Credit: Cedevita Olimpija/Ales Fevzer
Credit Cedevita Olimpija/Ales Fevzer

It was still January when Cedevita Olimpija Ljubljana lost their last-to-date EuroCup game. The Slovenian team, who started the season with a pale 3-7 record, not only bounced back but took everyone by storm finishing at 11-7 thanks to an unprecedented 8-0 run.

Jacob Pullen

Jacob  Pullen
Jacob  Pullen
MIN: 23.35
PTS: 13.94 (48.09%)
REB: 1.11
As: 3.72
ST: 0.72
BL: 0
TO: 1.61
GM: 18

The club, which emerged in July 2019 from the merger of two clubs, Cedevita Zagreb from Croatia and Petrol Olimpija from Slovenia, hasn't concealed its high ambitions.

Surrounded by some traditional European squads (Partizan Belgrade, Virtus Segafredo Bologna, Joventut Badalona) and lacking the financial resources these powerhouses can muster, Cedevita must exceed themselves in order to reach the highest levels of domestic and European club basketball.

As the EuroCup is headed into the elimination rounds, the team coached by former Slovenian international forward Jurica Golemac looks like their opponents' worst nightmare. Having gone past the 100-point mark four times, Cedevita's offensive explosion came relatively late in the group phase but with jaw-dropping results.

Over their eight-win span, they averaged 1.12 points per possession, while no other team scored more than 1.02 points per possession across the entire regular season. No team managed to sweep them in the first phase either, as the Slovenian squad got payback for every single loss they suffered.

"It was a slow process for us," Jacob Pullen explains to BasketNews from Ljubljana.

"We had a bumpy start and had to change some players, but I think when we got to a certain point, we started to figure out how to play together and got better as a team."

The American guard is one of the main reasons behind Cedevita's surge. He's averaging 13.9 points on 33.8% 3-point shooting and 3.7 assists in 23 minutes over 18 EuroCup contests.

Jacob Pullen

Jacob  Pullen
Team: Cedevita Olimpija Ljubljana
Position: PG
Age: 32
Height: 185 cm
Weight: 91 kg
Birth place: Illinois, United States of America

He forms a powerful backcourt, featuring Slovenian internationals Jaka Blazic and Zoran Dragic and former NBA and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens guard Yogi Ferrell.

Credit Cedevita Olimpija/Ales Fevzer

Pullen says the turning point for Cedevita was their road win against Valencia. It was only their third win of the season and was followed by two straight losses. However, that's when everything started to fall into place.

"We understood what our strengths could be so that we could outweigh our weaknesses. By then, we had Yogie Ferrell, Zoran Dragic, and Alem Omic. That's what turned our season around," Pullen holds. 

Coming up next for the Slovenian team is Turk Telekom, in a one-off battle for a ticket to the quarter-finals. It's a squad that ended up in sixth place in their group with a balanced 8-8 record.

"Turk Telekom are a really good team. They got guys who have played basketball at the highest level, like JaJuan Johnson and Anthony Clemmons, who has played in Igokea and is familiar with Cedevita," Pullen thinks.

"For us, it's about playing defense and being able to control the rebounds. If we're able to do that, I think we're a hard team to beat for anybody in this league. The early stages are tough with just one game because that's when anybody can beat anybody."

The 32-year-old, former player of Virtus Bologna and FC Barcelona, has been one of the top scorers in the Adriatic League over the past three seasons with Cedevita and Montenegrin club Mornar Bar. His current stint with Cedevita is his third overall with the team after spending time there in 2015-16 and 2018-19.

"Basketball in former Yugoslavia is really big. It's an area I've been in for the last 4-5 years. People care about basketball, and the league is very competitive," he comments.

Upon moving to Ljubljana, Jacob Pullen admitted: "It feels like I’m back, but I will be playing for a Slovenian club for the first time. It’s great to be back, and the third time is a charm. I hope that this time we win plenty of trophies."

Although it's not exactly the same club, his bio now reads Cedevita three times.

"Cedevita have always been good to me. I can't say anything negative about them," Pullen says.

"Every time I played with them, we've found a way to have success, whether it was reaching the EuroLeague TOP 16 in my first year or going from the bottom of the ABA League to finishing second and making the EuroCup TOP 16 in my second season."

Pullen credits head coach Jurica Golemac and sports director Sani Becirovic for making him feel comfortable and persuading him to add depth to a team that can compete for trophies.

"We've always had a good relationship, and this time, it was the same. Sani and the coach talked to me, and it felt like it was a good opportunity," he adds.

Golemac, 45, had played almost everywhere (Turkey, Croatia, France, Israel, Greece, Germany, Italy), while Becirovic had reached European basketball's highest level, competing in two EuroLeague finals and winning one with Panathinaikos OPAP Athens in 2007.

Pullen ponders on the elements of their playing experience that they're trying to instill into the team.

"They both were different players. Playing and watching games are completely different, as far as how you look at the court," he clears up.

However, there is something that sets the former Slovenian international apart.

"What Golemac is doing well with us is being a more relatable coach than the older, European-style type of coaches, who are more like drill sergeants and go like, 'I'm the boss, I run everything.'

He's more so of someone who goes like, 'Tell me what you guys think. Do you think we should play high-hedge on pick n' roll against this guy, or do you think we should play more of a drop?'.

That's why the team has been able to communicate with him and get to understand what's best in every situation instead of having a guy saying, 'This is what we do and how we do it, and no questions asked.'

For the older guys on the team, giving us control is a big thing because it's helping us mold into a good team. We feel like we have a voice and can tell him, 'Hey, we don't want to play this style.'

Now that the up-tempo game has worked for us, he's doing a good job of just embracing it."

Credit Michele Nucci/LPS via ZUMA Press Wire

That's the perfect description of a players' coach. Pullen has seen and experienced his share of European coaches. Besides, he crossed paths with Igor Kokoskov at the Phoenix Suns back in the NBA Summer League in 2012. Kokoskov and Mike D'Antoni are the only coaches from Europe currently in the NBA.

"The NBA and Europe are different styles," Pullen believes.

In addition, it's about who's in control.

"It's not easy; the way the European coach is normally taught to coach the game is not such a trendy fashion in America. Coaches in Europe have a lot of control. In the NBA, the players have a lot of control.

So, it wouldn't be an easy adjustment for someone like (Zeljko) Obradovic to go to the NBA and just tell guys making 40-50 million dollars a year what to do. That's the biggest obstacle for European coaches.

Guys like Igor Kokoskov are good coaches and understand the game very well, but the perception they give and the way they teach the game of basketball isn't always perceived well in the NBA," Pullen outlines. 

Cedevita's third-best scorer in the EuroCup was among the top guards in America in each of the last two seasons. Despite being only 1.83 m. tall and seeming to play better off the ball than at point guard, he managed to average around 20 points per game each of the last two seasons while leading Kansas State to NCAA tourney runs both years.

Although very few people expected Pullen to go in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft, he certainly caught a raw deal going undrafted. From that point on, Pullen bounced around the world, playing for teams across Europe, Africa, and Asia in a never-ending quest.

He tried out his skills for the first time with Biella in Italy, then Hapoel Jerusalem and Virtus Segafredo Bologna, before jumping on the big stage with FC Barcelona in 2013, where he averaged 4.9 points per game in the EuroLeague.

However, he never gave up on his dreams, and in 2017, he was ultimately rewarded for his hard work with an opportunity to join the Philadelphia 76ers on a two-way contract.

After having spent six years overseas, that contract is something Pullen wanted at that point in his career.

"I was more eager to wait and see if I could get an opportunity to get a call. I worked hard for it. I saw the different styles of life and basketball. But coming from Europe to the NBA isn't easy all the time. You have to get lucky to get that opportunity. I was lucky that summer," he concedes.

Credit Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

It was a rewarding experience for Pullen, who had almost turned into a veteran.

"It's hard to just break into the NBA," he acknowledges.

"You see guys like Mike James and others, who play well in the NBA, and they're not given a chance to continue. What people don't understand is that it's not about basketball. You can have the talent and the skill and sometimes not get the opportunity."

Pullen being 28 when the Sixers called, the NBA represented the ticking of a box on his bucket list. But getting the call and staying in the league are two different things.

"I was happy to get a chance to be in the NBA, get a jersey, live the lifestyle, and be able to say that I've accomplished one of my goals and dreams. If someone gave me the chance to play 30 minutes and I would make 12 threes, yes, I'd probably be in the NBA forever. But if you're not given a chance to play, it's difficult to stick."

Pullen's reference to the "12 threes" is not accidental. On 8 March 2014, while playing for FC Barcelona, he made twelve 3-point shots in a 111-66 win over CB Valladolid, breaking the ACB League single-game record previously held by Oscar Schmidt.

"In the game that I happened to break the record, we were destroying Valladolid," Pullen now recalls.

"So, the coach (Xavi Pascual) could leave me out there (on the court) to break the record. A lot of games in the ACB are competitive, so there's not always the opportunity to break records."

Back then, Pullen finished the game with 42 points on 12/15, shooting from behind the arc. The question is whether it's possible for anyone to break that record in the near future. Pullen thinks it's highly likely.

"The way that the game is played today, yes, it's very possible to break that record any day. I don't know if it's going to be soon, but it will be broken - especially with the number of 3-pointers now. Maybe I'll get to break it if I get back in the ACB," he answers with a smile.

Another shocking detail about that record was that Pullen stayed on the court for only 23 minutes.

"The thing now is whether the team will allow you to get that many shots up if you're on fire or whether the coach is going to allow you to play as much in order to do that."

Luckily for him, Xavi Pascual was well informed about how close Jacob Pullen was to surpassing Oscar Schmidt on that list.

Talking about Barcelona, Pullen has been following his former team and its accomplishments this season, as the Catalans are projected as the No.1 favorite to win the EuroLeague. But things can soon get more complicated for them.

"Barca definitely have a chance to win, but with the level of talent on Milan, Efes, and other teams... It's really hard to say," Pullen thinks.

"The EuroLeague is always up for grabs. The Final Four competition is not about who's the best team. Over the past 10-12 years, EuroLeague has shown that it's not always the best team that wins; it's about the team that plays the best in the playoffs and the Final Four."

If Michael Beasley is probably the best player Pullen has ever played with throughout his entire career, singling out his best teammate in Europe is an easy task for Cedevita's guard.

He only stayed in Barcelona for a year, but he got to watch one of the EuroLeague's legends up close.

"In Europe, I would have to go with Juan Carlos Navarro. The level of the player that he had been throughout his career and the level of his offensive dominance I was able to see, as far as his scoring and passing, make him the best," Pullen maintains.

"I've played with some high-level players and clubs, like Alexey Shved, but Navarro is probably the best player and the biggest name."

Credit Rodolfo Molina/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

At a time when Cedevita Olimpija are struggling in the ABA League, having lost touch with leaders Partizan and Crvena Zvezda, balancing different competitions has taken a toll on the Slovenian side. 

"I've played in the EuroCup and the ABA League over the last two years. The thing about balancing two tough competitions is making sure you don't let one get ahead of the other one," Pullen thinks.

"Even if we've done well in EuroCup, we don't want to lose focus in the ABA, and even if we're not in a good position to catch Partizan and Red Star, we're figuring out our match-ups for the playoffs and who do we think we'll have success against. It's about getting to the point where we play against those two teams."

According to the undersized guard, there's no easy path that leads to the EuroLeague. Cedevita need to win either the Adriatic League or the EuroCup. Any way you look at it, that's tough.

"I don't think either league is easy. The level of competition is tough on both sides," Pullen argues.

"In the ABA League, we can play Partizan, Red Star, Buducnost, and Igokea, whereas, in the EuroCup, we end up playing Turk Telekom, Partizan, and Gran Canaria. For us, it's just about taking one game at a time. Either way, we can get to EuroLeague, we'll take it. We'll try to compete in both competitions and see if we can win either one."

Cedevita Olimpija's main strength has been on the perimeter. Yogi Ferrell, Jaka Blazic, Jacob Pullen, and Zoran Dragic are all playing exceptionally well. Translating their individual scoring ability into an offensive explosion has gotten them to this point.

"When you have guys like that, capable of scoring, you also need guys capable of passing. Right now, we're doing a great job of getting the ball out," Pullen explains.

"We have a five-guard rotation. Whoever is running - whether it's me, Yogi or Blazic - we throw the ball in front of us, putting a lot of pressure on the defense. When you're able to do that, it helps you to score the ball.

Over the last 7-8 games that we've been winning, we've been putting around 90+ points in the EuroCup. For us, it's about getting stops and being able to run because when we play in transition, it's really hard to stop us."

Going into the EuroCup playoffs, games are usually decided in fewer possessions and lower scoring. However, Pullen thinks that this style of basketball can bring his teams success all the way through.

"We're not just playing offense; we're also getting stops on defense," he says.

"As long as we can do that, especially in a knock-out stage, it's scarier for teams to play us. We're always going on big runs, like 12-2, when we're making a couple of threes or layups to put the team out of reach.

That helps us in these kinds of games because you don't have a series to prepare for us. They can't say, "Oh, they shot well in the first game, we'll beat them in the second game." With that mindset, we're very dangerous in these knockout competitions."

Listening to people talk only about Virtus Bologna, Partizan Belgrade, or Valencia Basket all year long doesn't bother the former K-State standout. Those teams have earned the right to be talked about and be considered the favorites to win the EuroCup. Besides, everything will be decided on the basketball court, where Cedevita have been excelling as of late.

"With the budget, they have acquired and the rosters they've put together, those are the teams you're supposed to talk about when you look at it on paper. Right now, we're the team to beat in EuroCup, and everybody knows it," Pullen contends.

"We've been on a streak, and I'm not sure anyone wants to play us right now. In the knockout stage, it's not about who's got the best team, but about who's playing the best basketball right now."

Another thing that stands out is his chemistry with Zach Auguste, especially when it comes to pick n' roll situations. It has been proven one of their most effective ways to unlock defenses, especially when it's accompanied by some outstanding shooting.

"Early on in the season, Zach was starting, and I was coming off the bench," Pullen remembers.

"We didn't have much time to figure it out. But as the season continued, we made some adjustments and added a couple of guys like Yogi and Omic.

So, Zach and I started practicing together and playing together more. We found a unique rhythm in the side pick n' roll, which is really difficult to guard because if you go under, I get to shoot the ball, and if you go over, Zach will be rolling behind your big.

We've done a good job in isolating the pick n' roll, where it's hard to help because you're possibly giving up a 3-point shot. Side pick n' roll and transition for me and Zach has really been good, and EuroCup has been able to get a nice bit of highlights from me."

Jacob Pullen gained a passport for Georgia in 2012 but didn't feature for the national team at EuroBasket in Slovenia in 2013, as Ricky Hickman was preferred instead.

He made the cut for the 2015 EuroBasket, but now, Conner Frankamp and Thad McFadden are covering the naturalized players' spots. In any case, Pullen's status remains precarious.

"Ah, I'm not sure," he responds. "As I get older, my summers become more about my family and kids than competing in basketball. So, it's hard for me to say that I will play for them again, but I can't say that I won't.

If I get the call and believe it's a good opportunity, I possibly still do it. But my summers are mostly about my family than Georgia. The last time we talked was 3-4 years ago."

It all started with a conversation that Pullen had with no other than Igor Kokoskov, who was working at the Phoenix Suns as an assistant coach and at the Georgian national team as head coach in 2012. 

"Igor was a major part because he kind of talked me into it," the experienced guard says.

"At that point in my career, I wasn't really sure what the passport can do for me or what was needed about it. I was on the fence, but I met him, Zaza Pachulia, and Toko Shengelia at the time, and they persuaded me. They told me that it would be a good opportunity for me to play at a high level, like the EuroBasket.

I was intrigued by it. It was a fun experience."

As a former Sixers player, Pullen whole-heartedly supports Joel Embiid's campaign for this season's NBA MVP award, in spite of him living in Slovenia, where Luka Doncic is bigger than anyone.

"Luka Doncic has been a tough talent since the first time I saw him play in Madrid. I've been a fan of his," he admits, "but this season, Joel Embiid deserves it because of his stats and his team being in the top 3-4 in the East all season.

Between him, Jokic and Giannis, anyone can win it. They all mean much to their team, and they all had a great season. For me, Joel deserves it, but you never know who will win it."

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Free throws this season

73%
14,4
Points made: 14,4
Accuracy: 73,4%
Place in standings: 6
Record max: 25
Record min: 9
Most made FTs: Jaka Blazic