Berke Büyüktuncel: Made in Tofas
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 the 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.
BURSA (Turkey) - Tofas Bursa games mean something really special to Berke Büyüktuncel. Not only does the forward play for the Turkish club, but Tofas is the team a young Berke grew up supporting and whose games he used to attend with his father. And now Büyüktuncel wants to help put Tofas Bursa on the map around the world.
The 17-year-old talent understands that he might not be ready to play a major role for the team from northwestern Turkey, but he also is fully committed to achieving greatness with Tofas.
"My ultimate goal for this season is help the team reach the Basketball Champions League Final Four," Büyüktuncel said.
The 6ft 8in (2.02m) forward is considered a major talent in Turkish basketball and Tofas have been giving him some limited time in BCL games. He has played in three games and collected 5 points, 1 rebound and 3 steals in 22 minutes.
5 points in 10 seconds from Berke Buyuktuncel ('04). This sums up how versatile he is. I like his future in Europe a lot, he's skilled at the 4 and has a high IQ to help make up for his lack of athleticism. pic.twitter.com/UZoWjAFmF3— Caine Purnell (@caine_purnell) October 6, 2021
"I can't be a starter right now, but I want to help my team win games. I am always helping my team. I am a team player," Büyüktuncel said.
While playing time is sparse in the BCL, the coaching staff has given him more minutes on the court in the Turkish league, where he has played 7 minutes per game and averaged 1.9 points and 1.2 rebounds in 11 contests.
"I think I am doing okay. At the three and four positions we have a lot of experienced guys. I try to help them, but they are helping me too," he said.
One should not gauge Tofas' belief in Büyüktuncel by his playing time with the pro team. After all, he won't turn 18 until early September. And the club's off-season actions speak loud and clear - or better said inactivity.
Tofas' backup power forward Berkan Durmaz left the club after the 2020-21 season for Pinar Karsiyaka, and instead of signing a replacement, the club said it would keep the spot open for Büyüktuncel to play his way into.
"It was a big thing for me. I am only 17 years old, and they are counting on me. And that tells me: You can do it," he said. "When I understood that they are counting on me, I thought: Okay, I can relax and do whatever they say. I understood that it's happening now. I want to play. I want to be on the court and feel the crowd. At road games, they are going to curse at me. When I score they will be silent. I need to be on the court - not on the bench. I am going to war and will challenge everything every time."
The off-season not only saw the club not re-sign Durmaz but it also saw Tofas and Büyüktuncel agree to a five-year contract.
Growing up watching Tofas
Büyüktuncel mentioned family, and that is truly the case. He learned to love the game through his uncle and started to play for a school team for the first time at age 8. When Berke was 13, he moved to the Tofas youth ranks. Tofas already then had a strong connection for Büyüktuncel as his father worked at the automaker's factory in Bursa.
"He loves Tofas so we used to go to every game. I would go every week unless I had an exam or something," Büyüktuncel remembered.
His favorite Tofas memory is the 2017-18 season when the club finished second in the regular season and beat Eskisehir and Anadolu Efes Istanbul in the first two rounds of the playoffs to reach the finals against regular season winner Fenerbahce Istanbul. It was the first time Tofas had reached the finals since winning back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000.
Tofas would end up losing 4-1 in the 2018 finals to Fenerbahce, but the club had left a major impression on young Berke, whose favorite player from the team was Sammy Mejia - a veteran of European club competitions who played the final five years of his career at Tofas before retiring in 2020.
Büyüktuncel rose the ranks in Tofas, averaging 5.5 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2.0 blocks in the U19 league in 2019-20. Those numbers jumped dramatically to 11.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks in 2020-21.
But he also was brought into the mix with the pro team, actually playing four games and picking up 5 points, 1 rebound and 1 block in a combined 6 minutes that season.
December 2, 2020 will be a special date for Büyüktuncel as he made his Turkish pro league debut with a three-pointer and 1 rebound in 1 minute at the end of Tofas' 110-81 blowout win over Fethiye at home.
"It was a dream come true," he looked back. "When I was young and not at Tofas, I said one day I will be there. At the first game, I said, I am here now. It was a big, big thing for me."
After practice with "Professor White"
Büyüktuncel is still attending school, but his 2020-21 season was full of invaluable lessons on the court with the Tofas pro team with veterans like D.J. White, Jeremy Simmons, Tomislav Zubcic, Semaj Christon, Devaughn Akoon-Purcell and Tarik Phillip. Büyüktuncel singled out White for all the extra time the then 34-year-old took for him.
"D.J. White was like my teacher. He is really experienced. He played in the NBA and every kind of other league. He taught me a lot of things for post-up moves. He was the best thing for me that season," Büyüktuncel recalled. "We finished practice and D.J. White would call me over: let’s play post-up. Teach me how and when to jump, defend, reverses. We played games against each other. It was fantastic."
He added: "I had 12 teachers but he was the main professor."
Turkish debut vs Chet Holgrem and USA
Büyüktuncel's talent was not lost on the Turkish youth national team leaders. He most likely would have played for Turkey for the first time in the 2019 summer, but a stress fracture in his foot cost him a chance to play at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2019, where he would have still been 14 years old.
And the Covid-19 pandemic wiped out the entire 2020 summer of youth national team competitions worldwide.
That meant when the federation called Büyüktuncel for the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2021, his national team debut would actually be on the world stage.
"When they said I would be going, I thought, it's the World Cup and it's my first international competition," said Büyüktuncel, who as a 2004-born player was two years younger than the rest of the competition. "Lots of the players on the team had already played at a European youth event. But this was my first time. They were saying relax, relax. But for me, it was a big deal. I had never played any of these teams."
Turkey's opening game was against the favorites United States and Büyüktuncel was in the starting lineup, having to guard USA star Chet Holgrem, who was at the time expected to be the No. 1 pick of the 2022 NBA Draft.
"I remember that game defending Chet Holmgren. I am thinking about his weakness and how to stop him," said Büyüktuncel, who collected 7 points and 3 rebounds in 16 minutes while Holmgren had 13 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks.
"It was my first game. I was a little nervous and I was starting. I am confident and I told myself I could play. But it's my first time playing with the national team - a little sweet stress."
He ended up averaging 6.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 steals in 19 minutes as the third-youngest player at the event.
Versatile 6'8" forward Berke Buyuktuncel 🇹🇷 ('04) made an impact on both ends of the floor today at the FIBA U18 Euro Challengers, putting up a season high (according to @InStatBasket) 29 points to go with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks. pic.twitter.com/GIIqe0shRV— Ignacio Rissotto (@eyreball) August 4, 2021
About three weeks after the end of the U19 World Cup, Büyüktuncel joined up with the 2004-born generation to play at the FIBA U18 European Challengers in Konya, Turkey.
Büyüktuncel shined in the first game against Poland with 29 points including 6-of-7 three-pointers to go with 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. He followed that with 19 points and 7 rebounds in a loss to Slovenia and ended up averaging 16.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks in four games.
"In that tournament I could have been better for sure. In the last game (versus Russia), I was a little bit injured in my leg and the coach said don't force it," he said.
Büyüktuncel is also not being forced at Tofas. After appearing in three BCL games as well as playing in 11 Turkish league games, club management have most recently lined him up in the U19 league again after missing nearly two weeks of action. The plan is to have Büyüktuncel play at the up-coming Adidas Next Generation Tournament later this month in Belgrade, Serbia. He has already played in the U18 club competition the past two seasons and it will be good for him to build up some more confidence with more playing time as the final third of the season starts.
Büyüktuncel said his biggest goal for this season is to be key guy for Tofas.
When asked what would individual success over the rest of the season would look like, he said: "I want people to say 'Berke played well this season. He is a good player in this league. He can make it.' Maybe I am not playing 30 minutes, but in 15 minutes I want to give all my effort to help my team to be in a good spot."
Straight to NBA from Tofas
Long term, Büyüktuncel is working towards his big goal - the NBA.
"I have a dream. I want to play at the highest level and that is the NBA. Tofas did so much for me - my coaches, my general manager. They are always counting on me. Tofas and me are like family. So I don't want to go to any other country or the NCAA or another Turkish club. I want to be home-made Tofas - made in Tofas. I want that on my back," he smiled.
"When I go to the NBA, I want people to say: 'This dude went to Tofas.' Or 'He is from Turkey and from Tofas.' It's a big thing for Tofas and for me."
For Berke Büyüktuncel, Tofas Bursa is all about family - from the very beginning.