One of the best players to come out of Estonia this century, Siim-Sander Vene is having arguably the best season of his professional career. At age 26, Vene is taking advantage of his playing time to make some noise, this time with Nizhny Novgorod in his first season with the club. As a starter averaging more than 29 minutes on the floor, Vene is one of five double-digit scorers for Nizhny with 11.5 points per game; he is the team’s second-best rebounder with 6 boards per night and is also helping the offense with 2.2 assists per contest. He is one of the reasons Nizhny holds a 3-3 record in Group A and has already secured a place in the Top 16.
All of the numbers are career-highs for Vene, who is a product of the Zalgiris Kaunas basketball school. Vene joined Zalgiris as a 15-year old and played on the U18 Zalgiris side that won the Nike International Junior Tournament in 2007. He made his EuroLeague debut in 2009, but then groomed his game for several years, often on loan with different teams. Over the last three seasons, Vene was back as a role player with the Lithuanian powerhouse, but with the change of scenery he now seems to be well on the way to reaching his potential at the top levels, something not many players from his country have had a chance to achieve.
Basketball might not be the most popular sport in Estonia, but players like Vene go a long way in helping the sport gain a bigger audience. In the past, Vene has carried his country's national teams in the youth categories, causing fans notice him and his country’s basketball teams. However, growing up, young Vene did not have to look far to find basketball. The sport has basically found him, since both of his parents – mother Lea and father Priit - were professional players in their time.
“I remember mother playing a lot. I used to be in gym all the time with her. That’s what I remember the most,” Vene said. It is no surprise that he found himself acquainted with basketball at very early age. “I remember some pictures from when I was 3 or 4, just running around the gym with mother and other kids. Later when I was going to school already, I had to do my homework to get to the practice with my father. And if I couldn’t make it, I remember some tears and things.”
His parents said he couldn’t go to practice unless he finished his homework, which Vene admits made him work harder and better. His mom Lea was a long-time member of the Estonian national team, with a successful career throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, during which she won eight Estonian national championships. His dad played basketball internationally, and some time after his playing career, got into coaching and eventually ended up as an assistant with Zalgiris. But one of the first coaching jobs for Vene’s father was coaching his son’s youth team.
“I first played for a team my father coached I was 10 or 11 year old,” Vener said. “From one side it is easy, because you know what he wants and how he is going to act, or what he expects from you. From the other side, it is tough because everybody is looking at you, and your father expects most from you, not from the other guys.”
Because the young Vene was so talented, the big clubs came calling. He chose Zalgiris, which turned into a good decision, however, not an easy one. “I think the decision wasn’t tough. I was young, I was 15 at the time. It seemed like a new adventure, some new thing, to go alone to another country, it seemed really cool. But still as a kid, it takes time and it is not so easy to live in another country alone. But it also wasn’t something I had to cry about, or was too hard that I was thinking about returning home. I lived it and it was good experience.”
He graduated from high school in Lithuania, and spent 10 years in and out of the Zalgiris system, although Vene spent majority of those seasons on loan. But the decision to join Zalgiris was obviously one Vene and his family were pleased with, because his younger brother, Kent-Kaarel, also a basketball player, also moved to Lithuania and joined Zalgiris as a 16-year old in 2010.
This is the third EuroCup campaign with a third different club for Vene, who made his debut in 2011-12 with VEF Riga of Latvia. He then played the following season with BC Rudupis Prienai of Lithuania. Vene also played for several other Lithuanian teams as well as Ludwigsburg in Germany. In the meantime, Vene was called to make his national team debut as a teenager, too, and throughout the years has become a pillar of his country’s squad.
The past three years Vene helped Zalgiris win three Lithuanian championship titles, before deciding to seek an opportunity with Nizhny. It did not take long for that choice to start playing dividends for a player coming from a basketball family.