Krejci growing in confidence with Zaragoza and Czechs
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.
ZARAGOZA (Spain) - Putting in the time and learning from veterans is part of the process of going from a prospect to a established player. Vit Krejci knows all about that as his confidence is growing and allowing him to become a real help for both Casademont Zaragoza and the Czech Republic national team.
Krejci won't turn 20 years old until June 19 but he has already provided glimpses of the promise that makes him one of Europe's most interesting talents in the Basketball Champions League.
Krejci has played in 13 of Zaragoza's 16 BCL games thus far and averaged 2.4 points, 1.5 rebounds and 0.8 assists in 9.9 minutes. The highlight was the Gameday 11 home game against Neptunas Klaipeda, when he played a season-high 25 minutes and contributed 9 points, 1 rebound and 5 assists - setting season bests in points and assists.
"Every time I step on the court I enjoy every single moment, and if the game goes well for me, that's even better. That game helped me a lot with my confidence and with coach's confidence in me," said Krejci, who took a season-high nine shots in the 86-70 victory.
Confidence is an important word this season for Krejci, who is playing his first full campaign with Zaragoza's pro team after he signed a three-year deal with the club this off-season.
"Coach (Porfirio Fisac) made it clear what he wanted from me and I am trying to do that because I know that's my only chance to play. There was no pressure about how many points for me to score - just get on the court and be aggressive and don't be scared of anything," said Krejci, who penned the contract in July.
The Basketball Champions League has been a great training ground for Krejci, who has been regularly going against top-level guards like David Holston, Branden Frazier, Jordan Theodore, Bobby Brown and Adrian Banks
"It's amazing. Last summer I had the chance to play against some NBA players with the (Czech) national team but playing every single week against guys like that give you a lot of experience," he said.
All in all, Krejci has been very satisfied with his first season among the professional ranks.
"I am so happy that things worked out good for me here. I love the city and I think we have some of the best fans in Europe who treat me like one of their own, which feels so good. Like I am at home."
Home away from home
Zaragoza, located in northern Spain, has been Krejci's home since 2014, when he left Strakonice, Czech Republic at just 14 years of age.
"I was really young at that age and I remember I just heard the word 'Spain' and I knew that's where I wanted to go. I didn't really realize what a big step it was so when I got to Zaragoza a big reality check hit me, and I realized it's not going to be that easy. But I would never change that decision," Krejci said looking back.
Basketball was always a part of Krejci's life. His father Vit Krejci played locally in Strakonice while his sister Jolana Krejcova, who was born in 1996 and is four years older, was good enough to play for Czech Republic's youth teams, including at the FIBA U18 Women's European Championship 2014 before stopping to become a nurse.
Compatriot helping adjustment
Krejci may have been only 14 years old but he had some help with his transition to a new country. His compatriot Simon Pursl was with Zaragoza, himself still just 16 years old at the time but in his second season with the club.
"Simon helped a lot. He was in Zaragoza for couple seasons so he helped me to meet everybody, helped me with the language and showed me around," Krejci remembered of Pursl, who in 2017 moved back to the Czech Republic to play in the domestic NBL.
He also said his mother was a major help: "My mom was with me the first year which was amazing, and I can't thank her enough for leaving everything at home and coming with me to Spain so I can live my dream."
And his dream was starting with a club which has in recent years really produced some good young talent, including Carlos Alocen, Sergi Garcia, Aitor Etxeguren and 2003-born Danish prospect Gustav Knudsen.
"I think Zaragoza have had one of the best young teams for years now, and everybody can see the results, so a lot of young guys from all over the Europe want to try it here," Krejci said.
The first major club highlight for Krejci came on March, 5, 2017 when the youngster was included on the team's roster against Fuenlabrada. Krejci made it into the game for 14 seconds to make his ACB debut at 16 years and 8 months, tied for second place in club history with Sergi Garcia and behind only Alocen.
"I had a game on Saturday with the B-team and after the game the coach came to me and said that next morning I was going to Madrid with the first team. That was an amazing feeling. I was so exited about getting on the court," Krejci recalled.
He didn't return to the court in the ACB until the 2018-19 season but Krejci learned some valuable lessons from practicing with the top team the campaign before that, especially with Gary Neal, who led the Spanish league in scoring in 2017-18.
"Just his work ethic. Going every day before practice to shoot and doing a lot of different drills with him was just amazing," said Krejci, who played two ACB games in 2018-19.
Czech senior national team debut
The first game that season came in February 2019, which also saw another major highlight as Krejci made his Czech senior national team debut in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers against Bosnia and Herzegovina and France.
Vit Krejci making his Czech senior team debut in the February 2019 FIBA window
"I was nervous before the game but with each minute on the court I felt more and more comfortable and it was an amazing game," Krejci said about the home game against Bosnia in which he went scoreless with 1 rebound and 1 assist in 5 minutes.
"I remember getting onto the court and 14 members of the family came to the game. That was amazing, seeing all my family supporting me and that gave me a lot of energy and confidence."
There's that word again - confidence.
Krejci followed that up with 1 point, 6 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal in 15 minutes in the road game against France.
When asked what his veteran teammates told him about getting on the court, Krejci said: "Just to play my game, don't rush into things, be aggressive and don't be scared."
Big summer 2019
Krejci used that confidence-building experience and carried it over to a big 2019 summer. In July he helped Czech Republic finish second at the FIBA U20 European Championship 2019, Division B to get the country back to the Division A for the first time since 2017.
"It was one of the best feelings ever. I played in Division B for such a long time, trying to get to Division A and it was such a good feeling to finally achieve that. And because it was with the guys one year older than me I finally have the chance to play Division A this summer," said Krejci, who was named to the All-Star Five of the U20 tournament as he averaged 14.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks.
Czech Republic 6-8, 19-year-old guard Vit Krejci showed off his talent against Finland at the U20 Bs with 20 PTS and 8 AST. Big shot creator who can go get a bucket for himself or teammates. The Zaragoza product is now averaging 16 and 8 in 25 minutes through 3 games (all wins). pic.twitter.com/CB3Kf3ooDB— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) July 17, 2019
That result came after playing two summers each in the Division B at the FIBA U16 European Championship and FIBA U18 European Championship. In 2016, Krejci and the Czechs lost in the Quarter-Finals at the U16 level, missing a chance to go up and he got hurt in the final Group Phase game of the U18 tournament in 2018 and had to watch the Czechs lose in the Quarter-Finals to Slovenia.
Krejci then headed to the Czech senior national team training camp for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 with the dream of playing in China.
"That was one of the best times in my life: practicing every day with the best players and playing a lot of good games," said Krejci, who picked out facing Germany and guarding Dennis Schroeder as the main highlight in the exhibition action.
Krejci also benefitted greatly from facing Czech star guard Tomas Satoransky every day at Czech practice.
"I was trying to go against him any time I could, and it was such a good lesson," he said.
Satoransky is a player with whom many observers are comparing Krejci.
"It's normal that people compare us. It's amazing to be compared to the best player right now in Czech Republic, but a lot of pressure too. But I think I have what it takes to be on the same level as him - or even better," Krejci braved.
Krejci ended up not making Czech head coach Ronen Ginzburg's team for China, which was not easy to accept.
"That was really hard for me because I felt like I deserved it. But I had to respect the coach's decision and I am so happy that I could be a part of that team," he said.
Krejci fevered with the team as they came up a spectacular showing in China, finishing in sixth place.
"Basketball wasn't really a big thing in Czech Republic and because of that tournament the popularity of the sport really grew, so it was amazing in a lot of ways," Krejci said.
Source of motivation
Not being in China proved a major motivation for Krejci once he returned to Zaragoza.
"Looking at it now it gave me a lot of motivation because I didn't want it to happen again," he said.
Krejci really showed his promise his next chance with the Czech national team at the February 2020 FIBA window in the qualifiers for FIBA EuroBasket 2021, which Czech Republic will be co-hosting.
"Although we are already in the tournament we still wanted to win and I didn't think I was going to have that much of a role and playing those minutes, but it felt great and I think I showed my coach he can count on me in the future," said Krejci, who averaged 21 minutes, 5.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in a home win over Denmark and a road loss at Lithuania.
He understands that his role may be different at EuroBasket 2021 as the Czechs will have mostly the same group of leaders from the World Cup team.
"I know there is a lot of work to do and I can't expect the same role I had in this window for rest of the games with the national team. So I just need to practice hard and show the coach he can trust me to be consistent."
But the games against Denmark and Lithuania gave Krejci something invaluable upon his return to Zaragoza.
"A lot of confidence … not being on the court that much here (at Zaragoza) sometimes I lose confidence in myself, but it's good to get that confidence back with the national team."
Consistency and confidence are the two biggest things that Krejci has learned this season - things which could eventually lead him to be a leader for both the Czechs and Zaragoza.