Vladimir Veremeenko, Unics Kazan

Jan 26, 2009 by Andrei Kazankov, Eurocupbasketball.com Print
Vladimir Veremeenko, Unics Kazan
Vladimir Veremeenko - UnicsAmong three undefeated teams from the Eurocup regular season, one player averaged more minutes on court, almost 34 per game, than any other. In fact, his average playing time was 5 and 10 minutes more, respectively, than the most-used players on the other undefeated teams. This indispensable presence was neither a trophy-carrying veteran nor an international medal winner. Rather, 24-year-old power forward Vladimir Veremeenko is a former teenage star from Belarus who has reemerged to make Unics Kazan the most dominant of three Russian teams heading into the Last 16. Unics arrives at the Last 16 despite having started in the competition's first qualifying round, way back on October 14. Since then, the easternmost team in the competition has won 8 of 10 games, and while Veremeenko missed two victories with injury, his contribution has been huge. Among Eurocup players with four or more regular season appearances, Veremeenko ranked first in blocks (2 bpg.), second in rebounds (8.8 rpg.) and third in performance index rating (21.5 pirpg.). He is also the second-best scorer (14.3 ppg.) for Unics in Eurocup play. On the cusp of the Last 16, Veremeenko is well aware that, ultimately, performance is measured in success, and since Unics previously made the ULEB Cup semifinals, he wants more. "In order to be satisfied looking back at the season," he told Eurocupbasketball.com, "I hope we can advance to the Eurocup final game."

Basketball runs through the veins of Vladimir Veremeenko, who inherited his love and talent for the game from his parents, both former professional players. Veremeenko's mother was a member of the mighty Soviet national team, while his father spent part of his professional career in Poland. "Both my father and my mother were basketball players, and as I grew up watching my father play, basketball was a natural choice for me," Veremeenko recalls. "I didn't even consider any other sport." The young Veremeenko didn't have to wait long to begin. He started practicing under his mother, now a coach, the same year he started at school. In sixth grade, Veremeenko's parents sent him to an acknowledged professional trainer, and quite soon he became known as the most talented prospect in not only his native city of Gomel, but in all Belarus.

In 2000, at age 15, Veremeenko joined the national team, and a year later he played in the Belorussian League's all-star game. "This kind of success was of course very pleasant for me, as well as a motivation to try to get better and better," he says. Soon, Veremeenko's desire to improve would lead him away from home. His team in Gomel had connections to Avtodor Saratov, one of the major Russian clubs at that time, and in 2002 the talented forward was invited to Russia to show his skills. "I was at a tryout, and the chemistry was great: The people there liked me, and I liked them, so I decided to make the move," Veremeenko says.

Vladimir Veremeenko - UnicsHe developed a close relationship with Avtodor owner Vladimir Rodionov, a businessman and basketball fanatic who played an important role in Veremeenko's early career. The young forward continued to improve, averaging 14.2 points and 7 rebounds per game in his second Russian League season, while still a teenager. When Rodionov moved his organization in order to start a basketball team in St. Petersburg, Veremeenko followed. He established himself as one of the stars of Dynamo St. Petersburg, which dominated the 2004-05 FIBA Europe League, winning the tournament undefeated as Veremeenko averaged 12.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Veremeenko looks back at that time with satisfaction: "Everything went well during my four years with Rodionov – the two years in Saratov and the two in St. Petersburg. The coaches trusted me, I was playing well and improving, and the teams were winning."

Indeed, Dynamo reached as high as the third place in the Russian League in 2006, but then the club was dissolved, and soon Veremeenko found himself just outside Moscow, wearing the jersey of BC Khimki. For the first time in his career Veremeenko, who knew nothing but success until then, found himself struggling. "I was plagued by injuries, and at the same time I couldn't find any common language with the coach. He didn't have trust in me, and that's very hard for a basketball player, because we all want a chance to contribute," Veremeenko explains. "I was frustrated and even started losing my concentration, thinking too much about other things than basketball."

Although Veremeenko contributed to Khimki's progress during those two seasons - with third- and second-place finishes in the Russian League as well as two honorable ULEB Cup campaigns - the forward was tired of sitting on the bench, so he didn't hesitate when Unics head coach Aco Petrovic contacted him prior to the 2008-09 season. "I met with coach Aco Petrovic, who let me know that he believed in me and saw me as being able to play a leading role on his team. It didn't take me long to agree to his proposal," Veremeenko says with a laugh. "Of course, it still depended on me to grab the opportunity and fulfill his expectations, but he convinced me that I would get a fair chance, and I for that I am grateful."

The move to Unics marked a new, bright chapter in Veremeenko's career. The Kazan club's results have been nothing but outstanding, and Veremeenko's impact on that success is not to be underestimated. He averaged 12 points and 9.8 rebounds in the four Eurocup qualification games, helping Unics to advance to the regular season, where he elevated his game further, to team-high averages in performance index rating (21.5), rebounds (8.8), blocks (2) and minutes (33:53). He bested his scoring average of 14.3 points in one quarter alone, an 18-point outburst in the last 10 minutes of a key and close home win against Lukoil Academic of Bulgaria. "What you need in order to be successful in basketball is to play good and to be lucky," he stresses. "We could have lost our first game against Lukoil Academic in Bulgaria, but we won on a last-second shot."

Vladimir Veremeenko - UnicsWith the Last 16 coming up, Veremeenko is confident that Unics can repeat its Final Eight of a year ago. Despite a perfect regular season, Veremeenko knows that Unics will meet tougher competition in the Last 16. "We start with a road game against Benetto Treviso, and though we beat them in pre-season, playing a Last 16 game on their court will be a totally different story," he says. "We have to defend our home court, win all three home games, and steal at least one game on the road. That's the formula."

As in the regular season, Veremeenko wants Unics aiming high to win its Last 16 group, too, so that he may help his team improve on its best international finish to date, a semifinals appearance in the ULEB Cup two seasons ago. "The best we can do is to win the group so we can avoid the winner of the other group in the quarterfinals," he says. "In that case we'll have a better chance of advancing further and maybe go all the way to the final."