"General" Koponen is a real stat-sheet stuffer
Finnish point guard belongs to the European basketball elite
By Markku Lahti
Along with his team, Finland's Petteri Koponen, 24, has enjoyed a cracking start to the FIBA European Basketball Championship qualifiers.
After four games played, with a scoring average of 22.8 points per game, the Finnish point guard stands as the third highest point scorer.
In their opening encounter at home to Albania, Koponen notched up his one-game record of 29 points. The personal milestone of 1,000 career points for the national team he reached in Finland's win over Switzerland.
”My primary concern is not my own points total, but ensuring victory for the team”, Koponen says with the appropriate modesty.
”If there is an opportunity, I will take the shot and hope that it goes in.”
Koponen recalls that his previous record of 27 points was also set in an international, in a game against Croatia.
"Sometimes the opposing team is marking me tightly. This usually gives room for others to score points.”
Finland's head coach Henrik Dettmann does not think that the absence of experienced playmaker Teemu Rannikko has altered Koponen's role. Rannikko, who is eight years older than Koponen, is currently out of commission because of a leg injury.
“This is how life is. People grow up, grow older, and get replaced by new blood. It is perfectly natural”, Dettmann says.
“The fact remains that this would be Koponen's team in any case.”
Koponen's national teammates refer to him as “the General”. In Dettmann's view this is an apt nickname and speaks of the respect that Koponen enjoys within the squad.
Koponen says that when he landed in the national team, Rannikko was his idol. Koponen admired Rannikko's ball handling and playmaking ability.
“For me it was major to get to practice and play with Rannikko. Big thanks to him. I learned a lot from him. For me it was a big deal”, Koponen enthuses.
”I wish he was still aboard. It would help the entire team and would certainly take some pressure off me as the playmaker.”
In the light of raw numbers, the commotion around Koponen - who is transferring to the Russian team of BC Khimki for the coming season - appears to be well justified.
In the assists statistics at Eurobasket, Koponen holds 11th place (5.0), and in the steal statistics he is ranked 8th (2.3). He is also the 8th best free thrower (87.5%) and 11th best three-point shooter (54.2%).
“The last European Basketball Championship qualifier game will be played on September 11th. The very next morning I will fly to Zagreb to play a practice game in the Khimki line-up. The Russian league will commence in early October”, Koponen sheds light on his first appearances with his new team.
Aside from Finland, four other teams - Montenegro, Germany, Croatia, and Italy - were also unbeaten in the qualifiers heading into Sunday's games.
Finland's path towards the Eurobasket finals continued without any undue hiccups this past Sunday with a convincing 95-52 win over Albania in Tirana.
Victory at home to Poland on Wednesday (the Finns won the away fixture, albeit by a squeakily narrow margin) will wrap things up, qualification-wise, even with matches against Belgium and Switzerland to come.
The Belgians and Swiss meet on the same evening, and only one of them could conceivably topple the Finns from top spot, with at least two teams going through.
Olympic Games or Olympic Qualifying Tournament participants Spain, France, Russia, Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece, Slovenia and Great Britain have all automatically qualified for the EuroBasket 2013 Final Round, which will be played in September 2013 in Slovenia.
The 31 remaining teams were split into 5 groups of 5 teams and one group of 6 teams. The winners and second-placed teams in each group plus the 4 best third-placed teams will qualify for the finals.
According to head coach Dettmann, speaking before the rout of Albania on Sunday, the national team has three strength areas that have kept them on a winning path.
1. The Players
"There is not a single good team in the world that is not composed of talented and competent individuals. In the Finnish national squad, the players' whole-hearted attitude and commitment are at an extraordinary level. Perhaps this sounds a bit philosophical, but I think their entire culture of 'being' is hitting the right note”, says the coach.
2. The Overall Concept
"The overall concept of the national basketball team encompasses coaching and cooperation between the players and the coaching staff. Strong mutual respect exists between the two components. When talking about functional and successful sporting activities one cannot leave out persistence both among the players and in their coaching."
"Luck can never be excluded from the equation. Success often depends on small things. Last year we won the first qualifier game in Hungary with a last-second throw. This year we won in Poland because the home team missed their last-second scoring attempt. The margins out there are very small indeed."
Before the Sunday game against Albania in Tirana, Team Finland enjoyed a five-day rest period.
The head coach gladly welcomes even a one-day rest without basketball.
“There are lots of interesting games coming in rapid succession, so following the qualifiers in the media is easy”, Dettmann says.
Finland played - and won - its first four qualifiers in the space of 11 days. Since the order was home, away, home, and away, there was not much downtime.
Before the qualifiers, the national team played seven games in a hectic 19-day period.
“Personally I am not too keen on such a frenetic pace. These qualifiers will then be followed by a long break during which nobody will pay any attention to one of Finland's best sports products.”
How good a sports product is the Finnish national basketball team?
“That is for the public to decide. We earn our recognition. The product is as good as our team.”
According to Dettmann, the sentiment among the national team players is that after four games played the situation is still 0-0.
“We may be unbeaten, but we have won nothing yet. For the reverse fixtures in the second round of the qualifications the starting point is exactly the same as for the first round.”
Finland play Poland in their sixth qualifying match (of eight) in the Helsinki Ice Hall on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Helsingin Sanomat / Edited from an article first published in print 31.8.2012
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finnish basketball team head European Championships qualifying group with perfect record (29.8.2012)
FIBA Eurobasket 2013 Qualifying, Group E (Wikipedia)
Petteri Koponen (Wikipedia)
MARKKU LAHTI / Helsingin Sanomat