Sasha Vezenkov: Teammates' confidence proves MVP-level greatness

Edvinas Jablonskis
Daily Editor
2023-03-17 10:00

Thomas Walkup, Shaquielle McKissic, Giannoulis Larentzakis, and Sasha Vezenkov himself react to his game-winner against Zalgiris, while head coach Giorgos Bartzokas gives advice to his star.

Credit: D.Lukšta

28.9 seconds left on the clock, as EuroLeague leaders Olympiacos Piraeus (21-8) having a fierce battle away from home against Zalgiris Kaunas.

At this point, Sasha Vezenkov has only two points in the fourth quarter after missing a 3-pointer and sinking his 8th straight 2-pointer.

Vezenkov gets free from Arnas Butkevicius to receive a mismatch against Tomas Dimsa. Shaquille McKissic notices it and gives the ball to Thomas Walkup, who instantly delivers it to Vezenkov.

With four seconds on the shot clock, Vezenkov turns around and, in the face of Dimsa, buries his first-ever game-winner in the EuroLeague, securing a 74-72 win for Olympiacos.

"Everything was according to the plan," Vezenkov told BasketNews about the last possession. "Coach [Bartzokas], Shaq [McKissic], and Thomas [Walkup] believed that the ball has come to me. I was ready and just shot the ball without thinking much. Then, the defense we played in the last 6 seconds was crucial, too."

However, not everyone was so calm during the final stretch, as McKissic admitted he thought Vezenkov's shot was not going in.

"When it left his hands, I thought it was short. And when it went in, I just looked at him, and I was stunned," McKissic admitted to BasketNews Senior Staff Writer Donatas Urbonas. "He said he couldn't even see the basket, so... That's incredible."

"Usually, it's 50/50," head coach Giorgos Bartzokas said after being asked whether he trusts Vezenkov in clutch situations or Olympiacos star asks for such a responsibility himself. "It's about the trust and faith his teammates have to give him the ball."

However, there's one thing all Vezenkov's teammates agreed on – it's the work he puts in.

"In practice for the last two weeks, the way the ball rotates in the sky, I think it's short every time. So I was just yelling out, 'short!' And every single time, he has been making it. And this had the same exact effect," recalled McKissic.

"Every shot is an easy shot for Sasha," Thomas Walkup told Pijus Sapetka from BasketNews. "He is playing with such confidence. It's fun to share the court with him at this moment. I am really happy for him because all these shots, he works on them, he shoots them. To me, it seems like every single shot for Sasha is a really good shot."

Credit Olympiacos BC

"Sasha has that talent, I think he's the MVP of the season," Giannoulis Larentzakis said when talking to BasketNews. "He has a big talent, he made all 2-pointers tonight, and he took a shot he works on every day in practice."

It was the second Vezenkov's game-winner in less than two weeks, as the Bulgarian star knocked down a crucial 3-pointer to give Olympiacos an 80-79 win against Kolossos Rhodes in the Greek League.

"I feel good," Vezenkov admitted. "The team is winning, and as long as we continue that, I'll be happy."

But it wasn't only about the game-winner yesterday. Vezenkov finished the game against Zalgiris with 25 points (9/9 2PT, 2/7 3PT, 1/1 FT), 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 32 PIR.

And some might say those 25 points were rather quiet if not for the game-winner, even though Vezenkov was only 3 shots shy of the EuroLeague record held by Gustavo Ayon, who made 11 of 11 2-pointers in 2019 against Fenerbahce.

"I think it's always like that," Vezenkov laughed. "I don't care about anything [but] winning. The only thing is to finish as high as possible in the rankings and think about the playoffs."

Vezenkov leads in 3 of 4 main EuroLeague categories this season. He's the first in points (18.2 PPG), rebounds (7.2 RPG), and efficiency ranking (22.8 PIR).

Inevitably, many people have talked about Vezenkov as a clear MVP for almost a couple of months now. So, how does he distance himself from all those talks and keep producing at the highest level possible?

"By having great people around me," Vezenkov stresses. "My family, everybody who interacts with me every day. My teammates, coaching staff. Everybody knows we are fighting for a goal. It's the only thing I care [about] – to work every day and be the same guy."

That's the exact advice Bartzokas gave his star in the post-game conference while not forgetting about the whole team's effort.

"To keep on working with the same attitude. Compete in every practice and game with the same behavior and attitude he already has. Sasha is a great player, but you can see how many layups he scored when he's moving away from the ball," Bartzokas said.

"He's really smart and can decide when he cuts to the basket. But how many passes did he receive from teammates when he cut to the basket? I'm talking about 6-7 baskets. Sasha knows how to move away from the ball, but our team can find where he is and at which exact moment he wants the ball.

Even after such a fantastic performance [of Vezenkov], I really believe that most of it was a team's performance," Bartzokas concluded.

With EuroLeague playoffs approaching, Olympiacos are firing on all cylinders, and with Vezenkov in front, the Greek powerhouse has all the confidence they need to reach the top.


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