveness inside of him and he still feels physically that he can play at a high level. So, listening to his thoughts is how I learned from him, being his younger brother. But as many talks as we had, whenever it does come to an end, when you will be sitting around in September, October and the season is not starting, it just feels different. For everything in life, you got to adjust to that.

Some years ago, you revealed that your head coach at Lietuvos Rytas told you through his assistant during training camp that he wouldn’t play you much because he couldn’t speak to you. Was this just the first or the most bizarre of stories you've come across while in Europe?

Yeah, I think that to start my career in Europe - maybe in my first ten days here - and hear that it was a tough time for me, honestly. It was my first time away from my family and I really relied heavily upon the game of basketball for some sort of comfort. I said to myself: "Ok, I'm going over across the world to play basketball." The only thing I was familiar with was the game.

To be told that, it was tough. So, I had to dig deep down and learn, look myself in the mirror and say: "Ok, we're going to try and learn from this moment," even though - honestly - there were times during that year that I thought: "Hey, maybe this isn't for me." I wasn't playing and I didn't understand it because I was working so hard, playing well in practice, and then I wasn't playing in games.


Probably the most bizarre thing because it actually forced me to think about stop playing for that year. I didn't know if I could do it because I was just miserable. I didn't have anyone over there with me, not even my girlfriend at the time who is now my wife. I was there by myself and I thought: "This isn't cool. If I'm not playing, why would I ever want to do this?" But that moment motivated me more than ever to prove that guy wrong.

My next year in Belgium, I told myself: "Let's get back to work. I don't care if you think I can't play, I'm going to show other people that I can." This made me mentally stronger. I knew that my goal had always been to get to the EuroLeague. So, I thought to myself: "Know what? You're not going to play me? Eventually, I'm going to get to the EuroLeague and make you regret that!"

Any other strange situations you came across later on?

In Belgrade, I was in some strange situations, with the atmosphere and things, like lighters, being thrown on the court. Strange moments like that actually become kind of normal. It's weird when you're over there for a little bit. But nothing sticks out that much because I've been around in Europe for almost eight years.

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