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OKC Thunder: Aleksej Pokusevski drawing from previous move as he transitions to NBA

Before the Thunder’s first preseason game Saturday night in San Antonio, Aleksej Pokusevski (20) guessed it had been a year since his last competitive game. [AP FILE PHOTO]
Before the Thunder’s first preseason game Saturday night in San Antonio, Aleksej Pokusevski (20) guessed it had been a year since his last competitive game. [AP FILE PHOTO]

Aleksej Pokusevski has been here before. Not here as in Oklahoma City, his new NBA home, but here as another new place basketball has brought him.

Pokusevski was 13 when he moved south from Novi Sad, Serbia, to Piraeus, Greece — a port city 10 miles from Athens. His family followed six months later. Pokusevski joined the youth program at Olympiacos, a prestigious multi-sport club, and he remained a member of Olympiacos for the next five years, until the Thunder traded up to select the 7-foot forward with the 17th pick in the NBA draft last month.

Pokusevski signed his rookie contract Wednesday, finalizing his 6,000-mile move from an ancient city to the NBA’s frontier.

“It’s a quiet city,” Pokusevski said of Oklahoma City. “Everything is pretty easy. People are close to you. They can help you all the time.”

The Thunder has helped Pokusevski get settled, but Pokusevski seems altogether unbothered by the stresses of moving. Serbia to Greece is a much easier trip than Greece to the United States, but basketball has been at the heart of both of his moves, first at 13 and now two weeks away from turning 19.

“It’s a bigger level, but it’s pretty the same,” Pokusevski said. “Here I’m alone by myself right now, but I have experience about that. Listen to everyone. Listen, listen, listen and just learn, and everything’s going to be OK.”

That was Pokusevski’s mantra at Olympiacos.

“He’s a very intelligent guy,” Dimitris Tsaldris said. “He understands very well what us as coaches ask of him during the game. He has the ability to adjust his game to what each game needs. But also at the same time we have to have in mind that he’s a kid, 18 years old. His emotions are still fragile.”

Tsaldaris is the head coach of Olympiacos B, the club’s second-division team which Pokusevski primarily played for.

Pokusevski averaged 10.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 11 games last season. He shot 40% from the field and 32% from 3-point range.

“Everybody on the team and everybody who knows him knew he would be a high draft pick,” Olympiacos forward Sasha Vezenkov said. “He fully deserves it and it’s in his hand to prove that he deserves all this noise around his name.”

Tsaldaris said Pokusevski “can do everything with the ball,” including running the pick and roll and shooting off screens — skills uncommon for 7-footers.

As for his weaknesses?

“I think we can speak body-wise, to build on his body,” Tsaldaris said of Pokusevski, who’s listed at 195 pounds, “and manage to play perimeter defense.”

But Tsaldaris said he sees “franchise player” potential in Pokusevski.

In Oklahoma City, Pokusevski’s new coaches and teammates are still learning his game. The Thunder has only been practicing for a week.

“We all know that he’s young, but we all know that he’s very skilled and he’s very gifted,” Thunder wing Hamidou Diallo said. “He has the tools to be great in this league.”

“It’s moving at a fast pace for him that he’s probably not used to coming from overseas, but he’s taking it all in and he’s getting better every day,” guard George Hill said. “But we’ve seen some good spots, some good flashes of him so far in practice.”

Before the Thunder’s first preseason game Saturday night in San Antonio, Pokusevski guessed it had been a year since his last competitive game.

That was in a different country, a different league and at a different level.

Pokusevski will again have to prove he can adapt.

“This is a huge cultural shift for him,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “He’s playing in America for the first time … So much is coming at him right now that it would be really unfair for us to form even positive judgments of him. We’re just trying to remain very open.”

Joe Mussatto

Joe Mussatto joined The Oklahoman in August 2018 to cover OU football, men’s basketball and softball. He previously covered University of Kentucky football and basketball for SEC Country. Mussatto is from Oklahoma City and lives in Norman. Read more ›

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