Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

Bulgarian basketball star's breakout in Europe has reached the USA. Sasha Vezenkov's growth during the last several years was so big that even the NBA clubs started buzzing about him.

Aleksandr Vezenkov

Aleksandr  Vezenkov
Team: Olympiakos Piraeus
Bulgaria
Position: SF, PF
Age: 26
Height: 206 cm
Weight: 102 kg
Birth place: Nicosia, Côte d'Ivoire

The Sacramento Kings looked back at a player selected in the 2017 NBA Draft with only the 57th pick. The Brooklyn Nets chose this player, but his rights were transferred to the Cleveland Cavaliers during the blockbuster James Harden trade.

No other team was as excited as the Kings. Talking with BasketNews, Vezenkov admitted - he's the closest to the NBA he's ever been.

"I knew the Kings were interested in me, they watched me play during the season," Vezenkov said. "I wasn't sure when or how this was going to turn out. I'm telling everybody now that all I know and all I'm happy about is that my rights belong to a team that is interested in me. The Kings show the attention and want to see me."

The general manager of the Kings, Monte McNair, presented the move in the post-draft press conference. According to him, the move came within the organization. Kings are hoping to get better on the offensive end, and as McNair says, Vezenkov is just the right fit for the club's vision.

Looking into the future, Vezenkov is being projected as a piece near the team's stars Domantas Sabonis and De'Aaron Fox.

"Sasha is one of the best shooters who's got great positional size in one of the best leagues in the world. He's already producing, that made it easy for us," McNair told in the press conference. "Sasha is a guy we see fitting with Domas' [Sabonis] passing, with [De'Aaron] Fox's ability to collapse defenses, just another guy who can stand there and hit shots. We all know how important that is in the league these days, we all just saw the playoffs."

Aleksandr Vezenkov

Aleksandr  Vezenkov
Aleksandr  Vezenkov
MIN: 30.19
PTS: 13.66 (59.78%)
REB: 5.95
As: 1.53
ST: 1
BL: 0.24
TO: 0.82
GM: 38

"If an opportunity comes one day to play among these NBA superstars, we'll see how it turns out," the player responded to McNair's comment while talking with BasketNews.

Vezenkov was born in 1995, while Sabonis in 1996. Both players never had a chance to play against each other in the youth tournaments, but both of them competed in the 2013 European U18 Championships.

Vezenkov was first in the tournament in points (22.4), while Sabonis was first in rebounding (11.4). Lithuania placed 5th while Bulgaria was second to last, 15th.

"Domas is a superstar now. An All-Star who has solidified his name in the NBA," Vezenkov told. "I remember him being athletic and really good at rebounding since his youth days. As time went on, he has proven that he is capable of dishing out passes and taking responsibility when his team needs him the most. His game is not revolved around one single aspect, he's a universal player. Everyone sees how much he's grown. The Lithuanian national team is very strong with him and Jonas Valanciunas."

Vezenkov had a career year in the EuroLeague last season, averaging 13.7 points, shooting three-pointers at 37%, and grabbing 5.9 rebounds for 17.8 PIR (6th-best in the competition).

Led by the Bulgarian, Olympiacos Piraeus made it to the Final Four for the first time since 2017. After rising to stardom, Vezenkov was selected to the All-EuroLeague First Team among the superstar likes of Mike James, Nikola Mirotic, Shane Larkin, and Edy Tavares.

The Kings' general manager said that the team plans to talk with Vezenkov about his future in the club. His future in Europe is tied with Olympiacos, who have extended the contract with the player until 2024.

According to Gazzetta.gr, the contract is worth around 2.7 million euros with an NBA-out option. The buyout sum is around $750,000, SDNA journalist Christos Tsaltas reports.

Credit FIBA

The player himself is not ready to push things at the moment and is not prepared to guess when the transfer could happen. He just accepts the fact that he's in Kings' plans.

"The most important thing to me is that for the first time, my rights belong to a team that is actually interested in me, so new opportunities arise," Vezenkov told BasketNews. "I don't like to get dreamy. I'd love to answer the question about when it will happen, but I'm a realist. I'll think about it when it becomes a reality.

As I said, we're communicating. I don't know when it's going to move forward. If we reach an agreement and the way for me to go opens up, then we'll be able to think in a broader sense. All I have on my mind now is the national team and Olympiacos, that's what's going on in my life now."

After spending three years in Barcelona, Vezenkov turned to Olympiacos in 2018. During the first two years, the Bulgarian slowly gained his ground to push to the EuroLeague elite during the last two.

Since the 2019-20 season, his playing time grew from 13 minutes to 30, scoring - from 7 to 13.7 points per game, while PIR values rose as well - from 6.8 to 17.8.

One of the leaders of the Olympiacos team has an explanation for the breakout.

"First of all, I worked really hard in the offseason when we had four months off during the last two years," Vezenkov said. "The first year, it happened due to COVID-19, the second year, because we weren't competing in the Greek League with Olympiacos. I had a lot of free time for practice and my development.

The trust the coaches, the teammates, and the entire Olympiacos organization showed me played a part. They have trust in my abilities. We see how much of a success last season was due to the team's culture. I try to play my part that the coach gives me at 100% so that the team could win. This year was victorious for us, and I'm really happy about it."

After ending the season with the Greek League title, Olympiacos have only made a single official move during the offseason, extending the contract with head coach Georgios Bartzokas until 2025. The team will remain largely intact, a fact that brings joy to Vezenkov.

"The most important thing is that the core of the team remains the same, a lot of players will remain from last year," he said. "If the coaches and the organization decide that they need to improve some position on the roster, they'll do it. Stability is very important for the team, but the newcomers can improve the overall picture. The three additions during the last year were terrific - Moustapha Fall, Thomas Walkup, and Tyler Dorsey all helped us reach our goals tremendously.

The most important thing for us is to show that the last season was not a fluke. We deserved it. The hardest thing is not to reach such heights but to stay there. We have to continue our work and show that we can reach the same level of results two years in a row."

The Olympiacos star follows the player market closely and even named the most surprising move without hesitation.

"Will Clyburn's transfer to Efes is an impressive move," Vezenkov told BasketNews. "Anadolu Efes won the EuroLeague twice, and they show their desire to win the title again with this signing. Clyburn, Vasilije Micic, and Shane Larkin - a scary trio, maybe even the best in Europe.

Winning the title three times in a row is extremely hard, but I think Efes had the right coach and the right players to do it. The other teams want to beat them and become the champions. The EuroLeague is going to be very interesting."

Currently working with the Bulgarian national team, Vezenkov is happy about returning to the team after almost four years. The match against Lithuania was his first since September of 2018.

The Olympiacos forward dominated against Lithuania, scoring 29 points in 38 minutes, grabbing 11 rebounds, and collecting 28 PIR points.

"I haven't played in the national team for a long time. It's good to see the familiar faces as well as the new faces," Vezenkov told. "I've always told the federation that if I'm healthy, I will always help. Unfortunately, I miss some chances due to the scheduling, but I'm always here and give my 100%."

Bulgaria lost 70-72 to Lithuania in Samokov, and the team's fate will be decided in the away game against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Monday.

The Bulgarians lost 75-85 in their first matchup against the Bosnians. To qualify for the second stage of the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers, Bulgaria must win by at least 11 points.

Otherwise, the Bulgarian national team will end its journey in the first round. The team reached the second stage of the 2019 FIBA World Cup Qualifiers but ultimately placed fourth. The ticket to the main draw was gifted to the first three places of the group.

"Our group in 2019 was easier with Finland, Iceland, and the Czech Republic," Vezenkov explained. "This time around, the group is really difficult. We need to try and stay at this level because we can be relegated to the lower division to play against weaker competition."

The Bulgarian team only has four players that play outside the home country of Bulgaria: Vezenkov - Olympiacos Piraeus, naturalized Dee Bost - Galatasaray Istanbul, 20-year-old Emil Stoilov - Movistar Estudiantes in LEB Oro, ad 19-year-old Konstantin Kostadinov - Alma Mediterranea Palma in LEB Oro. Kostadinov belonged to Real Madrid's system for five years before.

"The upcoming generation is really talented and physical but inexperienced," the Bulgarian superstar noted. "We have to help them take the first steps, experience comes only through playing, through difficult moments. As I suggested myself, they need to find clubs where they have an important role and could play the entire year. That would give confidence and would serve the national team."

Bulgaria will compete in the EuroBasket 2022 for the first time after missing three tournaments. The team will play against Belgium, Spain, Montenegro, Turkey, and the host Georgia in Tbilisi in Group A.

Vezenkov's hope for the national team is clear.

"We'll play in the EuroBasket, which is already really important for us. Advancing to the next round would be a very good result," he said.

Show comments
Thank you for reporting a comment

Add comment

We have the right to remove comments which are offensive, contains abusive language, or violates other rules of the website

Points this season

48%
80,0
Points made: 80,0
Accuracy: 48,3%
Place in standings: 5
Record max: 101
Record min: 67
Best scorer: Aleksandr Vezenkov