In shadows of Danilovic and Ginobili, Pajola honored with chance to play for Virtus
To help 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.
BOLOGNA (Italy) - Segafredo Virtus Bologna is back - the club which was carried to the top of Europe by the likes of Predrag Danilovic and Manu Ginobili. And 19-year-old Alessandro Pajola feels honored to be playing in the same black and white as those greats did while also learning from the side’s current stars.
Pajola is actually a beach guy, hailing from Ancona, located on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, where he has spent many a day or evening hanging out and having fun with his friends. Bologna meanwhile is located about 50 kilometers from the sea, but Pajola still has been enjoying his home away from home for now his fourth season.
“Yes I’m a beach guy, but I also really like walking through the city center, especially in a city like Bologna. That is wonderful.”
Another attraction in Bologna
Bologna was founded around 500 BC and its main attractions include the central square Piazza Maggiore featuring the massive San Petronio church and the famed former University of Bologna building Archiginnasio. But basketball lovers in Bologna are just as crazy about the names Danilovic and Ginobili, who helped Virtus to the 1998 and 2001 EuroLeague titles, respectively with Ettore Messina at the helm.
And the Black V faithful have a new young name to start following with Pajola, who actually made his Serie A debut with the club on April 24, 2016 against Maniotal Torino - as a 16-year-old and in a huge contest as both teams were fighting against relegation. Bologna wound up getting the win at home 73-64 on the penultimate game day but lost at Reggio Emilia the last week of the season and were dropped to Serie A2.
“It was one of the most important games of that season, the team played a really tough game and a big win. I was really young but I had the opportunity to play some seconds,” Pajola looked back.
That first Serie A experience was one of many which shaped the young career of the 6ft 4in (1.93m) point guard, who found basketball when he was 3 years old at the practices of his 5-year-old brother Lorenzo.
Basketball found Alessandro Pajola at age 3 along the shores of the Adriatic Sea in Ancona.
“I used to play with every ball around the court. The coach was tired of seeing me playing around the court so he suggested to my mother to sign me up with the 1998-born team,” the 1999-born Pajola remembered.
Pajola would eventually be found by Virtus and moved to Bologna in July 2015, which meant looking at the game differently.
“It was a big change. When I moved to Virtus I started trying to see basketball as my future. In Ancona I just had a lot of fun when I played,” he said. “As soon as I moved I started to practice with the first team. So I had a little bit of trouble mainly physically.”
After his first season with Virtus, Alessandro Pajola played for Italy at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2016 and etched his name in the country's basketball annals alongside Luigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari.
Before his move to Bologna, Pajola represented Italy for the first time in a FIBA competition, averaging 3.9 points, 3.5 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 2.6 steals at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2015. The next summer he played as a bottom level player at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2016 and helped Italy clinch third place - the country’s first U18 European podium since 2005 when Luigi Datome and Danilo Gallinari also won the bronze. That result also gave Pajola the chance to get his first taste of the global stage as Italy qualified for the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2017.
Learning experience against future NBA players
Before Pajola and Italy made their way to Egypt for the 2017 U19 World Cup, the point guard was able to take advantage of the unfortunate situation at Virtus, the storied franchise which had won three European titles, 15 Italian League titles and eight Italian cups but had dropped to the Serie B for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
“I was really lucky in the misfortune of the club because I was able to play a lot of minutes in second division,” said Pajola, who averaged 2.0 points, 1.0 rebounds, 0.5 assists and 0.5 steals in 9.0 minutes over 27 games - five times playing at least 17 minutes and three times scoring at least 11 points. All that as a 17-year-old.
“I was so lucky to find a coach like (Alessandro) Ramagli and teammates with a lot of experience. In this way I could learn a lot of things.”
Pajola also learned about making history in helping get the Black V back to the Serie A.
“For sure it is an honor. Playing and growing up in a club that was European champion and had former players like Ginobili or Danilovic and others makes me very proud. Also helping the club to get back in the first division, where it deserves to stay, made me really happy.”
After that high came the 2017 U19 World Cup in the summer, which initially proved to be an eye-opening dose of reality but ended up being the highlight of Pajola's career thus far.
In Italy’s third game in the Egyptian metropolis, they faced the mighty United States, who were playing with what could have been described as a C-roster of eligible players but still had a team that already has produced three players already in the NBA (Hamidou Diallo, Oklahoma City, Josh Okogie, Minnesota, and Kevin Huerter, Atlanta) and one currently in the G-League (Brandon McCoy, Wisconsin) along with current college stars playing for Duke (Cameron Reddish) and Kentucky (Immanuel Quickley and PJ Washington), not to mention the legendary Kentucky coach John Calipari. Pajola was clearly overmatched against the United States and fouled out with 0 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 turnovers in 10 minutes.
“It was a really hard game because of the USA athleticism and talent,” Pajola admitted about the 98-65 loss. “We started the game too soft and recovering the gap was really difficult.”
That blowout was not just a lesson to Pajola, but to his whole team.
“Thanks to that game we understood our mistakes and we had the chance to adjust a lot of things, especially on defense,” Pajola said.
Gregor Fucka (here at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 1998) played on the last Italy team that won a medal at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in 1991.
Italy then fended off Japan and Lithuania in the first two rounds of the knockout phase before knocking off Spain in the Semi-Finals to secure Italy their first U19 medal since grabbing silver in 1991 - when Gregor Fucka was the star of the team and eight years before Pajola was born.
“It was incredible. I needed a long time to understand what we did,” said Pajola, who averaged 1.7 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists for the tournament. “We were a really great group, we trusted each other and most of all we trusted in our coach (Andrea Capobianco), who helped us in every situation. I’m really proud to be a part of that team, we wrote a big page of history for the Italian basketball nation.”
Italy ended up having no chance in the Final as they lost to a Canada team that was playing otherworldly thanks to RJ Barrett, falling 79-60 in the title game. But Italy had their medal - one step higher on the podium than the United States - and Pajola had taken the lessons from the Serie B and added to them in Egypt in achieving the top highlight so far in his career.
Alessandro Pajola and Italy lost to Canada and RJ Barrett in the Final of the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2017.
“I learned a big thing from that tournament: if you play for something that you really believe you can reach, it doesn’t matter the talent or the skills or anything else. If you play with brains and heart, you can do it.”
Calmly idolizing Nash and European playmaking legends
One of the main characteristics of Pajola on the court is his calm demeanour as he runs things from the point guard spot.
“That comes from my personality and from the education that my parents gave me,” Pajola said. “I try to always be polite, on the court and especially off the court. I want to always smile and enjoy everything that life gives me.”
The Pajola brothers grew up watching the European game.
“From the beginning, my family was a EuroLeague fan. So I grew up watching the games and the moves of (Vassilis) Spanoulis, (Sarunas) Jasikevicius, (Dimitris) Diamanditis and Terrell McIntyre. But Alessandro’s absolute basketball idol was two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash.
When asked what attracted him to those players, Pajola answered: “For sure their ability to play under control in every situation of the game. They always had the game in their hands, controlling the rhythm and the flow.”
The other defining trait of Pajola on the court is his defense - especially the passion which he has for that side of the ball.
“In my opinion, it is the most important part of the game. Playing defense is a mix of physical skills and mental skills,” Pajola said.
Asked to give a description of Alessandro Pajola the player, he said: “I think I’m a good defender. I try to always be focused on what is going on and be aggressive. I have to improve a lot on offense, on the shot and dribbling.”
No worries about Alessandro Pajola going all-out at the defensive end and getting on the floor for a loose ball.
Armed with a U19 silver medal as well as a year of playing with Bologna’s top side - albeit in the SerieB - Pajola was ready to show what he can do last season in the club’s return to the top flight. He ended up averaging 1.6 points, 1.6 rebounds, 0.8 assists and 0.6 steals in 12 minutes. Those stats helped him place third in the race for Italy’s best U22 player behind winner Diego Flaccadori and runner-up Leonardo Candi - that as an 18-year-old.
“I was really proud. It was the first year I played in the first division, so it was an honor to receive that recognition,” said Pajola, who also played on Bologna’s U20 team last season.
A third leaning tower in Bologna
A couple of other names well known in Bologna are Asinelli and Garisenda - two towers in the city that don’t stand straight up and are well overshadowed in Italia by the leaning tower of Pisa. While it might be hard at first glance to see Asinelli’s 2.23 meter tilt, the lean of the much shorter Garisenda is much more evident at 3.2 meters.
Bologna is a lively, historic city in northern Italy known for having the western world’s oldest university. It is also home to the two tallest leaning towers of Italy - the Asinelli Tower and the Garisenda Tower. 📷: @ansharphoto pic.twitter.com/lYqLiqqvu3— HappyTours (@happy_tours) September 28, 2018
While Pajola doesn’t have a tilt, he has been leaning on others in Bologna. This is Alessandro’s second season playing alongside Italian international leaders Pietro Aradori.
"Pietro is one of the most talented players I have ever played with,” Pajola said. “He can score in any way and he always knows where the basket is. I try to watch his moves on offense and learn from them.”
Pietro Aradori has been a great source of information for the past season and a half for Alessandro Pajola.
Practice has been invaluable for Pajola as well as he goes head-to-head with starting point guard Tony Taylor, who has loads of European club experience including playing last season in the Basketball Champions League at Banvit.
“It is really good for me to play against him every day, for sure for my defense but also for my offense because of his ability to be aggressive on defense,” Pajola said. “The first thing I try to learn from him is his leadership and his ability to put the team on his shoulders.”
And then there’s just the joy of playing alongside Kevin Punter.
“It’s a lot of fun. Really, when he is on fire we just pass him the ball and enjoy his talent,” Pajola admitted.
But expectations are starting to rise for Pajola, who is working and playing only with the club’s professional side. Coming into the season, he said wanted to help the team and “try to be ready every time the coach called me”.
His help would come in the form of first and foremost playing hard defense, pressing the ball full court and helping the big men on defensive rebounds. Offensively, Pajola looks to move the ball and find teammates while always being ready beyond the three-point line to take the open shot.
Pajola has really been happy about working with head coach Stefano Sacripanti, who has coached a lot of Italian youth national teams.
Virtus head coach Stefano Sacripanti is used to working with young players, which is part of the reason things are working so well with Alessandro Pajola.
“For sure he is a good coach. He is helping me to improve my technique in shooting,” Pajola said.
His numbers this season are actually a shade better in the Basketball Champions League than in the Serie A: 3.0 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals in 10.7 minutes in the BCL and 0.9 points, 0.6 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 8.6 minutes in the Serie A.
The opportunity to play internationally at the club level is massive.
“It means a lot. I have the chance to play against great players and great teams. So I can only learn from it,” Pajola said. “The BCL helps me a lot. I can see a lot of different ways to play, the different choices that every team makes on defense.”
Pajola has taken the role as backup point guard and defensive stopper to heart. And he hopes to keep Virtus Bologna winning games - like they did so much in history.
"We just want to win every game we face," he said. "For sure now we want reach the final eight in the Italian Cup and reach the second part of BCL."
Of course, names like Aradori, Taylor and Punter don’t hold the same weight with Virtus Bologna fans that Danilovic and Ginobili do. But Alessandro Pajola is doing his best so that those names - as well as his own - will do so in the near future.
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