When Dirk Nowitzki and the German national basketball team take the floor in EuroBasket 2015 this weekend, he won’t be the only Maverick competing for his country with a trip to the Olympics on the line. In fact, Nowitzki won’t even be the biggest Maverick in Europe during the competition.
That honor belongs to new Maverick Zaza Pachulia, the 270-pound center Dallas acquired from Milwaukee via trade this summer. The 31-year-old Pachulia has played for his native Georgia in European competition since 1999, but his club has never reached the Olympics. So while Nowitzki is looking for one more hurrah with his countrymen, Pachulia will be seeking to clinch his nation’s first-ever berth in the men’s basketball competition. To a player known for his toughness and revered for his physicality, the opportunity must be exciting.
Pachulia’s most recent appearances for his country came earlier this summer, as he and Georgia sought to qualify for EuroBasket. During the second qualifying round, he averaged 17.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game as Georgia went 4-2 in the competition. He ranked third in offensive rebounds per game (3.3) and second in free throws made per game (6.2) during the qualifying round.
The new Maverick figures to play an important role at EuroBasket for a Georgian team looking to improve on past results. After finishing 11th at EuroBasket 2011 (the above YouTube video was made during that tournament), the club dropped to 17th in 2013. The two finalists at this summer’s tournament automatically qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but teams finishing 3-7 in the competition will advance to one of three future qualifying tournaments where they will play against teams from other regions of the world, including Africa and the Americas.
Notable names joining Pachulia on the Georgian roster, which was officially announced Monday, include former Brooklyn Net and Chicago Bull Tornike Shengelia and Kansas State standout Jacob Pullen. Shengelia, 23, averaged 9.7 points and 4.4 rebounds last season for Laboral Kutxa of the Spanish ACB League. Pullen, meanwhile, was an AP Third-Team All-American for the Wildcats in 2011. He’s currently under contract with Serbian club Cedevita Zagreb for the upcoming season.
Georgia will have a demanding qualifying schedule, with group matches against Greece, Croatia, and Slovenia among others. Four of the six teams in each of four groups advance to the 16-team elimination round. Georgia ranks 54th in the FIBA world rankings, and 23rd among European countries. Four of Georgia’s five group opponents are ranked higher. It will take both mental fortitude and plenty of grit to upset some of the best teams in Europe, but that’s Pachulia’s calling card.
Due to the way the bracket is set up, the earliest Pachulia could face off against his current teammate Nowitzki would be the quarterfinals. That, of course, isn’t the case for teammates Dwight Powell and J.J. Barea, who will square off tonight on the final day of group play at the FIBA Americas Championship.
It’s been a busy summer for international basketball as qualification for next summer’s Olympics heats up. Center Salah Mejri, signed by the Mavs this summer, just wrapped up his play with the Tunisian national team at AfroBasket, during which he averaged 10.2 points and 7.0 rebounds as his country placed third. There’s also the possibility that Mejri will get to face off against some of his new teammates in future Olympic qualifying events depending on the fates of Nowitzki’s Germany, Pachulia’s Georgia, Powell’s Canada, and Barea’s Puerto Rico.
For younger players in terms of experience like Powell and Mejri, getting as much playing time as possible, whatever the context, is certainly helpful to their development. On the other hand, veterans like Nowitzki and Pachulia can use the qualifying games not only as tune-ups for the regular season, but also as a reason to start hitting the gym earlier in the summer. Nowitzki, in particular, has said he usually takes some time off each June and July before ramping up his training as the season draws near. But with as much on the line as there is in Olympic qualification tournaments, vets work harder in the summer, earlier in the summer, to get ready to roll. So once training camp starts, the expectation is that Nowitzki, Pachulia, and the rest of the international gang will be in excellent playing shape so they can hit the ground running.
That’s exactly what Georgia must do at EuroBasket, as well. Its first game is against the Netherlands, the only club in the group ranked lower in the FIBA world rankings. It will be important for Pachulia and his teammates to grab that win early and use it as momentum later in the tournament. Its next game, for example, is against Slovenia, the 13th-ranked team in the world. However, with a motivated Pachulia and talent around him, perhaps this is the year Georgia can reach the Olympics and Pachulia can realize his dream.
Below is Georgia’s EuroBasket 2015 schedule. All games can be watched on ESPN3, and all times are Central.
|Sept. 5||vs. Netherlands||8 a.m.||Zagreb, Croatia|
|Sept. 6||vs. Slovenia||11 a.m.||Zagreb, Croatia|
|Sept. 8||vs. Greece||11 a.m.||Zagreb, Croatia|
|Sept. 9||vs. MKD||11 a.m.||Zagreb, Croatia|
|Sept. 10||vs. Croatia||11 a.m.||Zagreb, Croatia|