Maccabi Tel Aviv tips-off against Valencia in Euroleague action at Yad Eliyahu on Thursday at 21:05 as the Yellow & Blue will look to break a four game losing streak. Their Spanish foes will also be looking to get back onto the winning track after falling to Anadolu EFES earlier in the week.
One of the Jaume Ponsarnau’s most important players this season has undoubtedly been Nikola Kalinic who joined Valencia after playing for five seasons with Fenerbahce. With a 14-13 record and in tenth place, the ACB side is primed to make a move into the Top 8 and clinch a postseason spot with seven games to go.
Just after earning the Euroleague Player of the Month Award for the month February for the first time in his career, Kalinic who averaged 15.3 points, 5.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals for a 21.3 PIR joined The Sports Rabbi for a conversation about his move to a new country, his role with the club, how Valencia will punch their ticket to the playoffs and about his the newly bestowed honor.
“After a loss it doesn’t feel so good, but it’s always an honor and to have the recognition for what you did in the previous month. But it won’t mean too much if Valencia doesn’t get to the top 8 and that is our main goal and focus.”
In order to get into the postseason with seven games remaining, Kalinic feels that the club’s chances are good as they ready to face the likes of Maccabi, Khimki, Olympiacos, Baskonia, Alba amongst others, “First we need to try and win against Maccabi and we have a decent schedule coming up where we can win against teams that are at our level. It will be interesting and if we win 4-5 games we should be good but it won’t be an easy challenge.”
Following five seasons with Fenerbahce, Kalinic moved on from Istanbul and found a new home just south of Barcelona in the city of Valencia, “I needed a change and perhaps I stayed a little longer the I even expected. Everything was good at the club but I needed a change from the city, the weather and basketball philosophy and try a level less than Fenerbahce to see if I was capable with a different club. So far it has been going pretty well as the coaches trust me as well as the teammates and we are playing decent basketball. The best is yet to come.”
Kalinic captured the 2017 Euroleague title with Fenerbahce and is known as a quiet leader on the court, but when asked, he explained what he offers as a veteran to his new club, “That is a question for others around the club, but I’m trying to lead through my mentality, philosophy and work ethic, not just by scoring points.
Playing in Spain is very different than most leagues in the world as the ACB is extremely strong with 4 Euroleague clubs and many others who participate in the EuroCup and Champions League. “There are a lot of teams that play incredible ball and the league is much more tactical than the Turkish league. In Turkey a few years ago when I was with Feberbahce it was similar with 5 teams in the Euroleague and 3 in the EuroCup but they have bee struggling of late.”
Having played under Coach Zeljko Obradovic and now Coach Ponsarnau there are some similarities as well as some differences, “There isn’t much of a difference but coach Ponsarnau gives me a bit more freedom and let’s us play.”
Growing up Kalinic had a number of players that he admired both from Serbia as well as from the NBA, “There were a lot of players that but Peja Stojaković was one and of course Kobe Bryant who is a legend was another. Gotta give him the respect.
Serbia played the United States for the Olympic Gold Medal at the 2016 Rio De Janeiro games and despite falling to the Americans in the final, Kalinic was very proud of how his country performed, “It was a great run for us and we have been growing year to year. We saw that we could do a lot and we played great with a lot of motivation and heart. To play the Americans in the final was a great memory.”
As for the immediate task at hand, Kalinic knows what type of test Valencia is up against at Maccabi Tel Aviv, “We need to measure our toughness and Maccabi are very athletic and tough. We will need to respond to their game and while I don’t want to mention one player, Scottie Wilbekin is the main focus and this is most important for us to do.”