Interview: Toko Shengelia, Baskonia: ‘We play with a lot of aggressiveness’

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Now in his fifth Turkish Airlines EuroLeague campaign and fourth in a row with Baskonia Vitoria Gasteiz, Toko Shengelia is posting career-best numbers across the board. The past month was among his finest and Shengelia was duly recognized for his and Baskonia’s fantastic form when he was named Euroleague Basketball’s choice as MVP for March. When March began, Baskonia was tied for ninth place with a 10-13 record, two wins outside of the playoff zone with seven regular-season games remaining, however, its six consecutive wins not only sent Baskonia to the playoffs, but did so with a chance to finish as high as seventh. Shengelia finished the month of March with 10.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists while making 63.6% of his shots. The son of a well-known basketball family in his native Georgia, Shengelia has averaged 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds in 28 EuroLeague games this season. He ranks fourth – and first among frontcourt players – in performance index rating with 18.8 per game. Shengelia credits several factors in his big season and the fact that he ranks second in the league in rebounding, explaining that he “worked on my physicality and changed my mindset. I tried to go for every rebound that is possible and also I am seeing more playing time than in other years, so it has to do something with it,” Shengelia told EuroLeague.net. “And a little bit of luck, but you have to go for the rebound to get it.”

Hello, Toko. Congratulations on becoming the EuroLeague’s MVP for March. Baskonia was the first team to get six wins in one month! What does this award mean to you?

“Thanks a lot. It means a lot for us. It gives us a lot of confidence as a team, that little boost that we need to go to the playoffs. No matter who we face in the playoffs, they will have much respect for us, especially when we play at home. It is all positive things coming out of it.”

Your great March led the team to the EuroLeague playoffs. How satisfying is this for you, personally, and the club?

“Of course, especially this year it was tough for us. Especially in the beginning after losing so many games in a row, and our schedule was not that easy either. Not a lot of people believed that we would make it to the playoffs, but we fought for it and never gave up, and we are one of the top eight teams in the EuroLeague, which is great for us, for the city and our fans.”

Baskonia is the first team to make it to the playoffs after a 0-4 start. How were you able to turn the situation around the way you did?

“Our coach did an amazing job for us. He changed our mindset and there is no need to explain that Pedro [Martinez] had a big influence on what happened to this team. As for us, the players, we started to enjoy a lot more, every offensive possession, every defensive possession. We started to enjoy a lot and you can tell by watching our games. Every win we got gave us more positivity in the locker room and on the court, and this is why we started getting the results that we got.”

You are rebounding better than ever and had a career-high 15 against Khimki at the start of the month. Is it something you had in mind and worked on from one season to the next?

“I didn’t necessarily work on my rebounding skills, but worked on my physicality and changed my mindset. I tried to go for every rebound that is possible and also I am seeing more playing time than in other years, so it has to do something with it. That’s it – and a little bit of luck, but you have to go for the rebound to get it.”

Baskonia is famous for its character and so are Georgian players. How do you like leading a team known for its character?

“Yes, I think it is a good combination, being Georgian and playing for this team. We play with a lot of aggressiveness, a lot of character in all games. I want to make sure that when other teams come here, they know it is not going to be an easy game, and that they will have to work very hard to beat us. This is our mindset and one of our characteristics as a EuroLeague team.”

You come from a well-known basketball family. Your father Kakha is one of the best centers in Georgian basketball history. How did that help you become the player you are right now? Does he still give you advice?

“Yes, my father helped me a lot, especially in the beginning of my career, but mostly on the mindset, to give me this fighting mindset that makes me never give up and fight until the end. I get a lot of advice from my parents because they watch all of our games. After the game, when they call, they will speak about it, and if there is something that I have to be better at, or if I have to be more ambitious, they will discuss it.”

Speaking of basketball families, you have two kids, one of them born in Vitoria. Are they interested in basketball? Could a third generation of Shengelias be on its way to the basketball courts?

“Yes, they are very interested in basketball and hopefully it is going to keep going like this! I am going to be there for them to help them in any way possible. They are three and two years old right now, so it is all about fun with them so far.”

How popular is it the EuroLeague in your country? Is it one of your dreams to bring a EuroLeague team to Georgia?

“Yes, I can say it is one of my biggest dreams to bring the EuroLeague to Georgia, for sure. Hopefully one day it will become true! The EuroLeague is getting more popular every year. The TV broadcast a lot of EuroLeague games, especially Baskonia and Unicaja, because Giorgi Shermadini plays for them. It is becoming more popular every year!”

You seem to be comfortable with the new format. After two seasons, how do you like the change, to play more games against the very best teams in Europe?

“It is nice, very nice, because when you had different groups, you didn’t have the chance to play against everybody. It is a lot more games than before, but I think it is more fun, not only for us, but for the fans, too. Overall, it is much better like this.”

Baskonia has the longest winning streak in the competition right now. How important is that good momentum before the playoffs?

“It is very important, but we cannot get too obsessed about it, you know? We know we are the first team to win six EuroLeague games in one month, but our main focus is our game against Efes on Thursday, and right after that, we are going to find out who our playoff opponent is going to be and prepare in the best way possible and compete. We know we are not going to have the home-court advantage against them, but we will fight to win at least once on the road and keep being strong in Vitoria.”

www.euroleague.net

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