Credit: AFP – Scanpix
Credit AFP – Scanpix

Leaving Europe after nine years in order to join the Kawasaki Brave Thunders in Japan came as naturally for Matt Janning as his ability to knock down three-pointers, an element that allowed him to enjoy a quite long and successful stint in the Old Continent.

The 33-year old American shooting guard is his team's second foreign player, as Spanish Pablo Aguilar had previously signed there.

Janning finished last season at BAXI Manresa in Spain, recording 10.0 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on average over 15 contests.

Having played in the EuroLeague for six seasons with Montepaschi Siena (2012-13), Anadolu Efes Istanbul (2014-15), Lokomotiv Kuban (2016-17), and Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz (2017-20), the Northeastern graduate became acquainted with many different styles and basketball environments.

Baskonia gave him the chance to win his first Spanish championship title in 2020, while Lokomotiv Kuban brought him to the only EuroLeague Final Four of his career.

After going undrafted in the 2010 NBA draft and until 2015, Janning joined the Summer League rosters of the Boston Celtics, the Phoenix Suns, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Indiana Pacers, and the Denver Nuggets. However, even if he did sign a multi-year contract with the Phoenix Suns in 2010, he was released by the franchise only three months later, before appearing in one game for them.

That was the only time he came really close to making his NBA debut. On the other hand, the EuroLeague proved to be far more generous to him.

The 1.96 m guard holds career averages of 8.0 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists on 80.9% free-throw, and 37.0 three-point shooting over 152 games in the competition.

With the Japanese League set to start on October 2, Janning sat with BasketNews to discuss his career in Europe, a move to Japan, the chances he got to break into the NBA, and the deal with Panathinaikos that was never meant to be.

Matt, you spent ten consecutive seasons in Europe. How did Japan come up?

After the summer, my agent call me and said: "We have an interesting deal on the table." Because of COVID, teams in Japan had to make decisions in the last couple of years.

Players had to decide by June 15th for the government to allow them to get the visa on time. So, that's why you saw a lot of players sign in Japan early.

For me, it came down to taking this good offer in Japan, taking on a new challenge, or possibly waiting another month for something similar in Europe. The league here is on the way up, the facilities are great and I'm really happy with the decision.

Everything about the club I'm with is top-notch, even better than a lot of places in Europe that I've been to. I'm not going to be surprised to see more players make the same decision coming up here.

Do you think that Japan can replace China as one of the main destinations for American players?

I think so. It's a more transitional place to live, speaking about Americans. You do get a mix of Europeans, but I'd say it's much easier to live in Japan coming from Europe or America than it would be in China.

I think the goal of Japan is to push this league up to the highest levels. They have good teams, coaches, players... They know how to do the production, the TV stuff is great.

What kind of info did you get on the Japanese league and who was your main connection?

When my agent called me, I think I was the first player that he had signed over here. So, he was very unfamiliar. I knew the team and I got hold of one of the guys that's been here, Nick Fazekas.

He's an American guy with a Japanese passport that's been with the club for almost ten years. I asked him to give me the lowdown and shared everything good, everything bad, what to expect and how to live. It all sounded pretty fun, so at the end of the day, it was an easy decision.

You played for Montepaschi Siena, during the club's last days of glory. Did you sense that you were part of the end of an era?

No. I'm still in touch with a lot of people in Siena. I had a great time there, a little more than a season and a half.

It was also great basketball. But the second year, losing the finals with Milan, and just knowing that they were not going to play in the top league anymore, it did have a bad feeling towards the end.

Credit LaPresse-Scanpix

Even now, there are people that are working for the club who are pushing and trying to get the team back to where it once was. But it's very difficult to get sponsors and for the club to come to any sort of top-level.

In my first year in Europe I played in northern Italy and my second year I came down to Siena. Being able to play in the EuroLeague was great. Just living there was great, I started to speak the language. Siena is always a place I take my kids back to and visit. That's always going to be one of our top destinations.

Lokomotiv Kuban surprised everyone in 2016 when they reached the EuroLeague Final Four. You entered the roster halfway through the season. What made that team so special in your eyes? How did you manage to mesh together so well?

I give Bartzokas a lot of credit. He got a really good group of foreigners and Russian guys that were with the club. He also brought in a couple of veteran guys that helped us: Sergey Bykov, Zubkov was there for a while.

Those guys played a big part coming off the bench most of the time. It's hard not to speak about Malcolm Delaney, Anthony Randolph, Chris Singleton, Dontaye Draper, Victor Claver, Ryan Broekhoff. Everybody had their role and it didn't matter what day it was. Everybody showed up and practiced hard. Our whole mentality was "get this win and get out of here".

The coaching staff did a really good job of keeping everybody together, pushing us to play a team game when we had great individual talents. There were no egos on that team when you could look around and say: "Malcolm is one of the best point guards in Europe, Anthony is one of the best power forwards, Chris one of the best 4-5s". That team somehow found a way to keep everyone on the same page. It looked great. To be honest, it was one of the most fun teams that I played on.

You can look at today's Efes team. They probably have a little bit more talent than we had on that team, but it's very similar. You get a good group of guys and they all play together.

Do you think there's still room for low-budget teams in the EuroLeague? Last year, Bayern Munich made the playoffs but couldn't get past Armani Milan.

Sport is going to repeat itself over time. You're always going to get your Cinderellas and surprises: Bayern Munich, Zalgiris from a few years ago. But to be able to win the EuroLeague, you've got to put together a group of highly talented guys, probably spend some money to do that, and also be able to keep the core together.

You look at the teams who win more often than not; it's CSKA, Real Madrid, Barcelona, now Milan, and Efes. These teams are at the top of the budget. I think it's going to be top-heavy from now on for everyone in Europe.

You're having 15-20 EuroLeague teams that can afford to spend a lot of money and after that guys will pick and choose where to go from there.

You previously mentioned Anadolu Efes. What's your take on their transition from a constant underachiever to EuroLeague champs?

They got highly talented guys, like Shane Larkin who before joining Efes wasn't a superstar but then you take the leash out of him, and all of the sudden he explodes. He's by far one of the most explosive scorers the EuroLeague has seen in a while.

Then, you add Micic who is playing at the highest level of point guards. Bryant Dunston has been a centerpiece there for six years now. You add guys like that and keep your core together. That's a huge recipe for success in Europe.

I've played with Beaubois. If you ask him to go and score 30, he can do it. But on that team, he has his role. He's going to score his 10-12 points. That's how great teams operate.

In 2020, the Spanish League was concluded in a bubble held in Valencia, where Baskonia won the title, the first one for the club in ten years. What was the strongest memory that you'll never forget?

It was a great game. The bubble itself was crazy. I'll never forget the whole experience. My youngest daughter was born at the end of March (2020) during the pandemic. That just added to it.

Then we started practice. Getting to the bubble and having all these new things to deal with outside of basketball. After winning it, I felt that the whole experience was worth it. The ACB did a good job of setting up the tournament.

Having a facility in Valencia was a luxury. There aren't too many places in Europe like that. All teams were practicing at the same time. All the players were fine and all of them competed well.

You have played for Luca Banchi, Dusan Ivkovic, Giorgos Bartzokas, Dusko Ivanovic, Velimir Perasovic, Pedro Martinez. Who managed to get into your head and who got into your heart the most?

They're all different. I'll talk about my first coach, Marco Crespi. He's hard: tough practices, a lot of players don't like playing for him. At the end of the day, he's a really good coach who knows the game. For me as a rookie, it was tough, but it gave me an introduction to European basketball. Without that, I don't know if I would have progressed as fast as I did.

I give Bartzokas a ton of credit for bringing me over from Jerusalem. I was in a tough spot in Israel and they bought me out because they needed another shooter. It worked out great.

The one coach I really loved playing for was Pedro Martinez. Another tough coach, tough practices, but when he came to Baskonia, things turned around. He had a lot of confidence in me and that's one of the reasons why I played for him last year in Manresa. I had surgery in the summer and I signed late. He's a great coach and his mind is amazing when it comes to the game. He always finds ways to get his players in successful spots to show what they can do.

On at least two different occasions during the summer transfer period, your name was linked to Panathinaikos, when Djordjevic and Pascual were in charge. Why did those discussions never translate into a deal? Were you ever really close to signing with them?

I can't really answer that (smiles). The first year I remember vaguely because I was at a friend's wedding. It was after I finished with Efes, in 2015. My agent called me and said: "Listen, we have some really serious stuff with Panathinaikos. I think we're going to have an offer." I said "ok".

A couple of days go by, same stuff. I'm getting everything from the Greek media, the Greek fans are super excited. I am excited. I actually bought some green shirts to wear underneath my jersey because I was ready to sign.

I told my agent: "When you get the offer, send it and I'll sign it right away." Something happened - I don't know what - and they stopped talking. A week goes by and my agent says: "We don't have the deal anymore. They're going to sign somebody else." That kind of went blank.

The same thing happened two years later. I think there were some brief discussions even a third time, but it didn't go near as far as the first two. If I look back to the teams I had discussions with, that's probably the one I wish I had the chance to play.

It was this crazy thing... But to be honest, I never once received a contract from Panathinaikos. If that had happened, I might still be wearing green. It was one of those clubs that I really wanted to play there. I felt like every time I came and played in that gym, I shot really well. So, I was super excited to play for them. I thought it could have been a very good fit. Also, playing for either Djordjevic or Pascual would have been a lot of fun.

Why's that?

It's just the style. You see Pascual and he's got shooters all over the court. I think for him having a guy like me would have been a really good fit. Djordjevic is a smart coach. I don't know him too well but just seeing his teams play, it seems that guys like playing for him. It would have been a lot of fun.

Do you still have that green jersey?

(laughs) It's just like a workout shirt. It's still in my parents' house, to be honest. I was ready to come then.

In August 2010, you signed a two-year contract with the Phoenix Suns, after having been the third-leading scorer and the second-leading rebounder on their Summer League team. What got you out of the roster in November that same year?

I played pretty well in the Summer League and then they wanted me to come in and be the third point guard on that team. I played really well in the pre-season but didn't get any regular-season games. I was inactive. Robin Lopez sprained his ankle and they basically said they needed to sign a big man. I was kind of the odd man out. From then on, I never got another look.

Back then, you were essentially a combo guard, capable of effectively knocking down spot-up perimeter threes, finishing in transition, and making plays for your teammates in the half-court offense. How did you develop into a guard-forward in Europe? Do you think that you were confined to a role with less responsibility in the sense that you weren't supposed to make plays or direct the offensive game of your team?

Growing up, I was a combo guard, more of a scorer. That's what NBA teams saw in me. When I first came to Europe, I was playing mostly as a '2'. That's my natural position.

But I was also playing on-ball, pick and rolls, making decisions. You see it a lot as you progress into the higher levels. You're going to have a point guard capable of doing those things probably better than you and obviously, in some cases, you get Nando De Colo or Vassilis Spanoulis, who are so good that they can do both things.

For me, it was filling the role of being a shooter, off-screen, space the floor. That developed into my role. As you said, it's less responsibility, but the bigger the team the more talented guys are around you.

Suns assistant coach Dan Majerle was one of your most warm supporters, saying that you reminded him of Jeff Hornacek in terms of frame, basketball I.Q., and also lack of physical gifts. I don't know if you took notice of Majerle's statement, but would you agree with him? Was Hornacek the type of player you were trying to emulate?

Dan actually told me that when we were in the locker room one time. But even before that, my first agent told me the same thing about two weeks before the Summer League: "You got a real shot to make the league because you're going to remind guys of Jeff Hornacek." It was pretty funny that a lot of guys took notice and made the same comparison.

Dan was great. I loved him, he was a good assistant. He had a lot of good things to say when I left and did a lot to prepare me for life in the NBA, even though my life there was short-lived.

Despite what happened, you're still a Suns fan. What do you think cost them the NBA title last season?

I think they ran into a team that was a little more motivated. The Suns were great all year and they're a bit young in all positions, except for Chris Paul. They've got a good group with a lot of talent but they ran into the Bucks who match better with them than most teams in the West did.

They weren't the worst team. I think that if you played that series 4-5 times, the Suns would probably win a couple of times. It was a case where they fell off at the wrong time.

Chris Paul went cold, Booker had a few rough games, but you got to give a ton of credit to Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday. Those guys played really well.

Quite frequently, American players are forced to weigh the risks of bypassing financial security in Europe or China pursuing their childhood dream in the NBA. Do you think that in the States there is a general perception or tendency to undervalue and consider not good enough for the NBA those players that make a living overseas?

There's a couple of ways to look at it. It really depends on who you are and who you listen to. Those decisions are tough. I've been there multiple times at early points in my career asking myself whether to take a deal, even with a EuroLeague team.

The deal I took in Siena my first year went down to: "Do I really want to go back to Europe? Do I want to go to Italy? I don't know anything about the EuroLeague. I watched it on TV last year, but I don't know how good it is."

I remember Olympiacos winning the title. I was hoping to get a camp offer from the Celtics or the Grizzlies, but things just didn't happen. So, I had to take the deal in Europe, or else it was going to be off the table.

I give credit to the guys who stayed and tried to make the NBA. In this game, if the money it's what you're after, I don't know if you are in it for the right reason. I think it comes down to finding good spots early in your career so that you can make that progression.

If your goal is to get back to the NBA, somebody is going to be watching. Every time I went to Europe my goal was to be in front of as many NBA faces as I could, every time I stepped in the gym.

Even my deal with Efes, I ended up signing it and they still allowed me to play Summer League. When I was at Efes, I was happy because every week I was getting a call from a scout, saying: "Hey, I'm coming to town. Want to grab dinner after your game?". Little things like that made you realize like: "Damn, these guys are coming out here almost every week or month, checking out games non-stop."

So, that made the decision to come to Europe a little bit easier; just knowing that it's a global game and they're able to watch it from anywhere. Even if it wasn't about me that year, it was about Furkan (Korkmaz) and Cedi (Osman).

How was your experience with the Georgian national team? Did Tornike Shengelia talk you into joining them?

Toko played a role. Baskonia helped facilitate it and the Georgian federation wanted a naturalized player. For me, it was an easy choice. I was going to continue to play in Spain and having a passport is beneficial because I would count as a European.

The relationship I had with Toko helped a lot. He talked to the coaches, to the federation staff to push everything through probably quicker than it would have happened. In the end, if it was easy to go to Georgia, I would go there every summer.

I like Tbilisi and the games we played were a lot of fun. I really liked playing for coach Zouros. It was a good time. I had fun playing with those guys.

Are you going to play with them again?

We'll see. I don't know what the plan is for EuroBasket but if the timing works out, I'd love to be available and be ready to play.

Have you decided where you'd like to end your career?

I came to Japan to get myself a new challenge. I signed here for two years and I like what I see so far. I want to play three-four more years if I'm lucky. If things go well, I can see myself playing here until I'm done.

But obviously having that passport, going back to Spain is on the table; it's not a bad option. I'd go anywhere in Europe if the job and the city are right and if it's a good place for my family.

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