Given his shooting prowess, size, awareness, and toughness, the excitement swirling around the signing of EuroLeague MVP Sasha Vezenkov has been growing throughout the previous few months. On Thursday, the anticipation reached a new benchmark with the Bulgarian’s introductory press conference in Sacramento.
Even as Vezenkov is achieving a childhood dream of finally getting a chance to play in the NBA, he remained level-headed about the reality of having to adjust to the sport’s highest level.
To his credit, he knows he has plenty of things to prove.
According to Mike Brown’s comments last weekend, the head coach is well aware of this as well, expressing as much excitement as one can given the known information, just like much of the fanbase.
“Here’s a guy that plays hard, he’s tough, (and) very, very, very smart,” Brown told Fox 40’s Sean Cunningham. “(He has an) extremely good feel for the game of basketball. He can pass it, he cuts, he knows how to space, and he can shoot the mess out of the ball. He’s got a quick trigger and I’m looking forward to seeing him out in action against other teams this year.”
It’s nothing new. In fact, it’s essentially the same assessment as four months ago.
As Vezenkov said on Thursday, he had just arrived in California days prior and had yet to practice or workout with his teammates.
So even for Brown, the unknowns remain for now.
That isn’t foretelling anything bad necessarily. Shooting is shooting, and Vezenkov undeniably has a fast release, a ton of range, and a fearlessness to him. He also fits the mold for the 4 position in the NBA by combining that with size and rebounding. And as a leader and MVP for one of the better teams in Europe, he’s shown he possesses an adept approach and grasp of the game.
While there are unknowns about adjusting to a completely different and likely lesser role, or handling the mental aspect of being somewhere new with a brighter light shining on it, or something else that could affect those offensive and intangible skills, the primary question mark is how his defense will translate.
The high IQ that both Brown and GM Monte McNair have emphasized will help him as a team defender, but the athleticism of NBA players sometimes feels otherworldly. Vezenkov himself noted that he’ll have to get used to competing against a standard of athletic ability that will be unlike anything else he’s experienced as a player.
How will he be able to hold up against players who are vastly quicker?
Nobody really knows at this point.
One of the more generally likable things about the 28 year-old was how honest he was about these unknowns and the fact that he will indeed need to adjust. He expressed multiple times how he knows he’ll have to work hard to make a substantial impact in this league.
“I have to be mentally and physically ready to adjust fast, and as I said, the whole organization — the coaching staff, my teammates — will help me a lot in this process and I’m ready,” the forward at one point told reporters at his presser.
He’s confident yet entirely aware of the reality of it all.
Everyone knows the defensive end of the floor will be critical this season. During his interview with Fox 40, Brown shifted from Vezenkov to Chris Duarte and he articulated how so much comes down to the defensive end no matter how “smooth” a player is.
“And he’s got great size,” Brown began in conclusion about Duarte after enthusing about the former Pacers’ offensive skillset. “So with that size, hopefully he’ll also help us on the defensive end of the floor because that’s where we need to pick it up a little bit.”
No matter how much Duarte offers on offense, there will be an expectation that he defends.
Of course, Vezenkov probably doesn’t have the potential to be a nightly big-impact defender that Duarte has, nor does he play primarily on the perimeter where the defensive impact felt so necessary—and was often lacking—last season. But still, if Vezenkov can’t hold his own on that end of the floor, his leash may be a short one until he’s able to demonstrate otherwise.
It could just require a bit of acclimation at first, which means he’ll likely improve with any experience, but he’ll have to avoid being a liability at any point.
Everything could end up being okay with Vezenkov in terms of translatability. That’s equally possible given the dark unknown. He could end up being a fine contributor on the defensive side of the ball. He could also really struggle there when manning up against some athletically dominant players.
This is the riddle that’s unsolvable this early into the Vezenkov story. The expectation and standard on the defensive end, however, are not as much of a mystery: Defense is vital for floor time.
And having Vezenkov as the rotational weapon he’s capable of being will be so helpful to the team, not just in terms of his own shooting. Having him playing well allows Trey Lyles to play the small ball 5 more often, which allows for more shooters to be on the floor, which only maximizes the impact of the Kings’ two All-NBA stars. The move to play small in the playoff series against Golden State was a radical improvement.
Clearly Vezenkov would assist in making it even more of a difference maker. This is why the question marks surrounding his defense are ever more pertinent.
Again, this isn’t a way of casting doubt on his ability to be the contributor he can be. If anything these question marks heighten the anticipation of Vezenkov’s first season even more. Nobody knows how it will go, so many keen eyes will be lent his way.