Mario Hezonja and Evan Fournier are part of a growing breed of players in NBA. Both young, talented and - European. Although their roots reside in Croatia and France respectively both are dominating in an Orlando Magic squad that are mixing experience with an abundance of youth. I speak to both of them ahead of the #NBALondon16 game hosted in England’s capital, which in itself shows the growth of basketball has extended far beyond America. With leagues in Spain and France providing the perfect pool of talent for the NBA we speak about the rise of European talent in the NBA and also the Kobe XI - the latest innovation in basketball footwear.
AE: How was the quality of basketball in Croatia?
MH: Not very close to the NBA [Laughs]. I was part of the first professional league in my hometown and then when I was in Zagreb we were competing for a championship. So it was still ok.
AE: When was the moment you thought you could actually play professionally?
MH: I was never thinking about making it professionally, because I love it so much. So I was always doing it for the enjoyment.
AE: You also played for Barcelona, would you say there is a different style in the Spanish league in comparison to the NBA?
MH: Most definitely. Everything was a step for me. From my hometown, to the capital city of Croatia and then the NBA- it was all a level up. The NBA is well... The NBA. There are so many good players and the speed of the game is incredible. While in Barcelona it was a bit more like chess, every move was more tactical. It was a much more mental game. And in Croatia it was just like “Go out there and compete” whatever you got then “Just bring it!”.
AE: Was there a league you enjoyed more?
MH: I’ll be honest I enjoyed all of them!
AE: Are there any training routines that you find particularly effective?
MH: Everyone. Each has a reason and purpose so I can really feel the benefit.
AE: And the new Kobe XI, what do you think?
MH: There cool, I have been wearing Kobe’s for a while. I also wore the VI and have about every single colour they made in this world of those.
AE: How did your Journey into the NBA begin?
EF: I was raised in Paris and like every kid in Europe you start playing soccer first, but I just fell in love with Basketball when I was 8. I started playing in the lower leagues outside Paris and I was pretty good so I was like “OK lets give it a shot!”. It was lucky because the whole reason I started was because the soccer team in my home town was full.
AE: Would you say it was harder to get into basketball in the U.S given that you are European?
EF: I think so. Because I was not playing in the euro league so I did not have a lot of media coverage or hype. You can see a guy like Paul Genghis who was drafted top five (did have) they voted him as a pick and I think that says a lot. Coming from Europe you get a lot of stereotypes attached to you but it is a part of the business and you have to get through that. Once you go through it and establish yourself then you feel like you’ve earned it.
AE: Do you feel like the infrastructure is changing, are there more avenues opening up to the NBA from Europe?
EF: I think it s getting easier now I mean I cant speak for other countries but for France it is getting easier. We have a lot of good players in the league such as Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and (Nicolas) Batum . Scouts have a high opinion of the league now.
"I was raised in Paris and like every kid in Europe you start playing soccer first, but I just fell in love with Basketball when I was 8."
AE: You were drafted as 20th pick in 2012 draft, did this add any pressure to your game because you were European?
EF: I wouldn’t call it pressure but I definitely had to prove myself. Nobody knew me and people underestimate you, so you have to train twice as hard then everybody else.
AE: We have mantra at SAMSON entitled ‘It’s the struggle that pleases us’, that scenario seems to relate well.
EF: Yeah for sure. But like I said it is a good thing... It makes you stronger.
AE: What’s your approach to off season?
EF: I play with the national team so that keeps me in good shape but other than that I just try and work on every aspect of my game. I am only 23 so I believe I can get a lot stronger.
AE: Any fitness routines you do in particular?
EF: I try not eat too many croissants[laughs]. But I don’t really have too much of a routine, I do the odd bit of conditioning and lifting. Last summer I had one of my coaches from Orlando come out to Paris to help me out. But at the end of the day it is the off season so you have to enjoy it at the same time.
AE: You are sporting the Kobe X| on set today, you are a big fan right?
EF: Yeah, Kobe’s are my favourite shoes. I’ve played with them on for 6 years now and these X| are perfect. The colour (a red and black mesh with gold accents) are great - I can’t wait to play in them.
AE: Low top v high top, what do you prefer?
EF: When I was younger I was always playing in high tops but I think the style is just changing. I prefer low, they just seem to be more comfortable. As a guard I like to have my ankle free. It’s all just based on being comfortable, they fit my game a lot better than the Hyperdunk or Lebrons.
Deputy Editor | SAMSON