On one of their most impressive nights ever, reigning Euroleague champions CSKA Moscow hammered hosts Panathinaikos OPAP at the OAKA Arena by 97-66 last Thursday (March 5, 2020). European club history was written in the Greek capital, since the Greens had to endure their worst home defeat ever, while the final margin (-31) was the biggest since the Euroleague was initiated, back in 2000!
Of course, the main credit goes to the eight-time continental champs, who turned a theoretically dangerous game into a kind of training session, making many of the almost 8.000 PAO fans to seek consolation elsewhere five minutes before the final buzzer.
Former NBA player and G-League winner, Darrun Hilliard, played a huge part in the Russians taking over Athens. The 27-year-old swingman is 10 for 17 from downtown over the last three games, but against Pana he tied his second-best scoring performance, pouring 21 points on 5/9 threes. 77 games with Detroit and another 14 with San Antonio over three NBA campaigns most probably did not mark or shape his course, which seemed to be destined for Europe, but they definitely helped Hilliard decide on his career priorities.
Last year with Kirolbet Baskonia, the Villanova standout had a more than decent rookie Euroleague season (9.4 points), but this year -playing for a real powerhouse, as he tells TalkBasket.net- he has every reason to believe that he can deliver at any level.
Q: I must tell you this: Panathinaikos has never suffered so big a defeat -especially at home- in their Euroleague history. So, I guess it’s something that you can pride yourselves on.
A: Oh, I didn’t know that. For sure, it’s not easy to win here. They’re a great team, they’ve got great fans and I think that we should feel proud.
Q: What gave you this easy win?
A: I think it was our mindset. As soon as we landed in Greece, we minded our own business. During the game, we took care of the little things: rebounds, 50-50 balls.
Q: Were you upset after losing to Panathinaikos in the first round?
A: Yes, because it was a different type of game. Technically we weren’t at home and it was a game that came down to the wire. Calathes hit a big shot. We were pretty upset and so we came in here trying to prove a point.
Q: What’s different in the Euroleague now that you’ve already played one full season?
A: I think the competition is high. More guys are coming over to the Euroleague, both from the NBA and other places. Just the talent is higher and I think it’s going to get even better in the years to come. That’s the biggest difference.
Q: Last year, you told me that European basketball had surpassed your expectations. How about this season?
A: I said that because I had never experienced or heard about it. I think that’s fair to say because I had never been here before. It’s still living up to my expectations, but there’s one thing: tonight, I wanted to see some “crazy” crowd or something like that. I was expecting the fans to be like that. That was something I really wanted to experience this year and the years to come. Hopefully, I can get that experience in the future. I’ve seen videos of Panathinaikos fans on Youtube and people have told me about the fires and the flares. Honestly, I hope that one day I can see all of that. I thought that there’d be a little more people here today, a lot more fans. The crowd was great, don’t get me wrong, but I expected more of them to come.
Q: The game itself didn’t help them, for sure.
A: Yeah, that’s true. But it is what it is.
Q: Is playing in Europe still helping you improve, as you stated last year?
A: For sure, you can definitely become a better, a more well-rounded player and that can lead to other things. People perform here at a high level. I think that stands out. It speaks volumes for your game and can lead to better things. Last year, I was coming to Europe unknown. I don’t think anyone knew who I was when I came to Baskonia. I think that this year I got a litte bit of a name. I’m just coming into my own a little bit more. It’s my second year and I got more experience. This and last year were totally different realms.
Q: Do you see yourself in Europe long-term?
A: I don’t know. I see myself playing for CSKA. I really love playing for them and if they would have me long-term, then we can talk business.
Q: What’s so different compared to Baskonia?
A: It’s a big difference. CSKA is CSKA. The first and foremost thing is championships, titles. CSKA has more titles and is definitely a powerhouse. No disrespect to Baskonia at all. I love them, but I think that CSKA is one of those teams where expectations are very high in each and every game and practice. You always got to deliver.
Q: What’s your contract status with them?
A: It’s for two years, not a 1+1. I’d love to stay with them. My family is loving it, as well. My wife has settled down in Moscow. We’re raising a son and I don’t want to move around anymore.
Q: What does it take to succeed in a team that aspires to the top and not just to the play-offs?
A: Mindset. Every player is talented and good, but you got to have that mindet that you’re going to win, you’re not going to fail. You expect to win every single day.
Q: Do you miss a Final Four?
A: Yes, that’s the goal. I’ve never been to a Final Four and hopefully I can get this year.
Q: Have you embraced your role with CSKA?
A: You got to make an adjustment and do what’s right for the team, whether it’s shooting, rebounding or passing or whatever the case may be. You got to figure that out and do your best.
Q: If you were to go back to the NBA, on which conditions would it be?
A: Guaranteed contract, for sure (smiles). Only. But I’m cool with CSKA right now.
Q: Where did you enjoy the game more, Detroit or San Antonio?
A: Oh man, that’s a good question. Detroit was nice because they drafted me, they took a chance on me and that was nice too. But San Antonio was kind of like up and down, with two-way contract and so forth. I really liked Texas, though.
Q: How is it to explain that players even on the same team show different levels of adjustment to European basketball?
A: It’s a different game. It takes a lot of time for you to dig a hole to that. It’s a different type of playing style, coaching, environment. First, you got to be willing to adjust, willing to change to what’s best for the team. It’s a team thing in Europe. For certain players, it can be difficult to accept because they’re coming from a situation where they’re “the guy” or “the man” and they get all the shots or whatever the case may be.
Q: Do you believe that many of them ultimately settle for less, trying to stay in the NBA instead of pursuing a career overseas?
A: That’s just whatever the player prefers. If they prefer to stay in the United States because they are from the United States, that’s their choice. Everybody has a choice. I’ve made up my mind on this, but hopefully it’s a long career. You never know what happens.