Credit: www.imago-images.de-Scanpix
Credit www.imago-images.de-Scanpix

While the EuroLeague is still being tormented by COVID and the Omicron variant, some teams have managed to go through the recent crisis unscathed.

CSKA Moscow is one of them. The Russian powerhouse, which will suit up for its first EuroLeague duel in more than two weeks on Wednesday night when they will face off with Panathinaikos in Athens, have registered no cases whatsoever over the last days.

In contrast to Zenit Saint Petersburg and UNICS Kazan, whose latest games had to be suspended, CSKA were not affected by the COVID breakout but got to play only an official game over that span. Their last continental clash was against Real Madrid on December 23.

What makes CSKA's case slightly different than most high-level European squads was their ability to hold regular practice sessions.

"Although we played a VTB game against Avtodor on January 4, it's a long time with very few games," Johannes Voigtmann maintains talking to BasketNews.

The German big man, who has been one of the team's main pillars since 2019, thinks that the streak of suspended games can be a blessing in disguise.

"It's tough for everybody because you lose rhythm. But it also gives you the chance, if everyone's healthy, to practice a little bit and recover from the first part of the season and focus on the stuff you have to improve.

I think that we made important progress in changing some things," he goes on to say. 

In fact, CSKA's EuroLeague run has been far from impressive, as the eight-time continental champs showcase a moderate 10-7 balance, which has left them far behind in the home-court advantage race.

"We play very inconsistently. There's nothing -or very few things- that we can rely on," the 29-year-old contends.

Free throws this season

81%
12,8
Points made: 12,8
Accuracy: 81,0%
Place in standings: 7
Record max: 30
Record min: 2
Most made FTs: Will Clyburn

"One day we struggle defensively, the other day we can't score. That's a reason for concern - not being good in different aspects of the game."

CSKA are indeed a low-scoring team in the current campaign. They produce 79,2 points per game which indicates a significant drop from the 84,3 points scored during last year's regular season.

Voigtmann's productivity has not been damaged, however, as the former Baskonia forward averages 10,1 points, in addition to 4,3 rebounds, 2,5 assists, and a career-high 74,3% on two-point shots.

"We know that we're not going to change 100%, but we have to find a way to be consistent in the things we want to do. We need some productivity on offense, it's one of the main things.

Whenever we're working well offensively, we're also good at defending. We've been trying to emphasize that in the last couple of weeks," he argues.

Credit Sputnik – Scanpix

Some important developments took place in the course of a few weeks. Following the suspension of the entire Round 19, EuroLeague's shareholders decided that some changes in the COVID protocol were much needed in order to keep the season going.

The most striking was the trimming of the quarantine period for vaccinated players from 14 to 7 days.

"If the medical experts say it's useful, we'll go along with it," Voigtmann comments.

"Shortening the quarantine time gives you the chance to come back sooner and this helps the season running. We see many cases on the same team at the same time, which gives us the hope that this is going to be over pretty soon, at least for the basketball world."

The anti-COVID vaccine has been an indispensable tool in humanity's fight against an invisible enemy. The controversy surrounding the recent Novak Djokovic case had a huge impact. The Serbian tennis star was refused entry to Australia ahead of the Australian Open after he asked for a medical exemption.

Djokovic has not officially disclosed his Covid-19 vaccination status, but he's made his resistance to jabs clear in the past. Balancing between individual freedom and civic responsibility has been an extremely hard task for many people, let alone athletes.

"That's a delicate issue, indeed," Voigtmann concedes.

"To get the vaccine is a free choice, but you have to accept the consequences. What's happening now is just bad for everybody. It's bad for Novak, for Australia, and for the sport.

I fear that nobody is going to care about the Australian Open. Everybody's going to care about the Novak story," CSKA big man utters.

The athlete from Eisenach, a town of 42,000 inhabitants in central Germany, believes that the whole situation could and should have been handled differently.

"What happens around this story is a big shame. It could have been avoided with clear communication upfront but it wasn't. Now, there is this big mess and the biggest loser of all is the sport itself - and we don't want that."

Per EuroLeague statement, 93% of EuroLeague players and staff members are currently vaccinated.

In any case, Voigtmann is an avid vaccine advocate. "I encourage everyone to take the vaccine," he firmly says. He further argues that trusting science is all it takes for the world to return to its pro-COVID state.

"I'm not a doctor but I believe in the overwhelming majority of health experts who strongly believe that a vaccine is the only way to get back to normal as soon as possible."

The 2016 FIBA Europe Cup winner took a very clear position last summer, against his teammate in the German national team, Joshiko Saibou.

The former ALBA Berlin guard made the 12-man roster that traveled to Tokyo for the Olympic Games amid controversy over his participation in demonstrations against Germany's anti-COVID policy in 2020. The fact that he didn't clearly distance himself from right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists didn't help either.

The German international was fired from Bonn in August 2020 and his inclusion in the country's national team did not go down well with its members, even after Saibou publicly apologized for his actions and words.

Voigtmann was particularly vocal on the issue.

"I hope that he will continue to distance himself from all this. Everyone deserves a second chance, but if he does it again, he will be kicked out of the team," one of the team's leaders stated in a strong reaction.

"Regarding conspiracy theories, we live in a free world," he tells BasketNews.

"You can say whatever you want. But there are limits to what should be said, especially when representing your country on the international stage. That's what I wanted to make sure of when I took a stand last summer."

Voigtmann thinks that freedom of speech should be used wisely in order to prevent the dispersion of ill-informed views.

"We encourage different opinions which are the basis of our society. But there are some topics dangerous to spread. Back then, there were some issues talked about that were dangerous and didn't reflect the opinions of our team - and I just wanted to express it," he adds.

"I didn't take that stand against him," he clarifies. "I talked with him before I made the statement. I just wanted to make clear that some of the stuff that he (Saibou) said or did was not healthy."

Johannes Voigtmann opened up to BasketNews on a variety of other issues, including his move to CSKA, where he will be playing at least until 2023, the NBA which was never a dream of his, his versatile game that has drawn comparisons with Nikola Jokic, and the future of German basketball.

Last year, you had the chance to win a EuroLeague trophy in your native country. This year, you're presented with another occasion. How did you experience the Final Four in Cologne and how do you envision the next one in Berlin?

Without fans, it was good, but not as we all wanted it. I have a big hope that this year is going to be different. First of all, we want to qualify for the Final Four, although we're struggling a little bit at the moment.

I wish that there will be fans, regardless of whether we qualify or not. To win the EuroLeague in your native country is amazing and I hope that I can get the chance.

Germans call it Vielseitigkeit, in English it's called versatility. How did you manage to develop it and what more can you add to it?

For me it's always important to be versatile, give different stuff to the team in different moments. I want to be an outside threat and play pick n' rolls, but also to be able to pass the ball. As long as it helps the team, I try to get it to perfection.

The next element I want to add? I'd like to be more of a threat in the post-up game when teams are switching on defense.

Credit FIBA Media

You've gone all the way from the FIBA Europe Cup to the EuroLeague almost overnight. Is the distance so big as it seems?

Yes, the difference is pretty big, especially in terms of the intensity of the competition. You get to play a super-tough opponent in every game.

There are amazing players in other competitions as well. But the tempo of the game and the technical-skill level of the players are very different.

How did you manage to adjust to the EuroLeague level so quickly?

In my first year in EuroLeague, I immediately got the chance to play and it helped me realize that I'm able to perform at this level. Then, I had to work in order to improve.

I had the perfect situation (in Baskonia); a very good coach (Editor's Note: Sito Alonso) and an amazing team around me. I played pretty well from the beginning and I was able to return their confidence.

Ιn contrast to Baskonia, in Frankfurt and CSKA Moscow you had the same coach throughout your entire stint there. To what extent does continuity on a team's bench help a player reach his potential?

It depends. If the coach doesn't trust me, it's a bad situation. But if he does trust me, it's good. In Baskonia, we made it work despite having a different coach every year.

You have to adjust to what every coach needs and what you can bring to the table. But you don't want coaches to change all the time. It's not their fault in most cases, but that's the business side of it.

Currently, there are seven German players in the NBA. None of them is older than 30. While growing up, did you envision playing/winning the EuroLeague or joining an NBA team?

Until 15, basketball was basically not in my life. I took up handball and almost all kinds of sports. So, I had to start from a low level, and in my first years, I didn't think I was going to do this professionally.

As time went on, I saw myself more in the EuroLeague. Obviously, I spent some thoughts on the NBA, but I was more of the EuroLeague type.

In the summer of 2019, after you left Baskonia, the Wizards had expressed an interest in you, bringing you in for a free-agent workout. What happened and you weren't persuaded to move overseas?

The contract choice I had was between the NBA and a couple of EuroLeague teams. But I didn't know all the aspects, the terms of the contract. They didn't want to give me any security.

Then, I had the chance to play for CSKA and I made the decision to go there. I chose to avoid the unsure way, trying to struggle around the NBA. I'm very happy with my decision.

I got the feeling that they wanted to give me a chance, but their offer was a little vague. So, I went to the European game.

Will you stick to the European path?

I don't think the NBA door is still open. Mentally, I'm done with it and I'm not really paying attention anymore. I'm not waiting till my contract it's over and be like: "Let's see if I can join the NBA". If it happens, OK. But I'm not so sure it will.

You said that your role with the Wizards was unclear and that CSKA was the logical step to make. Was there anything in particular, in the conversations you had with Andrey Vatutin and Dimitris Itoudis, that made you decide to sign there?

I talked to the coach a couple of times and I also told him about the NBA. He was eager to convince me to not go to the NBA and join him. I just had a good feeling about me being able to accomplish something.

Everyone knows how knowledgeable he is about basketball. It was a very good sign that we had a couple of talks. I saw that he was interested. It was a bit flattering for me.

But what I liked most was that in our first discussion, we talked a lot about my weaknesses, which reminded me a lot about my move to Frankfurt. So, I immediately had a good feeling.

Would you say that Nikola Jokic is your NBA equivalent in terms of playing style (not role or usage)?

I'm not going to say yes because we're talking about the NBA MVP. So, I can't compare myself to him.

But I can see where the comparisons are coming from. He likes to pass the ball, he can attack from anywhere on the court and he can shoot. That's also what I can do.

As a late bloomer, is there anyone you modeled your game after?

No, I try to avoid taking one guy as a model and copying him. But there's a couple of people that influenced me. I first have to mention Dirk Nowitzki. When I started playing, he was the overshadowing basketball star in the world, one of the TOP 5 players.

Soon after I started, he won a championship and left a big impression on me. Obviously, him being one of the big guys who can shoot made me want to put some of it in my game.

But I never tried to be the next Dirk Nowitzki. I had the chance to play with him for one summer, which was great.

Credit Imago-Scanpix

How can Gordon Herbert unleash Germany's potential in the tournaments to come? What do you think he should or will change?

He's very structured, putting a lot of emphasis on defense. If he can implement his defensive plan in a short period of time, we will have the chance to do something great in the near future.

We have incredible talent and a big potential if you consider how many EuroLeague and NBA players there are on the team.

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Johannes Voigtmann

Johannes  Voigtmann
Johannes  Voigtmann
MIN: 21.97
PTS: 9.75 (57.26%)
REB: 4.38
As: 2.44
ST: 0.63
BL: 0.44
TO: 1.31
GM: 16