Omer Yurtseven: Heat sensation reveals guidance of Haslem and life-changing moments

Uygar Karaca
Collaborator
2022-06-19 08:31
Credit: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images
Credit Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Imagine a young boy getting ready to play in probably the most important showcase event in his career. 

Back in 2015, he was already a EuroLeague player, but he also had the vision to become something bigger. That needed some bold decisions, but he did not refrain from taking them despite being a teenager.  

So far away from home, the young man takes a long flight from Istanbul to Toronto to represent his beloved team and country in a global basketball event. Besides, he trusts his skills to impress the NBA scouts, too. 

Points this season

46%
108,8
Points made: 108,8
Accuracy: 46,2%
Place in standings: 21
Record max: 144
Record min: 78
Best scorer: Jimmy Butler

But as soon as he lands on Canadian soil for the biggest challenge of his career, he sees hundreds of messages on his phone from the fans of his beloved team, Fenerbahce. 

"Traitor!"

That is Omer Faruk Yurtseven, the "unexpected" revelation of the Miami Heat last season and the one who put himself on the record books with some legendary names in the NBA. 

But that never happened overnight. Far from it. 

***

We will come back to that story of a sweetheart boy becoming the villain of his town as a teenager. But first, we need to talk about how he stepped up and grasped the opportunity, for he worked so hard all during those practices and workouts. 

Signed at the end of the previous season by the Miami Heat, The Turkish center tried hard to find its way into the roster from day 1. His Summer League resume was good, but finding minutes in a franchise that was just molded with toughness and obsessed with winning was not easy. 

However, life is full of surprises. When the Heat was left shorthanded in the paint after multiple injury problems of Bam Adebayo and Dwayne Dedmon, the Turkish center finally earned a decent chance to prove his case.

The result? It was better than anyone could imagine. During his 14 games stint, he just broke into the list of legends like Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning. 

That included an interrupted series of 11 games with 12 rebounds or more, which tied Blake Griffin's rookie year record. In the process, he found a streak of 4 consecutive games with 16 or more rebounds, an achievement that no rookie had reached in the last 40 years.

Historical records aside, Yurtseven had many memorable displays against various teams through that stretch.

Regarding the offense, his best games were against the Sacramento Kings (22 points and 10 rebounds) and Philadelphia 76ers.

That is where he scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against a team with Joel Embiid at the center. That includes 6 dunks. 

"I think my toughest matchup was against Joel Embiid regarding his strength and skills," Yurtseven told in a conversation with BasketNews' Uygar Karaca for S Sport channel. "He is the best, in my view. Since I was faster than him, I had to roll behind him and get the alley-oop passes. I think I was pretty good at it. It could have been even better if I had an early foul problem, but that was one of the most fascinating games for me." 

But make no mistake: Yurtseven is by no means a rim-runner and a hard roller in the pick&rolls, only. He can also show remarkable skills in ball distribution when asked to do so.

One good example could be the game against the Suns, one of the best defensive teams in the league who were 32-9 at the time and looked unbeatable.

Yurtseven remembers all the details about the game and his career-high 6 assists. 

"On that day, coach Spoelstra told me about our game plan: 'They will give the ball in the post, and the guards gonna play the split cut,'" Yurtseven revealed. "I understood my role and searched for the cut to make a well-timed assist for a layup."

"I am a good basketball player in every sense, and I am capable of understanding these details. When I reached 6 assists in the first half, I thought, 'Oh, I could make a triple-double in the beginning.'

Everybody wants to be a star, but It was also a good feeling just to fill that role of being a decent contributor to the team through different ways other than scoring," he added.

But all over these, Yurtseven does not choose the games where he shined as a dunking star. Instead, he names the day when he is faced with an NBA wildness as his favorite.

That tells a lot about his tenacity and willingness to fight.

"I think my best game was the one against Golden State. We were still in the first 5 minutes of the game, and there was a rebounding contest," Yurtseven remembered. "I grabbed the ball but immediately had an elbow on my head from Kevon Looney."

"I felt something very hard, saw the stars. I was trying to come to myself, and when I did, I saw the blood on my jersey all over the place. My eyebrows were cut, and I needed stitches," he added.

Despite that wild moment, Yurtseven did not take a step back. He did not only come back into the game but also made a big dunk over Draymond Green and Jordan Poole.

He likes to show his toughness both physically and mentally. This was also the game where he grabbed 17 rebounds as well. 

"I was out of the game mentally for a while and then had to push myself back into the court, back again," Yurtseven told. "You need to grasp the moment against all things you suffer."

"This was really hard. We lost that day, but I gave 100% and a big fight despite everything. That is why I would choose this game over the others," he added.

"I still lament for another dunk I could have made over Draymond, but I couldn't, I still think about that, it is a pity," he continued.

Despite all these impressive displays, Yurtseven faced the harsh reality of being an NBA player. 

Once the injury problems were overcome, Yurtseven could not build more on his proven track record as his minutes on the court diminished to sub-10:00 minute levels.

Throughout the entire playoff series, where the Heat fought for a place in the NBA Finals until the 7th game against the Celtics in the Conference Finals, the Turkish center could not find a bigger role other than mop-up duties during the garbage time. 

Does he feel bad about it? 

"I was pretty sure that I could've contributed more," Yurtseven revealed. "It is a stressful and depressing situation. At the beginning of the season, I was trying to keep myself prepared at the highest level."

"Finding my minutes gave me great motivation, I wanted more, and I thought I deserved more. Not an easy thing to do on the mental level.

But I used this as fuel to keep working and striving. Sometimes I thought that minutes would come, but sometimes, I accepted the hard fact. But at the end of the day, I will never cease to work and keep myself ready for the top level," the Turkish center continued.

Beyond the minutes and the role, Yurtseven shared his firm belief about how he could extend his overall place in the roster, showing his skills on a greater scale.  

"I aim to do whatever is needed for my team to win," says Yurtseven. "My role this season was to play as a rim-runner or chase and catch the alley-oop passes. In college, the midpoint was my most powerful weapon. Regarding the threes, I made a lot of them at the NC State in my 2nd season. In the summer league, I showed that, too."

"I am a good basketball player who can do more than rebounding and scoring but also read the game and pass. I would like to adopt all these abilities into my game, but that depends on what the coach asks me to do. I am expecting the coaching staff to improve those skills of mine," he adds.

***

The Turkish center also opened up about his special relationship with some of his teammates during the season. One of them was Udonis Haslem, who praised Yurtseven after the playoff run, mentioning his big potential. 

Haslem himself was an undrafted talent back in 2002 but took the long and laborious path to become a franchise legend.

At the age of 42, he was the one who pushed Omer Yurtseven to adopt a high level of toughness and keep an eye on intimidating elbows around the rim. 

"Nowadays, everybody remembers Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Kendrick Nunn, or Duncan Robinson as the undrafted talents who made it to the NBA as a Heat," Yurtseven recalls. "Many people do not remember that Udonis Haslem was one of the prime examples back then, 20 years ago."

"He even played a year in Europe. It is the franchise's ability to select and identify those types of players and develop them as valuable assets if they are pushed into the fire and intense pressure.

People think Haslem is crushing me in training, but it is the contrary; he just taught me how to crush the others, so I was very hard on him in training. Especially in the box-out drills, I needed to be careful about his elbows.

If there is a game at night, there was an opponent analysis and a shooting practice on that day. In between, there was the box-out drill.

When I started to work with Haslem, the rebounding level jumped to another level. He gave me a lot as he knows the way. His help was impeccable. He is 100% objective and transparent," Yurtseven explained in detail.

Other than Haslem, Yurtseven has another teammate that provides a great inspiration: Victor Oladipo. 

It is very understandable for him to do so. Once an All-Star player, Oladipo got nasty injuries and lost significant playing time and game rhythm in his repetitive attempts to become healthy again.

But he found refuge in Miami Heat and gave remarkable support to become a role model for those trying to endure hardships in a relentless environment.  

"We were pretty close with Victor Oladipo," Yurtseven remarks. "He had significant injuries, again and again. His comeback period was supposed to be half a season or a full season, but eventually, that recovery period was doubled in length. It is heart-breaking."

"Despite all, he never gave up. He was in the strength and conditioning room every day. After the games, he still goes to bench-press to bolster his knee. It would not matter to him whether it was 11-12 pm.

He was giving attention to all the details of his recovery. As a young player, you watch all of this, which is a great inspiration. He is very objective and positive. He supported me during that period of 6 weeks when I found significant minutes. Many times, players refrain from praising each other, but he never held it back. He told me all the good and bad things," Yurtseven remembered.

***

Now, let's rewind to the beginning of the article and go back to the story that made Yurtseven. Through this subtle time-traveling experience, we will find nothing but hustle, tenacity, and sacrifice. 

As one of the biggest talents of the 1998-born generation, Yurtseven already started having some minutes in the EuroLeague in a team big as Fenerbahce, back in 2015 and 2016. 

He did not also stop there and became the youngest player in history at the time to play in an NBA preseason game at the age of 17. On that day, Fenerbahce beat the Brooklyn Nets in NBA Global Games, and all eyes were on Yurtseven.

But then, he would soon find out the coach that he admired the most, Zeljko Obradovic, criticized him in a press conference for being selfish and not helping a shorthanded Fenerbahce in the EuroLeague. All of his life would change over a flight. 

"When the plane landed, I switched on my phone and had to make a gigantic swipe through all those notifications," Yurtseven reflects on those moments. 

"Finally, I managed to reach the core, and it was strange. My head coach, Zeljko Obradovic, whom I see every day, and who gave me those big minutes in the top stage, was wrongly accusing me of leaving the team without any permission.

Well, this was strange because it was one of the club administrators who informed me about the invitation in the first place. Surely, I wanted to join Basketball Without Borders Camp to show my talents and represent my country and club.

That administrator said it was ok for me to join, but he also needed Obradovic's permission. There were no problems at all with the final decision as nobody mentioned the issue until that press conference.

My tickets were bought by the club, my visa application was made by the club, and I thought that if anyone had any problems with that, this would not work through. Canada is not a place where you can go in a cab or something. The tickets were purchased by the club.

I never understood why he did so. But I was thinking about joining a college to play NCAA basketball instead of staying at Fenerbahce with a 5-year contract, and maybe he was not happy with that. Perhaps, that might be the reason why he directed some criticism on me in front of the media," Yurtseven gave a very detailed comment about the situation.

However, the 24-year-old has no hard feelings for the club.

"I am a Fenerbahce guy, and despite all, Fenerbahce will always be my home," says Yurtseven.

"But surely, what I read and heard from the fans through that period made me sad. Nobody wondered about my version of events, which is understandable in a sense. There was Obradovic on the one hand and a 17-year-old Omer on the other," as Yurtseven expressed. 

***

But all that leaves us with one question: Why did Yurtseven leave his beloved club and a lucrative 5-year contract and opt to go for a college career, which is full of uncertainties, instead? 

"People hardly talk about this aspect, but It was a very hard decision," Yurtseven admits. "The sum in the offer from Fenerbahce was beyond my and my family's imagination. It was the toughest decision for me to say no to that contract."

"But my family gives immense importance to my education, which played a very big role in my decision. They could have easily said, 'Ok, just accept the offer and get paid for big-time, 5 years.' But instead, they supported me in my quest to get a proper university education.

First, I went to a very elite engineering school like NC State and then to a very good university like Georgetown. Now, I completed my university education properly and successfully got my BA degree," Yurtseven explains.

But not everything went in the way that Yurtseven imagined beforehand in the college. Regardless, he kept making some critical life decisions again to show his commitment to completing his education to the full extent. 

During his freshman year at NC State, there was a lot of chaos in the program. The coach Mark Gottfried was declared not to return to his duties next season around February but remained at the helm, nevertheless.

Yurtseven's figures were not particularly staggering, but he was seen as a Top10 prospect in the NBA Draft. 

Instead, he returned to the NC State to endure another less than a satisfactory season with the new coach, Kevin Keats. Despite the good figures he put in (13.5 pts, 6,6 rebounds, and 52% 3 FG), the Turkish center again found himself at a crossroads to make the most of this college eligibility.  

And the one who called him from the other end of that road is not someone you could just pass by unmarked. 

"The decision to transfer to another university was not easy as well because I did not have any more room for error," Yurtseven tells. 

"Keats had his system, which did not have too much space for me to develop my talents. I realized that it is very important to work with a coach closer to how I understand the game, which is why Patrick Ewing's call was very attractive to me.

I got very excited. If Ewing were not in the mix, I would never give a full season without playing after the transfer," Heat center revealed. 

After sitting out for an entire season because of the transfer rules (they changed that rule last season, so no one has to suffer as Omer did anymore), Yurtseven got back on track.

Under the wings of Knicks legend Patrick Ewing, he improved his numbers (15.6 points and 9.7 rebounds), producing double-digit scoring in all but 4 games over a total of 24.

Among them, there were 12 double-doubles. Putting these figures in a college where Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson, and Dikembe Mutombo are on the alumni list is big.  

But the season prematurely ended most unimaginably: the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly, all the plans that were meticulously designed and put into action with a lot of hard work became vague.

As someone who had great NBA prospects a few years ago, did Yurtseven have any concerns about his future around that time? 

"I think we were playing against St. John's, and at halftime, there came an announcement about the game being canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions. That was a shocking moment," Yurtseven remembers.

"We were taken into quarantine at Georgetown for a while because Patrick Ewing had contact with Charles Barkley, who was tested positive. Besides, I was also trying to recover from an ankle injury, and dealing with that level of uncertainty was really hard. 

"I was trying to get prepared for the 2020 Draft, but nobody knew when or where it was about to take place. The overall concern of whether Covid-19 could be overcome or not was just an entirely different concern. The only thing that I could focus on was to work as if the draft was tomorrow, and I kept doing that.  

Thankfully I had excellent coaches and personal trainers at that time. The strengthening drills were so hard that I could not walk after the workouts. Also, there was Benjamin Belucci.

Through that 6-7 months, we worked on many things like shooting 20,000 times per month. It was a big development period, without knowing what is about to come. I can say I got evolved," Yurtseven reveals.

***

Yurtseven was not selected in the NBA 2020 Draft despite all the hard work. But his dreams were not over.

Soon after, he joined Oklahoma City Thunder with an Exhibit 10 contract and was sent to the G-League affiliate, Oklahoma City Blue. Once again, his figures were solid, despite not being in the starting five and not playing in nearly 2,5 months.

In the only game he started, he scored 34 points against Long Island Nets. 

He also shares a critical juncture before signing with Miami Heat. Once again, we learned that things for Yurtseven could have gone way more different. 

"I was expecting something to happen in the 2nd round during the Draft, so I was disappointed not being selected at all," Yurtseven clarifies.  

"But after the G-League, there were some good offers from some big clubs in Italy, Spain, and Belgium as well. These were mainly vocal offers and not written contracts.

The Spanish and Italian clubs that I mentioned were in demand for two-year contracts, while I was insistent on an NBA exit after the end of the season.

There was some interest from Turkey as well, but they did not reach the advanced stage. I could say that with a 70-80% probability, I would've turned back to Europe if no offer came from Miami. Because I simply wanted to play. I was seeking to show my hard work and my skills.

"But the Heat Assistant GM Adam Simon called me just before I was getting ready to depart for Europe. The rest, as they say, is history," Yurtseven unveiled.

***

Yurtseven is currently in his homeland and can't wait to play in the Turkish NT with other fellow NBA players like Cedi Osman, Alperen Sengun, and Furkan Korkmaz. 

As it happens with the NBA players sometimes, back in 2018, his name was put into another controversy on whether or not he will join the national team. Turkish NT CEO at that time, Omer Onan (former FB assistant general manager), claimed that Yurtseven did not reply to the phone calls and did not show a willingness to join the NT when he received the invitation.

Yurtseven shrugged off those claims from the past and gave the details of the bureaucratic situation that held him off from joining. 

"I want to clarify one thing: I always would like to play for the Turkish NT. I played in all levels, U16 to U18 and U20.

Then I was called for the seniors and joined the NT camp as well. There is no such thing as me not being willing to join the NT. I would be proud every time to wear that uniform.  

There was a misunderstanding in the past. When I was called to the seniors, I wished to join as always. But there was a problem: I was renewing my US visa due to my university transfer.

So, I could not have my passport back, but if I could've done it before renewing my visa, I would not be able to get back into the US. That would entail me missing the classes and the danger of losing my college eligibility.

There was this potential chain of events that could ruin my scholarship there. We made our diplomatic attempts on the state level, but that did not work. That's what happened," Yurtseven clarifies. 

For this summer, Yurtseven cannot wait for the next challenges with Turkey NT. The first step is the World Cup Qualifier game against Great Britain in July.

Next, there is the upcoming EuroBasket campaign. Big matchups are on their way as Turkey will play against Spain in the first phase and potentially fall into the same group with Slovenia, Lithuania, France, and Germany. 

But Yurtseven does not look intimidated. 

"We are seeing each other in the NBA as Turkish players and have good memories," says Yurtseven. "It will be fun to play with the boys under the realm of the NT. What we want is a challenge at the high level."

That is what we are looking for. These kinds of opponents will reveal our competitive spirit of us. We are looking for it. I watched those games in Greece, I am fired up.

If we blend in good team chemistry, I don't think there will be any games that we lose. I have already started to work individually with Mehmet Okur (current assistant coach in the NT). I remember the 2019 World Cup, where we got very close to beating the US. These are the challenges that you cannot wait for," he added.

If there is one word to describe Yurtseven's likely but also unlikely path to the NBA. It is similar to the recent Netflix release of a basketball movie with Adam Sandler.

The hustle. 

"I was happy to become a Netflix star," Yurtseven breaks in immediately.

"I have a small cameo appearance while Kyle Lowry takes a shot. I was the guy behind it, and I'm seen on the camera for a very small instance," he adds.

Well, that is fitting. Yurtseven might have played a relatively limited role in Miami Heat's good campaign going through to the Eastern Conference Finals, but it was impactful enough to inspire a decent tag with it. 

But this humble person does not hide his bigger ambitions, and his greater career aims to be a part of something bigger.

With his stoic stance and relentless work ethic, who can say that Omer Yurtseven does not stand a chance among the best in the world? 



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