Legendary head coach Aito Garcia Reneses has developed some of the best young talent in two decades of European basketball. He gave Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio and Kristaps Porzingis – not a bad potential starting five – their first opportunities as professional basketball players. The next player on this impressive list could be Latvian big man Anzejs Pasecniks, who joined Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas this season. Pasecniks has shined in youth tournaments with the Latvian national team and his three-way connection with Porzingis and Coach Aito is paying off for everyone involved. Pasecniks has only gotten better as the season has progressed, but makes sure to remind those around him to never compare him to his friend Porzingis, as they are different players and Pasecniks is trying to follow his own path, which now includes going as deep as possible with Gran Canaria in the 2015-16 Eurocup.
Born in Riga, Latvia, it took Pasecniks some years to find basketball, but once he did, he didn't want to do anything but to play. "I think I started late, because I was 11-12 when that happened, I think so, I am not sure. There is a basketball hoop next to my house and we had a football ball at that time, but I liked to go and shoot and do all sort of basketball stuff," Pasecniks said. "My parents saw it and bought me a basketball ball, so I woke up every morning at 6 a.m. to shoot and was really happy about that… My father wanted me to do swimming and I told him that I wanted to play basketball. He offered to play any other sport, but I just wanted to play basketball and this is how I started to practice and play basketball."
Pasecniks started to play organized basketball soon after that and, as a young kid he was really focused on the sport. He didn't have a big basketball hero, but liked to see a lot of players and try to imitate what they did on the court. "I loved to see everybody on TV. When I was a young player in Latvia, I remember that every year, on my birthday, I would blow the candles on my cake and wished to play for a big basketball club. In that moment, we had three big clubs - Barons, ASK Riga and Ventspils. I blew out the candles and wished to play for one of these clubs," Pasecniks said.
He did not play for any of those clubs, but his dream came true when VEF Riga, a Latvian club that was re-founded in 2007, offered him a long-term contract. "VEF Riga was my first professional club, I was probably 16 when I signed for them. I was there for four, five years. I went straight to its junior team."
At age 17, in the 2012-13 season, Pasecniks was in between teams, playing for VEF’s first squad in the VTB League and the Latvian League, as well as in the Latvian second division with VEF Riga Skola. Pasecniks also made his Eurocup debut with VEF against Artland Dragons Quakenbrueck on December 4, 2012. He had 2 points, 1 rebound and an assists in 57 seconds. "I don't remember much about that game. I know I went in and scored, I don't know if it was a two or a three-point shot. Ramunas Butautas was our coach and I remember that we were winning by a lot of points," Pasecniks said. "We were going to win for sure, so he let me play a few minutes."
The following summer, Pasecniks was called to the Latvian squad for the 2013 U18 European Championships and had the chance to play alongside Kristaps Porzingis, last season's Eurocup Rising Star with Baloncesto Sevilla, who now stars for New York in the NBA. Latvia did quite well at that tournament and Pasecniks played a big part with back-to-back double-doubles in wins over Bulgaria and Spain. Latvia made it to final rounds, but lost 68-72 against Croatia in the semifinals and 56-57 against Spain in the bronze medal game. Both Porzingis (11.6 ppg., 10 rpg., 4.9 bpg.) and Pasecniks (12.6 ppg., 7.7 rpg.) were chosen to the All-Tournament team along with Domagoj Bosnjak, Kenan Sipahi and Paolo Marinelli. Of course, those two narrow losses are still hard to take. "Every time I think about it, it is a bit difficult. I think we had great moments in this tournament. We played very well and being a small country, we had a chance to win the tournament, but couldn't do it. I am happy about the tournament, but the ending could have been a lot better," he said.
Porzingis and Pasecniks became very good friends, practice together in the summers and text each other pretty much every day. Porzingis shared a little bit about his good friend and national team mate. "I played with him in our U18 national team and he had a very good tournament. What I like the most about him as a player is how smart he is and how he reads the game," Porzingis said. "He has improved his low post game a lot since he arrived to Gran Canaria. He is getting physically stronger, too, and he will be a very good player in a few years, I am sure."
"We talk almost every day. I am sure he will send me something about our loss against Sevilla soon!" Paseceniks joked, referring to a Spanish ACB League game on Saturday. "He is a cool guy. He went to the NBA and didn't change as a person. We have the same contact that we had before"
Being Latvian, the same age and roughly the same size and being coached by the same coaching legend, Aito Garcia Reneses, Pasecniks hears a lot of Porzingis comparisons these days. "I don't like to be compared with him. I am more like a center and is lighter and can pass better," Pasecniks said. "If you look at the height, wingspan and year of birth, we are the same, but we are different players."
While at VEF Riga, Pasecniks played with veteran players Gatis Jahovics, Kristaps Janicenoks and Kaspars Berzins, who had been together for several years. Pasecniks practically became a full-time member of VEF's first roster in the 2013-14 season; he played only six games with the Latvian second division squad. He averaged 3.4 points and 2.8 rebounds in 8 Eurocup games. Being around the veterans was good for Pasecniks. "I learned a lot from then. I think I learned the most from Janicenoks. I spent two years with him and he was the guy who wanted me to get better. He taught me a lot; he was a great shooter and a very smart player, an intelligent person," Pasecniks said.
Pasecniks was back with the Latvian national team that summer and averaged 10.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in nine games at the 2014 European U20 Championships.
After another season in VEF in which he didn't see significant playing time (11 minutes per game, 2 ppg., 1.7 rpg.), Pasecniks decided it was time for him to move on. He had helped VEF win two Latvian League titles, but always as a backup player.
"I didn't grow up as a player as much I wanted and this why I switched clubs last summer," he said. "I wanted to change everything around me, the people, everything, and go away from my family, live alone and grow up," he added. Pasecniks had several offers on the table, but chose to join Gran Canaria for one reason - its head coach. "The main thing that brought me here was Coach Aito. I talked to Porzingis about this, because he played for Aito, and he said he was a very good coach and not to think about other clubs," Pasecniks explained. "I know that he likes to work with young guys, so this is the best situation for me."
Coach Garcia Reneses did not know Gran Canaria had already signed the player, but found out when Porzingis congratulated him on Twitter, mentioning him. Once he knew, Aito wanted to learn more about him and got in touch with his former player to find out. "I know they are friends because like I said, I found out about his signing when Porzingis congratulated him and told him things would be great for him in Gran Canaria," Coach Aito said. "After that, I asked Porzingis for his opinion, especially if he should be playing in the Spanish League already. One of the things he told me and is that he needed to improve physically. He is working on it, and getting stronger."
So far, Pasecniks is loving the experience of playing for Aito and making the most out of it. "If you work hard in practice and give your best, he will give you playing time," Pasecniks said and gave an example. "He came to me once and showed me three pictures - Porzingis, Pau Gasol and Ricky Rubio. When they played for him, they were young and when he put them on the court, maybe they didn't play well and people asked him why he was playing them, and he would reply 'because they deserve it'. They practiced hard and he gave them the chance."
Since Porzingis knew both Pasecniks and Coach Aito, he was confident it would be the perfect match. "As a person, Anzejs is a very good friend of mine. He is a great guy, very humble. I cannot say a bad word about him. He is a great guy and most important, he loves basketball," Porzingis said. "He is in a very good situation right now, playing for Aito in Gran Canaria. I think he is learning a lot. I am looking forward to seeing how he developed as a player when I practice with him next summer. It is good for him to play for Aito who is, in my opinion, one of the best coaches in the world."
Pasecniks is making progress, especially in the Eurocup. He had 16 points without a missed shot and 6 rebounds in a home win against Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem, and also started against Stelmet Zielona Gora in last week's Eurocup quarterfinals. So far, Pasecniks is averaging 3.4 points on 72.7% two-point shooting in 13 Eurocup games. He already experienced a great moment for Gran Canaria: reaching the Copa del Rey final and a narrow loss against eventual champion Real Madrid. "We were close to winning. Everyone in the city and in the club are happy about that tournament. I think I will keep that in my memory all life long. It was a great moment," Pasecniks said.
Another memory to savor could be right around the corner; Gran Canaria hosts Zielona Gora Wednesday with an 11-point lead in their Eurocup Quarterfinals series. One thing is for certain; Pasecniks is definitely in the right place, at the right time and with the right coach to become a very important basketball player. "The most important thing is that he has to work on his body to get stronger, and he is doing it, but it takes time," Aito said. "The good thing about him is that he understands the game and has skills to play well both at the power forward and center positions. Again, he needs to get stronger if we wants to play center."
With one of the best coaches for young talent, great passion for basketball and the ideal combination of size and skills, the sky could be Anzejs Pasecniks's only limit.