Hapoel Holon begins the Basketball Champions League Round of 16 Group Stage with a trip to France where they will take on Strasbourg to open the second round of the competition. Guy Goodes will match up against Italian mastermind Luca Banchi who recently took over the reins from Finland National Team coach Lassi Tuovi.
Banchi who is also the Latvia National Team bench boss arrived to coach in France for the first time in his lengthy career and also brought along a player that he both knows well in Rodions Kurics.
The Latvian forward began his youth career with VEF Riga and moved to Barcelona where he played for the majority of his time in the club’s junior and reserve team before being selected by the Brooklyn Nets 40th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft.
The 24-year old played for two plus seasons with the Nets while also playing his trade with the Bucks and Rockets before heading back to Europe where he featured for one campaign at Partizan Belgrade together with Israeli guard Yam Madar. This season, Kurucs began the year in Spain at Real Betis but with the appointment of Banchi at Strasbourg, the Latvian moved to France and has been stellar so far in his short time with Strasbourg.
Just ahead of the Purples opening game of the Round of 16, The Sports Rabbi spoke to Kurucs about his time with in the NBA, if Madar can make the jump to the world’s best league, the person who most impacted his career, the upcoming clash and how he has been enjoying his time so far in France.
“I love it here in France,” Kurucs began. “The basketball is more like an American style of basketball and it fits me more. It’s fast, athletic and physical and I am in a good system with my national team coach along with the club and organization.”
At Strasbourg, Kurucs was able to join forces with head coach Luca Banchi in what seems to be a perfect fit, “I like him as a person, he is great. He knows the psychology as to how to talk to players and knows how to get the best out of the players. Personally he gives me confidence and talks to me all the time and helps me get better whether it’s in an aggressive or softer manner. He knows how to read me and it’s been very enjoyable.”
The French side had a tough start to the domestic league season but are now 4-1 since Kurucs’s arrival, “We have been playing really well, but have struggled with injuries. It’s been a next guy up mentality and this has really helped as we have a great group of guys who are all working towards a goal where we support each other. He wants to bring that kind of basketball and this is the same that is in our national team, in Latvia. That style of play and that is the best key to our success.”
Under Banchi, Kurucs has begun to flourish as he is averaging 12.8 points and 6 rebounds in five league game so far which marks the highest average in his senior team career. The forward explained that his role is expanding under Banchi and that is having the opportunity to do more on the court than ever before.
“I am just doing my job. Luca told me what he wanted more from me and wants me to really learn some things which I wasn’t doing for years. I was a guy who does the little things, rebounds, 50/50 balls and scores easy points but he wants me to be a guy that will participate in the team offense and I approach it really seriously. I am working towards that to be a player who can do little things but also can affect both sides of the ball offensively and defensively.”
When Kurucs was growing up his grandfather, legendary Latvian coach Vladimirs Kiselovs was very influential in the development of his career and in fact, still is, “In fact, he is right here with me now and visiting me is Strasbourg. He is always around and visiting me and I have been working with him since I was a child. He is mentoring me all the time, even when he doesn’t need to say anything, he will tell me what was good and what was bad and what I could do better. He is always impacting my game and he wants me to get better every day.”
Kurucs had the opportunity to work on his play as a youngster at Barcelona between 2015-2018 but due to extraneous circumstances it didn’t go exactly the way he would have wanted it to, “It was a great and as a young guy. I didn’t understand basketball and I wanted to enjoy the game. I understood what it was to have an injury and I tore my Meniscus twice so I was able to also experience hard times. I struggled with my body and I spent time working on approaching how to strengthen it and build it up.”
In 2018, Kurucs was taken 40th overall by the Nets in the second round of the NBA Draft and began his North American career where he had the opportunity to play with the likes of Kevin Durant before being shipped off to Houston as part of the James Harden trade while also being cut by the Bucks ahead of the 2021 playoffs
“Everything worked well. We had an underdog group in the first year with Kenny Atkinson and we played hard and tough basketball which is the same that we are playing here in Strasbourg and we played all together. It was fun to play together and everyone had a role on the team. Then Kyrie and KD came and it was great. I got to work with them and see how they practice and I would also practice against them and guard them. It was amazing to see how they approach practices and they would come an hour or even more before to work on their game, it was great to see.”
“The next season I was part of the Harden trade and they were in the process of a rebuilding project in Houston. I then went to the Bucks it was fun, European basketball type of style and again I practiced against the greats and I was able to see how they are on and off the court. But it didn’t last long and I wish I could have seen the championship.”
While Kurucs would like to eventually try his hand again in the NBA, right now that is not his to priority, “I am not really focusing on that right now. I am trying to establish my game and how to impact the game in different ways, like with what Luca is doing. I am working on being consistent with my routines and focusing on the World Cup with the national team which will be in in for the first time in the country’s history.”
“I think I am still young and that I have room to grow. That is where my focus is. I have to become a solid player if I want to go back to NBA and I want to establish my game and have reason to return where I won’t just sit on the bench but be able to make an impact on the court.”
Kurucs had the chance to share the court in Belgrade with budding Israeli guard Yam Madar at Partizan and feels that the Sabra is oozing with potential, “He is a great guy, I love him a lot and I enjoy him a lot. He is still super young and has potential, that’s why he was drafted by the Celtics. He has talent to be in the NBA 100%. He will be a great point guard and he is crafty quick, makes right decisions, take the right shots and defends really well. He has a great personality.”
Strasbourg have some big Basketball Champions League games coming up as they are in a group with not only Hapoel Holon but also Hapoel Jerusalem and JDA Dijon, “We have some adversity and we have to face that as we are struggling with injuries and guys will have to play multiple positions. We are playing hard basketball and we will play hard defense. Holon have a great shooting team so we will need to stick to the game plan and do what we have been doing in the French league.”
One advantage that Kurucs and Strasbourg has as they begin the Round of 16 is that they begin at home in front of their own fans which will be a help, “Home games are amazing and it’s great to play at home and start the round in front of our crowd as they help us a lot. They have been great since I have been here and they are helping us on the court and give us lots of energy.”