“Step by step” is how Adam Hanga describes his approach, to both basketball and life. It’s a philosophy that the rangy Hungarian has applied to great effect over recent years, with a couple of huge strides in the past twelve months.
First, he helped Baskonia to their first Euroleague Final Four since 2008, as well as the ACB semi-finals. Now this summer he has returned after a three year absence to the Hungarian national team as its focal point and leader, propelling them to Eurobasket for the first time in 18 years.
Hanga talked to ELA in London ahead of and after the 88-80 come from behind victory that sealed their momentous qualification. He was eager to talk, after signing and posing for photos with at least a dozen jubilant Hungarian fans. The laid-back but confident wingman seems ready for the challenge of trying to emulate the Basques’ phenomenal run to narrowly miss out Euroleague glory.
Baskonia was something of a glorious accident last season, a collision of players thrown together to produce a beautiful flame rather than the ugly explosion some people expected. A club not known for its organisational stability somehow found a combination of personalities as well as on-court skills that created one of the most spectacular rosters in recent Euroleague history. Hanga himself was loaned to Italian league team Sidigas Avellino in 2014/15 and was by no means thought of as a potential crucial factor on a Final Four team.
Spurs and Flying Tigers
But now a lot of the protagonists in a team that was one possession away from reaching the Euroleague final have been scattered to the wind. Ioannis Bourousis and Mike James will be teaming up at Panathinaikos; Darius Adams will be pulling up trees and pulling up for threes as a Xinjiang Flying Tiger; Fabien Causeur took his craftiness on the wing to Bamberg and Davis Bertans will be another one of San Antonio’s ‘unknown’ imports wowing NBA pundits who weren’t paying much prior attention. The sideline alchemist behind it all, Velimir Perasovic, has returned to Anadolu Efes.
It’s one of the saddest aspects of European basketball that two of the 2016 Final Four teams had no realistic hope of keeping their squads intact. But the game moves on, and Hanga is in no mood to dwell, looking ahead to a longer, more tiring season with the new Euroleague format, and now a Eurobasket tournament at the end of it.
Hanga is one of the holdovers in Vitoria-Gastiez, along with Kim Tillie, Jaka Blazic, Toko Shengelia and Ilimane Diop, but they came close to losing him as well.
“Barcelona wanted me, it was a negotiation between the two clubs, but the negotiations stopped.”
He was referring to the bizarre summer rumour that suggested Barcelona would send footballers to Alaves, the football team owned by Baskonia president Josean Querejeta. That detail proved to be groundless, but the interest from Catalunya in Hanga was real. If it had progressed further, Hanga would have been up for the move - “if it would have come to that point, I was ready to switch, but if not, my goal was to play in Euroleague, and actually I’m happy to stay with Baskonia.”
The Hungarian is exactly the kind of defensive flamethrower that every top club is looking for. No fast break was truly an easy score if he was chasing it down and he racked up 1.68 swats per game from the perimeter, ranking fourth overall.
It’s a role he expects to continue next season in the new-look Baskonia. A video compilation of his blocks from last season cribbed from Synergy ran to almost ten minutes, and was the thrilling flipside to Adams, James and Bourousis’ offensive flair.
“I think my role is gonna be the same, I’m gonna try to play really good defense, run the floor and help the team in any way possible, but I hope I’m gonna have little bit more responsibility on offense. Because I wanna improve my game, and y’know that’s the point of basketball.”
Hanga knows he will have to develop into a more rounded offensive player in order for Baskonia to continue challenging at the top end of Euroleague and the ACB, but also for his own career goals. He is clearly both proud and happy to represent his country this summer and to take them to Eurobasket, but savvy enough to recognise that it’s an opportunity for self-improvement too.
It’s not that Hanga can’t score, but he’s never really had the ball in his hands as an initiator, more a clever finisher of shots created for him. He laughed when ELA asked him about playing with a certain Greek magician last season:
“It was amazing playing with Bourousis because of how he can see the court. I think maybe 30% of my points came from him because I was cutting!”
Life without his road-trip roommate will certainly be different on and off the court. He smiled when asked to recall the experience. “I spent a lot of time with him and he’s an amazing guy. He has a funny nature, I can’t really explain but sometimes you can’t really tell if he’s joking or if he’s serious. After a while I can tell, but some people can’t really tell if he’s trying to tell you a joke or if he’s serious.”
New team, new challenge
Hanga is under no illusions that it will be a different team and a steep learning curve for the newly assembled roster, which because of injuries and national team duty has yet to play a single minute together, two weeks before the Supercopa - in Vitoria-Gastiez no less - raises the curtain on the domestic season.
“I think it’s gonna be different for sure, like you said we changed a lot of players. I watched a couple of pre-season games and obviously I talked to the coach, I’m just receiving all the sets and everything, so I’m trying to prepare myself… it’s gonna be really hard for us to do a year just like we did last year, it’s gonna be a lot of pressure because the fans, people are gonna think we can repeat that, and it’s gonna be really hard. We have a couple of players who came from the NBA so it’s gonna be a different game, for sure they have to adapt to European basketball, which is gonna be really hard.”
It may have been a summer of upheaval in the heart of Pais Vasco but not all is lost. To replace Adams and James’ whirring centrifuge of an offense in the backcourt, the club have brought in Rodrigue Beaubois and Shane Larkin, one of the direct NBA transfers Hanga mentioned above. As he says, there may be a period of adjustment to the different culture, rhythm and challenges of life on the old continent, but in terms of pure speed, there won’t be a guard pairing to match them.
Larkin may not have been able to stick as a bench scorer in the NBA, but he won ACC Coaches’ Player of the Year in 2013 and led University of Miami to the Sweet 16. A look at his college highlights shows a guy who can score from all over the floor, and that is likely to be the kind of player Baskonia is expecting to get as his European career begins.
“They are kinda similar players” says Hanga, comparing Larkin and Beaubois to Adams and James. “I only know them from video, but for sure we’re gonna have an explosive team.”
One of the underrated aspects of Adams and James’ games was their full commitment to fighting round screens and challenging shots on the defensive end. If Roddy Buckets and his new compadre can match that effort at least, they might have a shot.
The other NBA arriviste is Andrea Bargnani, who has by far the biggest shoes to fill, and the absence of Bourousis as a high post Point God is likely to pose the biggest obstacle in replicating last season’s adventures. On the flipside, Sito Alonso could well be the mastermind to get the most out of this collection of players.
Alonso was at the helm when RETAbet.es GBC - then going under the less conspicuous sponsorship title of Lagun Aro - reached the Copa del Rey and ACB playoffs in 2012, and he took Bilbao to the Copa del Rey semi-finals and Eurocup Last 32, all without the budget to attract many big name players.
Alonso’s Baskonia probably won’t play particularly quick - after ranking third in pace in the ACB in 2012 his teams averaged 15th - but they will share the ball, use clever, well designed plays to free up shooters, plenty of off-ball screens and quick movement. The remaining Baskonistas should be able to pick up where they left off with Perasovic.
Hanga will have to face tougher defensive challenges than Great Britain, Macedonia and Luxembourg, but the reps picked up with the national team could be crucial in expanding his role as more of an offensive cornerstone.
In the opening victory over Great Britain he poured in 32 points, the opponents seemingly unaware of the latent possibility of such an event. Ten days later in London he was hedged hard into double teams, and struggled to find the space to score.
But the way he racked up eight assists in that second win over the Brits by calmly picking out the open man, particularly as Hungary made their second comeback from a 12-point deficit, was a sign that his playmaking skills are not limited to creating his own shot. “I’m really happy, because that was my plan, all the way along before I started the preparation, I wanted to develop my game, and I think in the pick and roll I can develop a lot.”
His career best three-point shooting mark is 35.3% with Manresa in 2012/13, and he didn’t crack 30% for Baskonia in either ACB or Euroleague last season. It’s the one hole in an expanding offensive game, and one he’ll have to improve on without the benefit of a 2.10m Greek playmaker feeding him choice cuts. But at least if he has more confidence and experience as a secondary ball handler in pick and roll, he should be even tougher for opposing teams to scheme against.
No time to prepare
Time is catching up fast with Alonso and his new charges, and Hanga was candid in admitting that they might not be the finished product right away. “It’s a long process I think. The season is really long so we don’t have to play the best basketball from the beginning of the season, we’ll improve as a team and we have to get better day by day.”
It might not please the marketing team at Euroleague that the lack of immediate pressure to qualify might see some squads playing themselves into shape, but it’s an unavoidable factor that the season is now a slog, with more subtle ebbs and flows, rather than a succession of distinct phases. As players and coaches adjust, it remains to be seen whether a possible slow start can be overcome, or if an inability to go full gas from the gun will be fatal, especially for teams likely to be on the playoff bubble.
So although the prospect of a 10-month grind awaits, finishing with Eurobasket, as it dawned on him immediately after the win in London, he seemed to be excited and quietly confident about what lies ahead. “I think Euroleague with the new format, will be good. It’s gonna be really exciting, with back to back games, playing all the teams, three games in a week, it’s gonna be really tiring for sure but it’s gonna be really exciting.”
Of course, the Jerry West silhouette-shaped elephant in the room is ever-present, as it will be in more European locker rooms since the salary cap explosion. Erstwhile teammate Davis Bertans finally joined up with San Antonio, the team that also drafted Hanga, with the 59th pick in 2011. Unbound by the rookie scale and with the athleticism and skill to defend NBA wings and protect the rim, it’s a tempting proposition for both player and team, one that he openly admits:
“It has to be my goal. I can’t deny it. Every player wants to play in the NBA one day.”
Whether he can build on those playmaking skills and hit at least 35% from deep are likely to be the make or break factors in his next move. One year remains on his current contract, and given the financial situation across most European clubs, making predictions on the market one year in advance seems foolish.
But for now he seems happy to be in Vitoria-Gastiez, happy to take another step towards whatever the future holds. “I’m happy to stay, the people know me, and I like to play there, I like the city. We’re just having a second baby so my wife will deliver the baby there, and I’m happy to be back.”
In the midst of learning the names and composing songs dedicated to a whole new cast of characters, Baskonia fans will be delighted to hear his parting words:
“First of all for sure we want to enjoy playing with each other. Obviously we have to be successful, because in Baskonia I know the fans and that’s what they want!”
The Vitoria-Gastiez faithful might not know what to expect this year, but Hanga will keep taking it step-by-step. The fans might get what they want after all.