Future Stars speaks to Mike Taylor, Head Coach of the Polish National team ahead of their World Cup 2019 campaign in China.
We should probably start from the most recent developments, the tournament in Hamburg was not particularly successful in terms of the results. However, in the game against Germany your team showed real improvements. So where exactly are you with your preparations for the World Cup in China?
We are exactly where we want to be and we are exactly on track. Some of the results are not where we want them to be, but in terms of importance it is secondary. My plan all along was to use these six games in the tournaments in Prague and Hamburg to find out more about the team. We know a lot about our core players but we need to learn more about our younger players and additional players. We have used these tournaments to give the 18 year old rising talent Olek Balcerowski more experience and confidence and help prepare him. We have another rising point guard Lukasz Kolenda which needed more experience on the senior level. The same applies to Dominik Olejniczak from Florida State. These guys are important not only now but in the future. They have a lot to learn but they also need time, experience and repetition. I think these six games were great for that. We had a fantastic training camp in Walbrzych, Poland. I think we have prepared there our line-ups, defensive coverage and of course given these young guys more experience. Results are secondary for me right now. We played our more normal rotation against a really good German team. This is more the way how we want to play and we want to build on this in the remaining preparation games.
You have mentioned your core players and their importance. There is no greater example of a core player, at least recently than Maciej Lampe. He was tremendously important for Poland in the qualification games, but will be missing from your team in China. How do you feel about this situation and how are you planning to replace him?
Maciej is a great player and had a great career. I think that with both Marcin Gortat and Maciej Lampe, two big name and great players from Poland of years past, at some point our team or country of Poland for that matter needs to move on and look to the future. Especially if they don’t want to play. Our strength has always been our team and our core. We have guys who put their heart in the National Team. We don’t have a problem with Maciej and we never had a problem with Maciej, he basically has chosen not to play at this point. I feel great about our team chemistry and where our team is. Damian Kulig has returned to our team, Adam Hrycaniuk is a true blue collar player which we could rely on and again our young bigs Balcerowski and Olejniczak are players for the future. Our front court has size and athleticism. Maybe we don’t have experience, but we have what we need to be successful. No one player is bigger than the team and our strength has always been our team and I really believe that our team will be ready for the challenges in Beijing.
I totally agree that a team is more important than individuals. We had evidence of that when Gortat and Lampe played together in the European Championship and this team was one of the worst and most disjointed teams in Polish basketball history. However, Lampe recently has come back to the team and from the outside it looked like he had completely embraced the ethos of the team and wanted to be part of this project. All of a sudden, he disappears just before a historic event for Polish basketball.
I like Maciej, I consider him a friend and I like coaching him. He helped us and nobody in the federation, nobody in our staff or on the team has a problem with him. The situation was that he decided not to play against Netherland in our last qualification game. We asked him to stay and be a part of the team on that day. The federation had a big celebration planned for our qualification to the World Cup. It was a moment to celebrate Polish basketball and give the county a chance for the country to celebrate all of the people involved including Maciej as he was an important part of the success. He decided that it was more important to go to Munich to get his hip checked. I partly understand this, a player being concerned about his body is a natural thing. On the other had it was a really special moment for the team, entire Polish basketball and the country. We wanted him to be there, we wanted to convince him to be there for the team. He decided otherwise, to go to Munich which was a very individual decision and he was upset that we see things in a different way. We have moved on immediately and we were hoping that he will move on as well but clearly he wasn’t able to. I will state again we have no problem with Lampe but we have a great team and are focusing on the guys who are here and put their whole hearts into the team and be ready for the challenges in Beijing. Our strength has always been our team.
So maybe Lampe’s decision is a great opportunity for Balcerowski. I would say that Kolenda’s minutes as a playmaker are highly questionable, Balcerowski suddenly become a very important part of your jigsaw. He may even start for your team.
Everyone needs to understand that the process of transition is very much in the fabric of building a national team which goes from one generation to the next. As a national team coach, you always have to have this awareness and you always have to continually prepare for this transition. The truly positive and important thing which we see in our preparation camp is the depth of the talent in Polish basketball. Balcerowski is a great talent, coming from a great family and showing great potential. We want to put him in a situation where he can significantly contribute without too much pressure or responsibility being put on his shoulders so that he continues to gain experience. Obviously he has a long way to reach his potential. There is no doubt that we are aware of this next generation of talent and the future is bright for Polish basketball.
Without a doubt! I’m excited about the rising talent. When you look at the generation which we have worked with in the last five, six years we have a great core, all these guys are hard working, ”team first” type of players. There are more Polish players playing abroad, more Polish clubs playing in international competitions. I’m really optimistic when I think about the future of Polish basketball. I believe in the players and I also believe in the work of the staff and the federation and general direction of Polish basketball.
You emphasise the importance of the team. There is no escaping the fact that the influence of star players is immense. You need players who can create their own shots and take over in crucial moments. Even if we consider your most recent games Tomas Satoransky and Dennis Schroder took over in decisive moments securing victories for Czech Republic and Germany respectively. Where are the clutch players for Polish national team?
As a coach you make the most of what you have. We have developed and rely on a very strong core. Our strength is our team. It is what has qualified us for a World Cup which is a historical achievement for Polish basketball. This is the second World Cup in Polish basketball history. Why we are there? Because of our team. The have players developed step by step. We have Adam Waczynski who has challenged himself, got out of Poland, played at Obradoiro and now in Malaga. There is Mateusz Ponitka who challenges himself whenever he plays, previously in Spain now in Russia. There is Damian Kulig which has returned to Poland after a very successful spell in Turkey. Also the rise of Polish clubs like Stelmet Zielona Gora, Arka Gdynia or Anwil Wloclawek, all competing Internationally in European competitions helps our core to develop. So maybe we don’t have an NBA superstar but we have a very strong team based on rising talent and very good players who have grown in strength immensely in the last six years. We maybe don’t have one difference maker but I would take our guys who have proven they can come together and rise to the challenge over many other perhaps more talented teams.
I guess this approach was very apparent during the late stage of qualification proceedings when Croatia came with their NBA stars Dario Saric, Bojan Bogdanovic and Ante Zizic and was outplayed and quite comprehensively beaten by your team.
This is a very good example of our approach and we had several other examples of games like that in recent history. We rose to the challenge together and we know that we have to play really hard to overcome these type of opponents. I love this team and I have a lot of confidence in our guys. We are not a perfect team by any means but we really trying to play together to make smart decisions and our heart is in the National Team. I think if you have this type of situation you can achieve a lot working together. Without doubt winning five games in a row in qualifications is a real testament to these guys. We don’t want to settle for that we want to push for more.
In China you will be in a group with China, Ivory Cost and Venezuela. There are no easy teams at the World Cup but these teams are not exactly world beaters. So what would constitute a success in the World Cup?
I’m really excited about the World Cup and opportunities to play against teams from all over the world with different styles. The whole thing is new to everyone, we have never been on the world stage before so I think it is important that that we will stay true to our identity and to who we are as players and as a team. We must take all challenges as they come. I have a lot of confidence and belief in our team because we have been properly tested. We went through good situations, difficult situations, bad situations, we have a deep understanding of each other. The core has been our strength through qualifications and now we have a chance to go to the world stage and take on this challenge. Poland is on the world stage for the first time in fifty two years so everything is new. This is a very competitive group and this draw gave us opportunities which we have to take one at the time. Venezuela is a tough, hard battle tested team and a physical team which have a little bit more experience than us on the world stage. Ivory Coast will be difficult also despite the fact that we have perhaps more players playing on the international scene. China as host will a big challenge.
Playing against the host is always a great challenge
We are good at that, look at our game in the European Championship in 2015 in Montpellier against France or the game against Finland in Helsinki in Eurobasket 2017.
You should have beaten Finland in Helsinki !
A fantastic game with double overtime which was decided by the brilliance of Markkanen. So we have been in such situations. The most important factor is that there is a huge volume of emotions attached to the home team, they are the focal point as the home country and you try to silence them early. All three teams will be difficult and present completely different challenges. We will take the games one at a time. We want to represent Polish basketball to the best of our abilities and we want to advance from this group. A couple of years ago people would say “Poland in the World Cup? No chance!” Now we are here and we have earned it! So now the point is what is the next step, next dream? If we play successfully in the World Cup starting in our group maybe we can start talking about taking Polish basketball to the Olympics. These are the steps which you have to take one at the time and be ready for all challenges. The World cup is a fantastic opportunity for us to show what Polish basketball can do and keep pushing Polish basketball forward.
What has made you so embracing of European basketball? You have spent a very productive time in Germany, Czech Republic, England and now Poland. You practically never stop even during the tournament in Hamburg you combined coaching Poland with working with your Hamburg Tower BBL team. Was it a calculated decision to make Europe your home?
First of all I love basketball, I grew up as a coach’s son and I wanted to do what my father was doing. Which is coaching college basketball. When I came to Chemitz in Germany I thought that I’m coming here just for one season. Then I started loving my European experience, lifestyle, culture, meeting different people seeing different places. One thing led to another, I led Chemnitz from third division to the top division which opened a host of opportunities for me. I think living abroad broadens you as a person. I have host of wonderful memories from all these countries and I cherish them very much. The thing which I’m the most proud from my European experience are relationships which I have built with the players.
Thank you very much for the fascinating insight into your world and of course all the best in China.
Photographs courtesy of fiba.basketball