Real Madrid is on a roll. After going 2-3 early in the EuroLeague season, the 10-time European champion has rattled off 13 wins in a row and currently shares the best record with the leading Anadolu Efes. In Spain, it sits atop ACB, arguably the toughest national league on the continent. How tough? Well, the Madrid giant has lost as many games (3) in the domestic competition as it has in Europe.
These accomplishments are even greater if we take into account the expansion of Europe’s premier club tournament, which has added more dates to an already packed schedule. During the Jan. 9-18 span, for instance, Pablo Laso’s team will play five games, shuttling from plane to hotel to court and back, with little time left for practice. Two of those five games are this week’s back-to-back visits to CSKA and Khimki. The trip to the outskirts of the Russian capital will be a homecoming of sorts for Real Madrid’s forward/center Jordan Mickey, who wore the jersey of the Moscow region outfit last season.
Today, twenty-one months after his last NBA game as a Miami Heat player, Mickey is a valuable piece on the team gunning for a record eleventh European title. Every time he steps on the floor, he brings that explosive first step and fascinating leaping ability, which makes you forget he’s 2.03 meters tall and going against guys who, as a rule, are taller. Sometimes, a lot taller. Nonetheless, Mickey gets his share of boards. He’s also exciting to watch, and the fans love the way he swats shots and rocks the rim. Alongside another top shot blocker, the 220-centimeter human tower named Walter Tavares, he is part of Real Madrid’s intimidating frontcourt that does a great job of protecting the basket. The Madrid duo tops the EuroLeague ranking for most blocked shots after 18 rounds and has turned into a defensive nightmare for opposing centers.
Mickey provides the scoring punch, too, as Real Madrid’s crosstown rival Estudiantes was able to learn on Sunday when the Dallas-born big man contributed 20 points to help his team win and cement first place in the Spanish league. On Monday night, we met at a Moscow hotel for a brief chat on the eve of the EuroLeague classic featuring the two powerhouses that have won between them the most European titles (18).
Last spring, one of your Twitter posts read, “All I need is my opportunity.” Is Real Madrid the kind of opportunity you were looking for?
Eventually, everybody’s career takes a different path. Real Madrid is an opportunity for me at this point in my career. I just want to play basketball, feel part of the team and be able to contribute.
What does it feel like to be playing for the greatest basketball club this side of the Atlantic?
It’s an honor. A lot of great players have come through Real Madrid, and it was a great honor for me when they called and said they wanted me to come [to Madrid].
Was there a specific moment at Khimki when you realized that you have potential to attract the attention of Europe’s best clubs?
Last season, I got confidence back in my game, I had an opportunity to play, and display my skills. I didn’t know what was going to be the next step after the season ended, but like you said –the best team on this side of the Atlantic called and offered me an opportunity.
Сan Real Madrid win it all again this season? Would you agree that your team has the deepest roster among EuroLeague title contenders?
I think we do have a chance to win. We have a lot of great players on the team, the guys who sacrifice every game. We just have to stay focused and keep doing what we know we can do.
This season, you are playing fewer minutes in the EuroLeague, but your shooting percentage has dramatically improved – from last season’s 57 percent (54th overall) to 67 percent in the 2019/2020 campaign (ninth overall). What do you attribute this growth to?
My hard work in the offseason, I would say. Always having the mindset that you have to work with what you’ve been given. I don’t control playing time, that’s the coach’s job, but he has the confidence in me to let me play when I go out on the floor. Today, I am more confident in my game.
Who has been your toughest opponent in the EuroLeague in these one-and-a-half seasons?
I can’t think about anyone off the top of my head. I change my focus to the game at hand every week, so I don’t really think too hard on past games.
No one seems to be able to stop your former teammate Alexei Shved. Who would you say has done the best job of at least trying to do that?
It seems that nobody can really just go out and stop him. He’s a great player, he makes shots, you just have to try to slow him down and hope that he misses. He’s probably one of the best scorers EuroLeague has ever seen. You just got to tip your hat to him.
In your sophomore season at Louisiana State University, you were the best shot blocker in the nation. Is shot blocking an innate talent or a skill that can be learned?
In my opinion, some of it is talent, and some of it hard work, a little bit of both. You have to learn how to do it without fouling, and just have the instinct to know when your opponent is going to shoot the ball and contest it at the same time.
At 2.03 meters tall, do you feel undersized against taller frontcourt players?
I never feel undersized, I just have to work with what I was given, and use my advantages against them, that’s how I play my game.
Your shot blocking earned you a spot in LSU history books alongside Shaquille O’Neal, the only other Tiger with more blocks than you. On your way out of college, things looked quite promising. What didn’t go the way you wanted in the NBA?
I take some of the blame myself, but like I said before – everybody’s career path works out differently, and it’s not about where you start, but how you finish. I’m grateful for being able to play this game still to this day, and I just want to continue my career no matter where it takes me.
You were born and raised in Dallas. Do you root for the Mavericks? What do you make of Luka Doncic?
I don’t really root for anybody in the NBA. I kind of watch it from analytical standpoint. Luka is doing amazing things, the way he’s progressing it seems that pretty soon he’s going to be the face of the NBA. He’s a great player, you can’t take anything away from him.