Daniel Theis, ratiopharm Ulm

Jan 18, 2013 by David Hein, Eurocupbasketball.com Print
Daniel Theis, ratiopharm Ulm
Daniel Theis - Ratiopharm UlmRatiopharm Ulm boats one of the top young post players in Germany in Daniel Theis and this season the big man has shown the rest of Europe just how special he can be. The 20-year-old Salzgitter native has already displayed signs of stardom by showing off an all-around impressive physical package, topped by his superior athleticism, explosive jumping ability and fearlessness. But the power forward is not afraid to admit he has a lot left to learn.

“I always try to use my time on the court as best I can whenever it is. My main job is to bring the team energy – if that’s in the starting five or from off the bench,” said Theis, who is seen as part of the core group that will lead the next generation of German hoops together with Bamberg’s Philipp Neumann, Maximillian Kleber of Wurzburg and Johannes Voigtmann of Frankfurt, in addition to 22-year-old Maik Zirbes and 23-year-old Tibor Pleiss.

Theis learned the game growing up in the youth ranks of New Yorker Phantoms Braunschweig, but earned only minimal playing time with the German club’s senior team. But when he did get on the court, Theis was productive, averaging 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in less than 8 minutes per game during the 2011-12 season. He really showcased his skills at the 2011 Under-20 European Championships in Bilbao, Spain, where Theis helped Germany to a best-ever fifth placed finish with 12.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks. The talented Germans were hoping for an even better performance at last summer’s U20 European Championships in Lithuania, but Theis suffered an injury in the first game and was limited thereafter (8.5 points, 4.3 rebounds) and the Germans again finished fifth.

“In Bilbao, it was really exciting. I was with the German team for the first time and fifth place was unbelievable,” said Theis. “Last summer I think we expected more. We had some injuries and if we had everyone on board, we could have achieved more.”

Theis’s fortitude off the court was tested in the 2012 off-season when he left Braunschweig to sign on a three-year deal with Ulm. Braunschweig, however, insisted that it had a valid contract with Theis and even threatened in the German media that it would file a lawsuit to keep the youngster on its team. Ultimately it was determined that Ulm had acted properly in his signing and was giving Theis the chance he had wanted – to go to a bigger club and get better experience.

“There was a lot of perspective for me there as they had developed some young players like Robin Benzing and Per Guenther. Of course, I would also like to win titles and Ulm was playing internationally. That had an impact too. Everything just fit,” said Theis. He also purposely signed a longer, three-year deal. “I didn’t want to move from place to place every year. I just wanted to earn some playing time my first year. Next year maybe I can become a starter if it works out. But just so that I can develop at my own speed.”

Ulm’s first game of the season came at Braunschweig, and Theis was needed to play big minutes with veteran power forwards Dane Watts and Keaton Nankivil both out injured. Theis stepped up with 18 points and 10 rebounds despite many Braunschweig fans insulting him – just months after cheering him on as one of their own.

Ulm coach Thorsten Leibenath praised the 20-year-old Theis following the ordeal with Braunschweig. “I’m impressed with the way he handled it. When you look at his performance at Braunschweig, he had to play a lot of minutes, but he didn’t show any signs of nervousness. In that sense, he’s very mature. He’s just a ballplayer who has a lot of guts and just wants to play and he can block everything else aside,” said the coach.

“The only time I saw him a little rattled was after the Braunschweig game because he’s a kid from there. He gave his heart and soul to that organization for a long time. So for him to get in there and get insulted and cussed out by all his people, he realized that this business has a bad side to it sometimes. But he stayed strong and had a great game,” Ulm point guard Per Guenther said. “Other than that, you don’t see anything else from that. He’s been as professional as anyone else can be.”

Watts and Nankivil have since returned and Theis headed to the bench. But Theis’s agent and former Euroleague and German national team star Ademola Okulaja said the youngster has shown he’s growing up. “A year or two ago, he would have been frustrated and said ‘why am I not playing?’ Now it’s like, ‘yes, I’m not playing, but that means I have to work harder to improve. I need to be the first guy in the gym.’ All that is coming from him. And I see that this kid’s got it,” said Okulaja.

One thing is certain, whenever Theis is on the court, fans must be on the watch for something spectacular. “When Daniel gets the ball near the basket, he just tries to tear down the rim. At the same time, he’s not only explosive, he’s also fearless. Sometimes you wonder if he knows that the other guy is 10 centimeters taller than him or 20 kilos heavier. But he doesn’t care. ‘I’m just going at you,’ ” Okulaja said.

Theis is already high on the radar of top talent scouts, but he has remained grounded, focused instead on working and developing. His goal for this season is to earn as many minutes as possible. And next season he would like to become a starter. He said the main areas he’s currently working on are his shooting and his drive to the basket.

“I need that so that I can have a face-up game. Also, I need to get stronger for my low-post game,” he said. “On offense, I know better what decisions to make and when. The playing time has helped with that, also with the confidence. And I have improved a lot with my rebounding.”

Daniel Theis - Ratiopharm UlmLeibenath said his young player must learn to play more physically and aggressively, also on defense. “His athletic ability is off the charts. It’s unbelievable. Some of his blocks I don’t see too many people able to do that. But I want him to be more physical… It’s normal when you’re 20 that you don’t have the body of a veteran. But he’s working hard and will get there,” said the coach. Leibenath did not want to address talk of Theis drawing attention from scouts. “His goal should be to really establish himself in the German BBL, which is a high standard.”

Okulaja, who has fielded requests from abroad, said the focus right now is different: “Right now, become the king of your castle… Just think, I am here in Ulm right now and I want to be the best player in Ulm.”

Theis himself shrugged off the issue and said: “Naturally, it’s in the back of my mind somewhere that maybe I could try it. But I just want to improve more and more this season and be ready when it’s my time.”

Another step for Theis could come summer. After playing two summers with the U20 team, Theis has set his sights on Germany’s senior national team – and possibly already at EuroBasket 2013. “It would mean a lot to be in Slovenia. It would be a confirmation for the hard work this season. It would be great to accomplish it in my first year after the junior ranks.”

Theis has solid chances of playing in Slovenia considering new German national team coach Frank Menz coached the German U20 team the past two summers. “He will be in the A2 roster this summer and take part in the extended senior team squad. He’s still technically raw, though he has a lot of things that are needed to play at the top level. Take away his athleticism, he still has a lot of things to learn technique-wise. But I think he’s a very talented player,” Menz said of Theis.

While his game may still be raw, Theis’s personality isn’t. Despite being only 20 years old, Theis has found acceptance from his older teammates. He is also thinking longer term as he is engaged with a wedding likely for the summer of 2014 or 2015. He’s also a dedicated family man who played for years in Braunschweig with his brother Frank and still keeps in close contact with him.

Still, Daniel Theis has moved away and started a life on his own – one which will likely bring him far in the game of basketball.