Sasha Vezenkov left Olympiacos as one of the greatest players in their history, he left Europe as the greatest player in the continent and he’ll enter the NBA as … a rookie who must prove he belongs with the best players in the world.
That challenge begins soon, as the 28-year-old officially will begin his highly anticipated NBA journey in the 2023-24 season with the Kings, who acquired his draft rights last summer and signed him to a reported three-year, $20 million contract last month.
While several question marks surround this international man of mystery, the EuroLeague MVP’s fit in Sacramento’s system should be seamless. He’s an extremely efficient scorer whose style of play is similar to how the Kings run their offense. Vezenkov constantly is moving, cutting and finding ways to get open – sound familiar?
He is a catch-and-shoot big whose numbers are just as incredible as his ability to knock down the most astonishing, well-contested shots. The 6-foot-9 forward is a career 40-percent 3-point shooter who shoots 63 percent from inside the arc.
And these numbers didn’t just come from a season or two, these are his shooting splits over the course of his entire eight-year career in the second-best basketball league in the world.
His quick release is lethal and extremely rare as a big. He pretty much can pull up from anywhere on the court, and it doesn’t matter how well he’s guarded or how much space he has -- all he needs is a little wiggle room to fire away and knock down a trey.
Even though Vezenkov’s biggest threat is as a catch-and-shoot big, he has learned to find other ways to make an impact. While playing with Olympiacos, opposing teams began to pick up on Vezenkov’s game and double- or even triple-team him at times. This forced him to become a better passer and allow his teammates to become more involved with all the attention on him.
That might not be the case in the NBA right away, but it’s nice to know his game goes beyond just shooting from beyond the arc.
His rebounding has improved dramatically, too. In three seasons with FC Barcelona and his first two with Olympiacos, Vezenkov had a total of 271 rebounds combined in those five seasons. In a single campaign with Olympiacos last season, he grabbed 274 boards. It’s certainly an area Sacramento must improve on in the upcoming season, and Vezenkov could help with those efforts.
Vezenkov seems like the perfect fit on paper basketball-wise, and Kings general manager Monte McNair is confident the Bulgarian big man will be a great addition to the team off the court, too -- something incredibly important to a team who thrived off team chemistry and a reborn culture last season.
McNair spoke to NBC Sports California’s Kyle Draper in the latest “Kings Central: Offseason Review” about why he believes Vezenkov is the right fit for the Kings.
"I'll start with he's the EuroLeague MVP. What that means is the best league outside the NBA in the world is the EuroLeague, and he was just named the Most Valuable Player there,” McNair told Draper “His team had incredible success, both in their domestic league and the EuroLeague over in Greece. He's an incredible shooter. He's got great feel. He can pass the ball. He can cut. He'll be a great fit, I think, in our offense.
“Defensively, someone who's improved as a rebounder. One of the higher IQ players that we've seen. Lastly, I'll say just someone who's a winner. He wants to win. He cares deeply about that. Look, it's going to be a different challenge for him, coming over here to the NBA. And I know he's excited about that transition, and our fit, I think he has a chance to be really special.”
The Brooklyn Nets drafted Vezenkov No. 57 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft and then traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers. His talent often is questioned due to where he was selected in the draft. “If he’s so good, why was he a second-round pick?” Understandable, but so was reigning NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokić, and look how that turned out.
There also was skepticism about him not being athletic enough to be in the NBA, and he was advised to develop in Europe before coming into the league. He listened, and he did.
Vezenkov really broke out in Year 3 with Olympiacos, but it was over the last two seasons that he became a European superstar.
In 2022, Vezenkov led Olympiacos to the Final Four for the first time in over a decade. However, he scored just five points in the biggest game of his career, finishing 2 of 10 from the field and 1 of 8 from 3-point range in the EuroLeague semifinal matchup against the Anadolu Efes.
The next season, he came back stronger and was a man on a mission. Olympiacos reached the Final Four once again, where they swept the 2023 NBA Draft No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama's France team. They then advanced to the EuroLeague Finals vs. Real Madrid, and Vezenkov stepped up big this time, finishing with 29 points, nine rebounds and four assists in a heartbreaking, final-second loss.
Like the Kings, Vezenkov is hungry for more and ready to take that next step toward winning championships. McNair and Co. watched him from afar last season and even occasionally went to visit him and witness the action in person. They were pleased with what they saw and knew the timing was right.
"We're always looking to add talent however we can," McNair told Draper. "Obviously, someone who you own the rights to, I think he's at an age and a time in his career where it makes sense. A fit within our system. When all those things line up, and then the other part of the equation is his interest."
The pieces came together, now it's on Vezenkov to prove he belongs.
It is rare that a No. 3 seed can add a high-impact rookie to their team the following summer, but for the Kings, that's exactly what they're hoping Vezenkov will be.