Kerr Kriisa staying loyal to Arizona: 'Even if an NBA team called, I'd say no'

Giorgos Kyriakidis
2022-09-06 11:07

Estonia's guard Kerr Kriisa spoke to BasketNews about his team's EuroBasket performances and results, his career plans, and the reasons he's not looking forward to playing in Europe anytime soon.

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

Kerr Kriisa is beaming with self-confidence. Estonia NT has just lost another game in the EuroBasket, after a hard-fought battle with Croatia, but the 21-year-old guard isn't the type of player who will keep his head down. 

He storms into the mixed zone in the Mediolanum Forum to attend the Estonian media that were looking for some answers as to how things could have turned out differently. 

"Basketball god wasn't with us," were Kriisa's first words when BasketNews approached him. 

"We had a lot of shots that rolled out in the end, myself included. We can't really be mad at ourselves because Croatia's starting five are NBA guys. We don't have one guy that has ever played in the NBA, and only one of our players (editor's note: Baskonia's forward Sander Raieste) is in the EuroLeague. "

Estonia may lack experience, but going 0-3 in Group C won't make Kriisa or his teammates any less fired up ahead of the next couple of games against Great Britain and Greece. Despite his young age, he knows there's no use crying over spilled milk.

"Hats off to all our players," he continued.

"We fought, went up,  and then, we fought back. It wasn't a bad game for us. It was a nice game to watch and some small details decided the outcome."

Kriisa is certain that his side can bounce back after the losses to Italy, Ukraine and Croatia.

"We need to keep believing, which we do. We never give up, no matter who we play against. We have the greediness inside us and we just have to move on," he says.

A couple of weeks ago, Kerr Kriisa - named after Warriors coach Steve Kerr- made headlines when Estonia played reigning European champs Slovenia. Although the game was one-sided and Slovenia won easily (104-83), Kriisa reacted strongly when Luka Doncic protested about a foul.

He went up to the Mavs star, waving his finger and implying that he shouldn't argue about the call. The two players exchanged words and looks. After the game, Kriisa was asked about the whole situation, and he simply answered that he stood for his teammate.

"We don't let people just step on us. Otherwise, we could have just stayed in Estonia and not even come here. If somebody says something to us, we talk back. He showed a reaction, so it means it's pretty easy to get into his head too," he uttered.

But where does this 'never give up' and 'don't let people step on us' attitude stem from?

"We're a small country. We've been through a lot of sh**. Russians have fought with us in the war and we take pride in who we represent," Kriisa explains.

"If you put on the Estonian jersey and that flag comes out, it means you're going to play your heart out. You don't concede to anybody, not even an inch. We just take pride in ourselves, in our country, and our fans."

When it comes to fans, there's no better team to look at than Estonia. They come in bunches, support their team, make noise, and have been backing the team since day one. That's hardly a surprise for Kriisa.

"Estonia has always been a basketball country and nothing else; not volleyball nor any other sport, just basketball. When you make it to a European championship, you can see how much it means to Estonians."

Kerr Kriisa is one of three players on Estonia's roster whose fathers had played at the pro level. The same goes for Kristian Kullamae and team veteran Sten Sokk, whose father Tiit had been the starting point guard for the Soviet Union and EuroLeague powerhouse Panathinaikos. 

It looks like in that part of the Baltic region, basketball genes are being passed on from one generation to another. Kriisa says that's the case, and further maintains that Estonia boast the best combination of Under-21 talent in the EuroBasket.

"Right now, we have a mix of older and younger guys. If you took guys from other (EuroBasket) teams, born in 1998, 1999, or 2001, and put them against us, we would beat everybody. That's a fact. If no one believes in the team, you can't play."

Credit FIBA

Kriisa's path has been completely different from what most European players his age choose to do. It's very rare to see a player turn pro, make his EuroLeague debut, and then decide to move overseas to combine college basketball and studies.

Kriisa had a brief stint with Brose Bamberg in 2017, before signing with Lithuanian powerhouse Zalgiris Kaunas. He debuted on the EuroLeague stage in October 2019, when he was 18. But shortly after, he was sent to Prienai to get some meaningful playing time. 

That's the last European basketball has seen of him. In the summer of 2020, he flew over to the States to join Arizona University, just like Steve Kerr had done in 1983.

"Arizona was a great fit," Kriisa reflects.

"If I had stayed with Zalgiris, they would have loaned me out. I didn't really accept that. I wanted to go somewhere where I could improve because I had been loaned out before. I saw how pro-life was in lower-tier teams.

That wasn't my goal and I knew that if I had stayed, my career wouldn't have developed as much as I wanted to. So, I chose the States to get bigger, grow my game, and experience the fans and all the things that college basketball can give you.

It's one of the best decisions in my life."

Having finished his sophomore season at Arizona, one would think that Kriisa has started planning his future as a professional, from a different point of departure this time around. However, the Estonian point guard isn't inclined to do so. 

"I take one day at a time. I don't think about tomorrow. I want us to get better as a team, especially after we lost two games by four points. We need mental toughness to come back and play tomorrow."

So, the question remains. What's next for him?

"Arizona," he firmly replies. "For how many more years? I don't know. We'll see."

Former Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd is running the show for the Arizona Wildcats.

"I like the system and the coaching staff. Actually, I love the coaching staff."

No surprise here either, since last season, Kriisa averaged 9.7 points and 2.5 rebounds in almost 30 minutes. Lloyd thinks that "Kerr is the heart and soul of our team."

This special bond of love and loyalty is hard for anyone to break. Kriisa is letting his potential suitors know that there's nothing that can take him away from Arizona.

"Even if an NBA called me right now, I'd say no," he says without giving it too much thought.

"I stay true to my team, and my coaches. They believe in us. There has to be some kind of loyalty."

With Estonia in need of a small miracle to make the EuroBasket Top 16, Kriisa will have all the time in the world to think about what to do next summer. Declaring for the 2023 NBA Draft is a possibility he hasn't ruled out. 

"We'll see, man. It's early to tell," he says before disappearing from the cameras.

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