Arturs making his own name as a Kurucs
To encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
RIGA (Latvia) - VEF Riga have opened the Basketball Champions League season with a 1-3 mark, but Arturs Kurucs is making the Latvian team a must-watch as the young shooting guard is leaving a mark on the game - not to mention etching out his own spot within his family.
Kurucs has led VEF in scoring the last two BCL games with 21 points against ERA Nymburk and then 19 points against Gaziantep on Gameday 4. For the season, Kurucs is averaging 13.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 53 percent from three-point range and hitting 89 percent of his free throws.
"We didn't start the season very well, especially the last game, where we were leading all game long but in the end lost it," Kurucs said of the 85-81 home loss to Gaziantep in which he hit all four of his three-point attempts, grabbed 5 rebounds, had 3 assists and committed just 1 turnover in 33 minutes of action. "After these losses, we are even hungrier. I feel like we have this winning mentality and all the guys on the team want nothing else but wins."
Kurucs says individually he is happy with the start of his first BCL campaign, in which he is playing 28 minutes a game and has only turned it over 2.3 times a contest.
"Personally, the season has started good. The coach trusts me; I feel comfortable in the team; and I try my best to help the team get wins," added Kurucs, who is also averaging 12.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.3 steals through seven games in the Estonian-Latvian league.
The fact that Kurucs feels comfortable with VEF is a major factor to his early success. The team gives him a feeling of home, with eight of the 12 players on the rosters being Latvians, including Oskars Hlebovickis, who was also born in 2000 and played with Kurucs in the country's youth national team ranks.
Just hearing Latvian being spoken around him was something that Kurucs had missed as he spent the last four seasons in Spain playing in the Baskonian system.
I NEEDED TO GET MY MINUTES HERE AND FEEL THE ATHLETICISM, COMPETITION AND DETAILS THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW IN ORDER TO PLAY AT THIS LEVEL.
"It feels so awesome to be back home and have teammates and friends to whom I can speak in my language mostly; and, of course, having my family at my games and close to me every day. That's the most important thing I missed a lot."
Kurucs is back in his homeland on loan from Baskonia, a decision which was made to help him develop his game since it was less realistic he would get playing time this season with the ACB team.
"The main idea for me coming to VEF was to take a step forward and try myself out at a high level league such as the BCL and the Estonian-Latvian league, where some high level teams are playing. I needed to get my minutes here and feel the athleticism, competition and details that you need to know in order to play at this level," Kurucs said. "We chose VEF because after talking to the coach I felt like this could be a good place for me: where I could get my minutes and help the team in a different ways."
Once it was clear that he would play in the BCL with VEF, Kurucs admits he looked at the other teams in Group C - checking to see if there were any ACB teams. And he won't have to wait much longer to face Iberostar Tenerife on November 19 at home.
"First when I saw our group in the BCL I was searching for ACB clubs. I don't think any explanation is needed for why," he says with a smile. "I just want to see what I can do against the teams I could have already played against with Baskonia. I want to compete against them because from my side I know I'm ready for this kind of level."
ACB debut - against a fellow Latvian
Kurucs actually has already faced one ACB team from the Canary Islands off the coast of northwestern Africa as he made his Spanish top flight debut on February 3, 2019 in Las Palmas against Herbalife Gran Canaria.
"My debut in the ACB was unexpected. It was last 51 seconds of the game and I thought I wouldn't get on the court anymore. And then I heard my name from the coach, so I understood: it's my moment to enjoy and make the best of it," Kurucs said of the appearance, in which he grabbed 1 rebound and took - and missed - one shot in his 51 seconds on the court.
'It was too short of a debut, to be honest, to show everybody what I got; to put all the energy I had collected during those trips with the first team without playing. All the guys told me before if I debut 'just go score', so that's why I got my one shot taken in last seconds of the game."
Playing for Gran Canaria was fellow Latvian Anzejs Pasecniks, a Riga native who headed from VEF to Gran Canaria in 2015. Kurucs enjoyed having experienced that moment with Pasecniks, who is about 4 years older.
"Playing with Anzejs was nice. He congratulated me after the debut. And after that we got to talk a little. We are good friends and this summer we were working out together," Kurucs said.
Kurucs spent all of the 2018-19 season playing for Grupo Eleyco Baskonia in the LEB Silver third Spanish league. In 30 games, Kurucs was given plenty of time to incorporate the things he was learning while practicing with Baskonia's pro team.
"Last season in Spain playing in the LEB Silver was great. It was a place I could try and use all the things I had worked on in practices and use the knowledge I got from the guys from the first team," said Kurucs, who averaged 13.7 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.0 steals while shooting 42 percent on three-pointers in nearly 26 minutes a game. "The club trusted in me. They gave me playing time; they gave me a leadership role in the team so I could improve that skill and get to know how to lead your team during the game and off of the court."
Kurucs is very satisfied with how his first four years in the Baskonia system have worked out.
"I'm super happy with my improvement in Baskonia. We worked on everything, starting with individual workouts on the court and ending with video scouting and details of the game," he said. "I was lucky to start practicing with Baskonia's EuroLeague team from age 16 (his second season in Spain). And that gave me so much experience: being next to professionals and learning to see and do things like them."
Red and white of Latvia
Kurucs came to Baskonia's attention in earnest at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2015, where he averaged 12.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals - all that as a bottom level player a year younger than the rest of the competition. It was the first of many appearances for Latvia for Kurucs, who would average 10.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals the next summer in the same competition.
He also played twice at the FIBA U18 European Championship. First he picked up 6.2 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 2016 and then came the magical summer of 2018 where he helped guide hosts Latvia to the Final of the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 - the country's best-ever result in the tournament after having finished third in 2007 and 2010.
Kurucs collected 14.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals a game in the U18 competition, teaming up with Arturs Zagars, who himself tallied 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.9 steals in making up a dynamic duo that could only be downed in the Knockout Phase by eventual champs Serbia.
That result gave Latvia their third appearance in the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup after finishing ninth in 1999 and 10th in 2011 - with the country hosting the event in 2011.
In the 2019 U19 World Cup, Kurucs and Latvia faced a major challenge as Zagars could not play as he was recovering from a lingering injury. Armed with the task of being the main weapon on an otherwise limited team, Kurucs tried his best, picking up 15.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.1 steals. But Latvia lost all three games in the Group Phase and to the United States in the Round of 16 before knocking off Australia in the Classification 9-12. Kurucs and co. eventually finished 12th with a 1-6 record.
"The U19 World Cup was a hard tournament for me and all the players. Without Zagars on the team all the players had give an extra effort and do things they were not used to doing. I had the responsibility of taking a leadership role on the court and gave my best, both on the offensive and defensive side," he said.
Kurucs admitted that facing the United States in the Round of 16 was a moment he enjoyed.
"The game against the USA team was one of the games I was most excited about. But as the game didn't go as we wanted and we finished the first half down 28 points, our coach decided to take me out of the game to keep me in a good shape and fresh for the next games which were also very important for us," said Kurucs, who ended with 9 points on 2-of-9 shooting and 2 rebounds and 4 turnovers in the 116-66 loss.
Despite only playing 23 minutes, Kurucs said facing the highly-talented Americans was an important lesson.
"I took all I could from it. I loved the speed and athleticism with which the USA team was playing. That was the main thing I took from that game."
Many of the players from the USA team will eventually play in the NBA - superstars such as Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Cade Cunningham and Scott Barnes. And Kurucs would love to face them again one day in the NBA as well. But when those Americans do reach the NBA, there will be a Kurucs playing with or against them in the league: Arturs' older brother Rodions Kurucs.
Rodions Kurucs is almost two full years older than Arturs and started with VEF in 2012, playing there three years and also receiving plenty of acclaim as a high-level talent.
Rodions helped Latvia take second place at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2014, earning a spot on the All-Star Five. He also was named to the All-Tournament Team of the Adidas Next Generation Tournament Kaunas for the 2014-15 season for VEF and even played at the ANGT Finals. And then in July 2015, Rodions signed a four-year contract with Spanish powers Barcelona.
"When I saw my brother getting so much attention as a prospect I was happy and so proud of him," Arturs said of this time early in his brother's career. "When I was younger it was kind of motivating me to follow his footsteps and have all of his achievements and more."
Move of his own
Just weeks after Barcelona came calling for Rodions, Arturs got a call from Spain as well and it was Baskonia with the northern Spanish club offering him an eight-year contract.
"It was a great summer for us and our family. It was all well planned by our agent," Kurucs said. "He really helped us out, getting the best options for our futures. At that moment it was risky because you never know what to expect. But now I can definitely say it worked out for us of both very, very good."
But Kurucs was still five months shy of his 16th birthday and he was moving from northern to southern Europe.
"It was hard to leave our younger brothers and family who always have been so close to us, supporting us on and off the court. At the end of the day, everybody is happy now how things have changed and now we are closer than ever in our family," Kurucs said.
The move to Spain also changed Kurucs' mentality in terms of wanting to follow in Rodions' footsteps.
"When I got to Spain, I had time to be by myself alone - just me and basketball. There I really started to get to know myself: who am I and what my own goals were," he recalled. "So after that moment I stopped the race of trying to follow my brother's achievements and trying to achieve them at the same age he was. I just learned that everybody has his own way and time to shine. I just kept grinding and working my ass off with the hope that one day I will achieve my basketball dreams and goals. But it will come when I will spend enough time working out and when I deserve to achieve my dreams."
Seeing family again … and a third Kurucs basketball brother
Kurucs' next step in achieving those dreams will be back home in Latvia. Riga is actually about 100 kilometers from his hometown of Cesis. But he does take some time to visit the family.
"During the week we have one or two days off - more or less, so I try to balance myself. Although I usually take off days to work on individual stuff, sometimes I go visit my family," Kurucs said.
They say that the youngest ones are usually the best ones, I do not know if @ArtursKurucs and @RODIONS1 will agree, but youngest brother in the family , Ilja Kurucs, splashing some three’s very early. Rodions was one year older the first time I saw him, but they are very similar. pic.twitter.com/ThbWeCj77g— ArtūrsKalnītis (@ArtursKalnitis) March 16, 2019
Visiting the family means also checking in on his 2007-born brother Ilja Kurucs, who has also taken to the game of basketball.
"Ilja is balling out right now, working on his skills and physical condition a lot. He seems to be a mix of Rodions and me. He is tall, fast, smart with a high IQ and super crafty," Kurucs offers as a scouting report of the younger brother. "I think his character and willingness to be better than us will help him now, and I hope he does it and becomes better than us. I will be proud of him."
Kurucs believes Ilja also should follow in his and Rodions' footsteps and venture out of Latvia to excel his development.
Own time to shine
But Arturs Kurucs' main goal in Latvia is not to check in with family. It's about getting better and also helping VEF Riga.
"Our team goal for the BCL this year is to get into the playoffs and get the best out of it," he said.
“NOW I HAVE A GREAT OPPORTUNITY. ALL THE CAMERAS ARE ON ME, ALL THE ATTENTION IS ON ME. NOW IS THE TIME JUST TO SHOW IT.”
And as far as his personal goal, Kurucs said: "I just want to show the skills I have, the ones I have learned during those years in Spain working in silence without showing off on social media so much."
Kurucs said those LEB Silver games were hardly available to anybody and if at all, only in low quality video.
"Now I have a great opportunity. All the cameras are on me, all the attention is on me. Now is the time just to show it."
To show that Arturs Kurucs deserves attention of his own - for his own name.
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