Jantunen draws on experiences of highs and lows in pro debut with Oostende
OOSTENDE (Belgium) - Mikael Jantunen came into the season having seen his share of big moments - ending in highs and lows. But the Finnish forward had yet to taste professional basketball. He is getting that chance for the first time in 2021-22, and happily with an established winning club like Filou Oostende and in the Basketball Champions League.
Jantunen moved from college basketball in the United States back to Europe this off-season and found a good home in western Belgium. And he is already leaving his mark on the 10-time reigning domestic league champs.
After two years of playing for the University of Utah Utes, Jantunen is collecting 7.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.0 blocks in four BCL games and has also picked up 10.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in the Belgian league.
"I'm really happy with the trust that coach is giving me. I am playing steady minutes and I feel that I am using my minutes pretty productively," he said.
The 21-year-old Jantunen admitted some butterflies were flying around inside his stomach in his first BCL game at Tofas Bursa.
"I was a little nervous. As a team we lost by nine points on the road (92-83). I could have played better. It was the first game and there is a lot of room for improvement, but you have to start somewhere," said Jantunen, who had four points and two rebounds in 19 minutes.
The Gameday 2 matchup at home against SIG Strasbourg meant a little bit more to Jantunen. Not only was it a home game, but the opposing team was led by Lassi Tuovi, the long-time assistant coach of the Finnish senior national team and someone Jantunen knows quite well.
"It was really nice. All of the summers working out with him he's helped me out a lot as a player. He's a great coach and he's doing great at Strasbourg. It was a great moment to see him there and to play against him. I would have loved to have gotten the win in that game, but I am going to have a rematch in December. I hope I can get payback for the loss," he said about the 83-77 defeat in which he had 10 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
Jantunen helped Oostende finally get into the win column against Kalev/Cramo, beating the Estonian champions twice to move to 2-2.
Jantunen stood out in the second matchup for his balanced effort. He contributed just 4 points but he did chip in 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks.
"Some games your offense isn't great, focus instead then on defense. Do whatever you can to help your team. It doesn't always have to be scoring the most points. You can help your team in so many ways. I just wanted to get it into my mindset when I am on the court to do everything I can and try to help the team win," he said.
"Of course it's my first year and I knew there would be ups and downs - good games, not so good games. So it's kind of just having to be ready to learn and if you have a bad game get over it and be ready for the next game."
Help Finland reach fifth straight EuroBasket
One good game - and major major highlight in Jantunen's past - came last February when he returned from the United States to play in the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers.
College players are very rarely available to play in the FIBA windows during the season. It had been discussed in advance though among Jantunen, the Finnish federation and the University of Utah that he would be allowed to return to Europe and play for his country if there was an important national team game.
Despite the on-going Covid-19 pandemic, Utah granted Jantunen his release and he made the trip far enough in advance to be cleared to play in the February 2021 window in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Finland needed a victory over Switzerland in order to qualify for EuroBasket for a fifth straight time. And Jantunen came through with 11 points and 4 rebounds in the 92-84 win.
"It was a really big thing for me. It’s always been a dream to play at a big tournament and represent my country. I have to thank my coaches at Utah and my teammates for understanding and supporting me to go," said Jantunen, who ended up missing four games for Utah and nearly two weeks because he also had to quarantine upon his return to the United States.
"We weren't able to make it to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 so if I could help the team make it to EuroBasket I wanted to do whatever it takes."
That was the only game in the EuroBasket Qualifiers window in which Jantunen played, sitting out the final game of the window against Georgia.
Missed opportunity to play on global stage
Jantunen's next focus with the Finnish national team is to help right one of his biggest disappointments thus far and lead the team back to the FIBA Basketball World Cup after he was unable to help the Susijengi reach the global showcase in 2019. Jantunen played eight of the 10 games in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers and averaged 2.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists - playing the contests as a 17 and 18-year-old.
What made missing out especially hard was a couple of games that Finland really could have won - or even should have won. The Finns were up by 10 points in the third quarter and lost to Iceland, trailed by two points with 20 seconds but lost at Czech Republic; and were rolling with a 13-point lead at home over Russia with 7 minutes to play only to lose in overtime.
"It helps out a lot. Personally I feel way more comfortable going into these games. I'm more prepared. I can't say it was a great experience because we didn't make it. But learning from it was a great experience for me as a player," said Jantunen, trying to see things from a positive standpoint.
Mixed U16 emotions
Jantunen's early steps with Finland also provided a valuable learning lesson of balancing disappointment and joy.
Finland in 2015 had finished sixth at the FIBA U16 European Championship and qualified for the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup for the first time the following summer. Jantunen made his FIBA debut with Finland at the U17 World Cup in 2016 - averaging 5.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals. But it was later that summer that he would really taste meaningful defeat for the first time.
Finland went undefeated in the group phase of the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016 - beating Greece, Serbia and Estonia - and the knocked off Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Round of 16. But the Finns ended up getting bounced by Turkey in the Quarter-Finals - 80-78 in overtime - Jantunen picking up 13 points and 9 rebounds before fouling out with 47 seconds remaining in OT and Finland up 78-77.
Finland did bounce back and beat Montenegro and France to finish fifth in the tournament - the country's best ever performance at the U16 European level.
"There's a lot of mixed emotions about that trip," he remembered. "A two-point overtime loss to Turkey is never easy for a 16-year-old kid. We were really so confident in our selves. We played for each other and I remember the amazing defense we played. As a team, great memories. The first couple of months of course it was not so great, because we lost to Turkey, but we got fifth and we beat some great teams."
Focus on saving Finland at Division A
Another defining moment - in ways similar to the Turkey-fifth place mixed emotions - came two summers later at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018. Finland knocked off Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the group stage but were surprised by Great Britain in the Round of 16 and then lost to Turkey to drop in the Classification 9-16.
That meant Jantunen and co. would have to win their last two games to keep Finland in Division A at the U18 level. The Nordic side beat the Bosnians again and ended up prevailing over Greece in a thrilling 89-85 overtime win in Classification 13-14, meaning Finland would play at the A level for a fifth straight summer in 2019 (when they would end up being relegated).
"After the loss to Turkey the mindset changed completely. The clear goal was staying in Division A, and we did it," said Jantunen, who had 22 points and 16 rebounds in the game. "It was unbelievable. It was just a huge win for us. We gave the 2001 generation a chance to play in the Division A against the best teams in Europe."
Facing fellow Finn in BCL?
Finns playing against the best at the national team level ultimately helps them build the confidence to play for big teams outside of their homeland and excel - also in the BCL.
Besides Tuovi at Strasbourg on the sidelines, there are two other prevalent Finnish players in the league: Sasu Salin at Lenovo Tenerife and Elias Valtonen from BAXI Manresa.
"Of course I follow the Finnish guys in the Basketball Champions League. They've been playing great basketball," he said.
Jantunen would especially love to face off against Valtonen. The two came up together in the game - Valtonen being just one year older - and played together at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2016 as well as the World University Games in 2019.
They also faced off once … in the United States.
It was a cool experience and a proud moment to see these two great @hba_marsky high school teammates battle it out in a high octane @pac12 game last night here in Tempe, AZ. @EliasValtonen @mikaeljantunen @basketfinland pic.twitter.com/9sqziT9qIx— Hanno Möttölä (@HannoMottola) January 19, 2020
On January 18, 2020, Valtonen and Arizona State University were hosting Jantunen and Utah in a Pac-12 Conference showdown. Valtonen had a quiet 3 points, 1 rebound and 1 steal while Jantunen collected 10 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists. But Valtonen got the win - 83-64.
"It was a great experience. We started in the same high school and then we are playing in a Pac-12 game against each other. Not a lot of people have that kind of experience. So it was for sure something I will remember," he said. "In the end, they got the win and he got the bragging rights for that one. I need to play against him again, somewhere, hopefully in the BCL."
That would mean both Manresa and Oostende had reached the Round 16. And that would mean Jantunen has experienced another high in the game.