Brown, Vezenkov Eye Promising Future in NBA

Mike Brown made a trip across the pond to take in some action from EuroBasket 2022 and, more specifically, to see some of the guys he’ll be coaching this season in person. The Kings have two players competing in the event, and four total who’ve played for their national teams this summer.

Both Sport24 and EuroHoops—two European publications—caught up with Sacramento’s coach in Milan and Cologne respectively. 

Coach Brown expressed his enthusiasm about the more “physical” styled basketball of the European competition, agreeing with Portland coach Chauncey Billups’ notion that it benefits these guys more to actually play rather than to merely practice ahead of the NBA season.

Having coached the Nigerian National Team last summer, his positivity is unsurprising.

Brown also alluded to his fondness for international talent in general, not only showing support for his current players, but also for those of the past. In the EuroHoops piece, it noted how Brown has always viewed European talent as worth keeping an eye on. As an example, the coach himself cited Sasha Pavlovic, the 6’8″ Serbian who played ten seasons in the NBA, including four under Brown in Cleveland.

“There are a lot of talented guys in Europe,” Brown told Antonis Stroggylakis of EuroHoops. “Even a guy like Sasha Pavlovic, who I coached (in) Cleveland — I think he could’ve played longer. I think he could’ve had a bigger role (in the NBA). It was just one of those things… sometimes guys get homesick and they want to come back than play (in the NBA). He’s a guy that I had a lot of fun coaching.”

All this musing about the present and the past of Mike Brown’s experiences with European players presents the opportunity to reflect on the future. As the EuroHoops piece indicates, there “could’ve easily been three” Sacramento Kings competing in EuroBasket. 

That third man and the figure potentially destined for Sac in the not-so-distant future is Bulgarian forward Sasha Vezenkov, whom the Kings acquired the rights to on draft night when they dealt their 49th pick to the Cavaliers.

Fans were instantly interested in Vezenkov, and for good reason. Ever since beginning his professional career at the age of 16, Vezenkov has ventured from the Greek League (GBL) to the Spanish League, and back to the GBL. Over the last three seasons during this second stint in Greece with Olympiacos, Venzenkov has had some excellent seasons, including winning the GBL’s Most Valuable Player award this last year.

In his 2021-22 MVP campaign, the left-handed Vezenkov averaged 14.9 points on 55.3% shooting from the field and 37.8% from three, 6.6. rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1 steal in 23 minutes played per game. 

Sport24’s Harris Stavrou asked Brown about the 6’9″, 235 lbs. forward.

“Our GM, Monte McNair, had been talking to him and his agent for quite some time,” Brown told Stavrou. “We wanted to take him, but he had many obligations, he had to play with the national team of his country. The situation is specific, we got his rights and of course we look forward to having him with us at some point in the future.”

Coming off of a successful season in the GBL in which he won his MVP while also leading his team to the EuroLeague Final Four, Vezenkov has competitive ambition for another year over there on top of what’s been a busy summer of international action. Also, it’s important to note that Sacramento’s cap situation did not offer a lot of financial flexibility to extend the best of offers. 

As Brown explained, the Kings still retain his rights, and there is plenty of reason to think he has a future in a Mike Brown rotation.

Frequently likened to former King and Warrior Nemanja Bjelica, Vezenkov has a smooth shooting stroke from three with the physical assets to be an effective stretch-4 in the modern NBA. And similar to Trey Lyles—who, in the words of McNair, “combines the size of a power forward with the ability to shoot like a guard”—he is versatile enough to use his size and skill on the inside while using his range to stretch the floor from the perimeter.

Perfect for the Kings and, really, any team in the league, his shooting is the key element. The specialty seems to flourish in simple catch-and-shoot scenarios as well as pick-and-pop situations. And possessing a potential clutch factor, he can hit contested jumpers and is regarded for executing in big moments.

Vezenkov—described as “smart” by Brown—also has a solid and comfortable feel for the game of basketball, allowing him to be an effective off-ball asset as a cutter, which can be very crucial for a player whose role is often standing in the corner. 

Offensively, Vezenkov already has the prospect of being extremely useful in a rotational role. However, despite his solid instincts and use of hands, there are some justifiable questions regarding his defense due to the fact that speed and lateral quickness are not at all close to being strong suits for the Bulgarian. (That isn’t to say he doesn’t run the floor well, though; he does so adequately.) 

Highlighting this primary question about defense, Brown observed the reasonable uncertainty of who in the NBA he can guard when asked about whether Vezenkov is more of a 3 or a 4.

“In my eyes he is a power forward,” Brown said. “Basketball, especially in the NBA, is now positionless. There are no positions in the attack and there he will have no problem. The question is which players he can mark, there is no other debate.”

Just watching his tape, it’s pretty easy to tell that Vezenkov is far better suited to guard bigger-bodied 4’s and not athletic perimeter players. 

Listed at 235 lbs., Vezenkov has the body to hang in there as a 4. Lyles is listed at around 240 and, for example, the lengthy Keegan Murray is listed at 215. Plus, as Brown noted about the European competition, they play a more “physical” form of basketball over there. Think about Lithuania’s duo of Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas; that’s quintessential European basketball, almost reminiscent of 15 years ago in the NBA.

But at the same time, 4’s in the NBA get matched up with all sorts of players with varying degrees of athleticism that might not be present in lower levels of professional basketball. Sabonis himself struggles and is arguably inept at guarding modern power forwards, which was a critical downside of playing him beside a true rim-protector like Myles Turner on that end. 

It’s evident Vezenkov has something to prove.

It’s hard to say what he’ll be able to do defensively against NBA talent. To hold a rotational spot, especially in Brown’s defensive-minded system, he’ll have to be able to hold his own and contribute to the team’s efficiency on that end, or at least not hinder it.

It remains a question for Mike Brown, and will remain that way until next summer when he, his staff, and McNair can get a real look at Vezenkov and assess his true all-around value. But as of right now, the idea of him being a useful piece for the Kings down the line is extremely plausible.

Sacramento picked up Lyles’ option for this upcoming season, and as useful and likable a player he is, the Kings organization might opt to go with the Bulgarian as a backup to Keegan Murray a year from now. If Lyles has a bad year, Sacramento might want the possible upgrade. And if Lyles has a good year, maybe Vezenkov is the cheaper option.

But time will tell.

Asked about the EuroHoops article, Vezenkov’s read of the situation parallels with the organization’s, saying he’s looking forward to another year with Olympiacos and—perhaps more so judging by his grin—to next summer when Sacramento could very well bring him aboard.

“Next summer is just ten months away,” Vezenkov said with a smile. “So I’ll just try to stay healthy and we’ll see.”

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[…] [ September 6, 2022 ] Brown, Vezenkov Eye Promising Future in NBA Basketball […]