What swayed Sasha Vezenkov’s decision to join Kings now originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area
Three months after being named the EuroLeague MVP, Kings rookie Sasha Vezenkov packed his bags, flew nearly 7,000 miles to the United States and embarked on a new journey in Northern California as he makes his transition into the NBA.
A few days after his arrival to Sacramento, Vezenkov approached the podium inside Golden 1 Center on Thursday for his introductory press conference. To his side was reigning NBA Executive of the Year Monte McNair. A few feet to his right was the unanimous 2022-23 NBA Coach of the Year Mike Brown. Standing next to Brown were fellow Kings teammates, the league’s first-ever Clutch Player of the Year De’Aaron Fox and NBA rookie 3-point king Keegan Murray.
Collectively, McNair, Brown, Fox, Murray and the rest of the team made history inside that same building just a few months prior, and Sacramento’s newfound success was the main reason why Vezenkov sat there Thursday afternoon with “Kings basketball” across his chest.
“Like I said, I like to win games and this helped in my decision,” Vezenkov said on the timing of his decision to join the Kings. “As we saw, the Kings last year were a fantastic team, playing beautiful basketball, but the most important – winning. So it helped me a lot. I didn’t see every game, but I saw a bunch of games, and it really helped my decision.”
The Brooklyn Nets selected Vezenkov in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft before the Cleveland Cavaliers acquired his draft rights in a multi-team trade involving NBA star James Harden. Last summer, his rights were traded to the Kings for the 49th pick in the 2022 draft, which became Isaiah Mobley.
Vezenkov opted to play last season in Europe with Olympiacos and wound up having the greatest season of his career. While his goal of winning a EuroLeague championship fell just seconds away from becoming a reality, Vezenkov knew it was time to move on and fulfill another goal of his.
Calls were made and conversations were had, and both sides agreed there was no better timing than now to bring the European superstar to the NBA.
McNair, Brown and the Kings organization were aware of the special talent that the 6-foot-9 forward was, but they spent last season traveling to see him in person and getting to know him off the court. It’s something that didn’t go unnoticed by Vezenkov or his family, and it made the decision to move across the world much easier.
“For us, we traded for his rights two drafts ago, but this is a big decision for Sasha,” McNair said. “So my goal and us going to see him was to just forge that relationship. If the NBA was [somewhere] that he wanted to be in his future, I wanted to show him that we would be a great landing spot, that we would be a great fit for him.
“… So, it was really a two-way street and certainly excitement for us, because we know that he’s a great player and we think he’s going to be a great fit for us, but also excited for him that he chose something, whether it’s the challenge, the ability to win big here, and to do it on potentially the biggest stage after a ton of success and some great leagues over in Europe. So certainly excitement, but you know, as much for him as for us.”
Vezenkov further explained what went into his decision-making, and shared how those around him helped him realize the answer was right in front of him.
And even knowing he’d be thousands of miles away from his country, Vezenkov already feels at home in Sacramento.
“It’s a big move for me,” Vezenkov admitted. “But my family, my friends, my girlfriend, everybody supports me and everybody helped me with this decision. And all the members of Sacramento, from Monte to all the players, the coaching staff, was really helpful.
“They tried to help me with everything, so I feel like home. Even though I’m here [only] a couple of days, I feel like I have a new family.”
A part of that family made sure to be in the room with him during his first presser as an NBA player. The presence of Fox and Murray, who have spent the majority of their offseason in Sacramento working on their game together, spoke volumes.
The Kings’ 2022-23 success stemmed from more than just skill. Team chemistry and togetherness were one of the first components on Coach Brown’s checklist after accepting the job last summer. It was the first year of the core playing together as a unit, but that didn’t matter.
Sabonis, one of the newer Kings last season, took matters into his own hands and invited the team over to his Napa home for some team bonding. It was a small gesture, but it helped make a massive difference and spark something special in Sacramento.
Fox and Murray being in the building on Thursday could be that small gesture for the upcoming season.
“That feels incredible because what they did throughout the years, it’s really incredible,” Vezenkov said when asked what it meant for his teammates to be there. “I watched them only on TV, so now it’s a pleasure and I’m blessed to play with them. And I hope – and I’m sure – that I will help this team to fulfill the goals and to help them win games.”
Fox, Murray, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes and Domantas Sabonis played significantly more minutes than any other starting five last season. Plus, players like Malik Monk, Davion Mitchell and Lyles provided exciting sparks off the bench that kept the team spirit alive. It all ended following a first-round postseason exit, but the Kings went from the laughing stock of the league to playoff contenders in a matter of months.
And even from a different continent, Vezenkov was keeping close tabs on his soon-to-be teammates.
“I studied their game,” Vezenkov said. “I know every single player, what he’s doing. I did my scouting before I came here and when we talk about an All-Star (Fox) and Rookie First-Team, one of the best rookies in the league (Murray), and another All-Star (Sabonis), great, great players and the Coach of the Year, like Monte said.
“We have a great organization with great players and the expectations are high, so we just have to work really hard. For me, the best part is that the core is the same of the team so I have to adjust fast.”
Vezenkov will have a few months to get acclimated to the NBA level, and although he hasn’t had a chance to scarf down an In-N-Out burger just yet, he doesn’t believe he’ll have any issues adjusting to California living.
It’s only a matter of time until Kings fans can witness what they’ve been talking about over the last year and what Vezenkov has dreamt about all his life when he steps foot onto an NBA court for the very first time.
“When I had to [make] the decision, I put down the positives and the negatives,” Vezenkov said. “And I saw that here is a bright future for me and an opportunity to help the team. So as the talks were going through, I realized that this is a spot for me.”
The future certainly is bright in Sacramento, and it could get even brighter in Sasharamento. Too soon? We’ll have to wait and see.