«The number of bridges in St. Petersburg doesn’t compare to how many combinations Xavi Pascual has». Interview with Vince Hunter

«The number of bridges in St. Petersburg doesn’t compare to how many combinations Xavi Pascual has». Interview with Vince Hunter

American center Vince Hunter became VTB United League champion last year with UNICS, and this season he’s trying to repeat that with Zenit.

The defensive expert talked about playing in Europe and how the United League has changed since his first experience with Avtodor, compared Xavi Pascual and Velimir Perasovic, shared his opinion on Georgy Zhbanov and his tough style, and named the best centers in the League.

– When you first came to Europe, you said you didn’t really like giving interviews. But only since the beginning of this year I found 3 conversations with journalists with your participation! I guess something has changed?
– I’ve been playing pro for 10 years now, so of course I’ve had to learn to be more open! Every year I get better and better at this part of our job. I love socializing. But if you had asked for an interview 6 or 7 years ago, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it at all!

– Were you shy?
– I just didn’t socialize that much, a lot of people didn’t even know what I was like inside, and I would sometimes get nervous during interviews.

– You’re a great guy! Why would you be nervous?
– You know, sometimes people get nervous about nothing, and that’s what happened to me during the interview.

– You don’t have to worry about that right now. I appreciate you agreeing to talk!
– No problem! I’m sure it’ll be great.

– Vince, you’re playing as a center, but this season we’ve seen you dribble all over the court and make three-pointers. Is the point guard inside of you awake?
– People often ask me about my position, whether I’m center or forward. Actually, I’m not exactly a classic bigman. Moreover, when I played in the NBA or the G-League, I was absolutely not a center! So I have certain skills as a forward, I can dribble, play swithces on defense not against centers. All of that helps me to be more versatile. I don’t tend to dribble for a long time, but I can demonstrate it if I need to. Every country, every championship has its own basketball, and if your arsenal is wider, you can adapt faster. Everywhere I played, I learned something, improved my skills. So I would say I’m not a pure center. My game can be diverse!

– You said that every championship has its own basketball. Would you say that the VTB United League suits your style of play?
– Yes, I think I have adapted to the VTB United League basketball. In fact, European basketball suits me very well – I can play against guards or centers, it helps my team to get more out of me on defense. In modern basketball you have to show versatility. That’s why it’s not hard for me to make switches. I think it’s because of my defense that I’m interesting to the teams I play for. At Zenit we have enough shooters – look at Thomas Heurtel, Trent Frazier, Kyle Kuric – these guys can score 25-30 points. So I have to take care of the defense – and coach is very cool using me when building the defense. I feel very comfortable here.

– The first time you played in the VTB United League was in 2016. How has the League changed since then?
– First of all, the teams from the middle and the bottom have become stronger, more often taking wins away from the top teams. When I first came to the VTB League, there were 3 or 4 teams that were at the top, and the rest were behind. Now the situation has changed. Those who are lower are feeling the strength to beat the leaders. Especially this season it can be felt! The standings are constantly changing, everyone has ups and downs. The competition is incredible. It is impossible to win every game with a 30-point advantage. The level has risen, and that’s good for the League.

– I think you told me you played against Jalen Reynolds back in high school….
– Not really, I watched Jalen play when I was still in high school. He’s a little older than me, and I’ve been watching him ever since. The first time we played during our college days. Our teams met in a tournament, and I won by the way! Jalen is an incredible player. He has a lot of talent, and I love playing against the best. Plus, we’re from the same city, it’s always nice to grow up near each other and meet up later in our careers.

– Was he always difficult to play with?
– Of course! We’ve known each other for a long time, we’re both fighters, and it’s always been difficult to face each other.

– What do you need to do to stop him?
– I’ve been trying to figure it out all season! I still have a little time before the Playoffs to solve this puzzle. Anyway, I think we both want to meet again in the decisive games. Preferably in the Finals. And each of us will be racking our brains on how to stop our opponent. We won the title together that year, but now I have to do everything I can to neutralize him! But I love a challenge like this. That’s what I do. It exhausts me on the court, but I enjoy it.

– UNICS won the title due to defense. Is Xavi Pascual’s philosophy similar or different?
– Xavi Pascual and Velimir Perasovic are 2 completely different coaches. Xavi seems to have a million combinations in offense, he spends an incredible amount of time on tactical developments in offense. He’s certainly good at defensive play as well, but his specialty is offense. He switches depending on the circumstances, he always has his own plan. I would say his mindset is built on offense. Perasovic style is defense, defense and defense again. And that’s what he’s incredibly good at.

– You said that Pascual has a million combinations, and I was just about to ask you: what is more in St. Petersburg – bridges or Xavi’s combinations?
– There are incredibly many bridges in St. Petersburg! (laughs) But even their number doesn’t compare to how many combinations Xavi Pascual has. We have so many variations of the game, no doubt about it. I think that even if you take all the things we practise, Xavi has a couple of hundred combinations in his head. He is a maestro.

– Xavi Pascual and Velimir Perasovic have a long rivlary history. What are their similarities and differences?
– They both aim only to win! These coaches hate to lose.

– Xavi looks more emotional, he is from Spain after all, a hot country!
– You think so? I would say that Perasovic is more emotional! Look at the way he gesticulates. He never stops! Xavi is more calm, measured. Of course, he has his emotions, but he is more cool-blooded.

– And if we talk not only about emotions, but also about some personal qualities?
– You know, I have a great relationship with both Velimir and Xavi, so I don’t want to compare or contrast them in any way. I don’t want to have problems with them! (smiles)

– You moved to St. Petersburg together with Georgy Zhbanov. Everyone says he’s incredibly aggressive in defense, you could say he just hits people! What’s better – to get hit by him 6 days a week in training or to go up against him once in an official game?
– If we put the question like that, of course it’s better to play once a week! Especially since his opponents play him only a couple times a season!

– So, he does not spare his partners in training either?
– He is energized every day. Every minute he spends on the court, he gives his best. He has an incredible energy, he’s physically strong. Zhbanov can punish anyone! So if we’re talking in terms of quantity, it’s better to play him a couple times a season! But I see him in the game every day.

– Since you moved to Zenit together, is it Georgy with whom you communicate the most? Maybe there is someone else you would like to move?
– Hahaha, I’m not a manager after all! (laughs) Zhora and I share the same mindset – we’re both focused on defense. We can lead the defense. If you sign Zhbanov, it improves your defense noticeably. I love watching him play, and his dedication is something I really like. I think we’re both glad we moved to St. Petersburg together and continue to play on the same team.

– You’ve already said that the VTB League has become more competitive, with different teams winning it 3 years in a row. What does Zenit need to do to bring the title back to St. Petersburg?
– I think we are moving in that direction. I like the way we are playing now, the confidence we have. Even if you look at the games we lost – like against UNICS – it was a great game, we had every chance. I’m sure we’ll improve for the Playoffs, now we just need to stay focused, and then we’ll be ready for the deciding games.

– You’ve won more than one trophy – the Italian Championship, the Greek Cup, and recently the Russian Cup. Is winning the VTB United League the most important for you?
– I think so. Especially the way we achieved it. But I’ll say “probably” the most important. Every trophy you win means a lot. It’s hard to rank the wins somehow, but if I choose one, it’s the title last year.

– St. Petersburg and Kazan are quite different. How do you feel in St. Petersburg?
– Actually, St. Petersburg wasn’t that hard to get used to. I love Kazan very much, it was a real home for me, but I think I love St. Petersburg a bit more. My family is very comfortable here, and this is a very important factor.

– Have they told you about the white nights yet? Have you bought blackout curtains?
– You have to tell me! I’m not aware of it yet.

– It hardly ever gets dark in St. Petersburg in the summer, even at night! Of course, the sun doesn’t shine, but it’s quite bright outside. So you better make sure you have curtains to keep the light out!
– I don’t know what you mean, I don’t see the sun that often in Petersburg! When it comes out, I’m happy. So we’ll see!

– St. Petersburg is very fond of sports – there’s football, basketball, volleyball, hockey. Have you been going out?
– Actually, I really like sports in any form. I really want to go to football and hockey. I haven’t had a chance to do it yet, because the schedule is very tight, but I should definitely go to Zenit FC game, we are one family. And I would love to see SKA! I love attending sporting events. Maybe I don’t watch games on TV that often, but I enjoy it in the stands.

– I hope you get it in St. Petersburg too!
– God willing!

– Last question. Your personal opinion – the three best centers in the VTB United League right now.
– The three best centers…

– Yeah, according to Vince Hunter.
– Hmm… Can I name myself on that list?

– That’s a good question. I guess so
– Well, in case you don’t say yes. Of course, Jalen Reynolds is number one. He’s an incredible talent, he’s great on offense, he’s very difficult to defend against. He makes a lot of big shots, so I have to name him.

– Okay, one more besides you and Jalen!
– I’ll have to think about it…. I might need to go back to last season… Everyone, I know! Bojan Dubljevic! He can shoot the three-pointer and play in the post, so I’ll name him!