After guiding Poland to a historic 8th place at the World Cup in China, Head Coach Mike Taylor is facing perhaps the toughest test of his career. His goal is to take Poland to the Olympic tournament in Tokyo while trying to bring a substantial amount of fresh talent to the Polish National team
First of all congratulations on accomplishing your most recent objective which was qualification for Eurobasket 2021. What is your assessment of your qualification campaign for Eurobasket?
I think has been great for us. After the success of the World Cup our target was to sustain our success to the next target which was Eurobasket 2022 . I must say we had a slow start, we lost our first game to Israel, we competed but I think very few people recognise how well Israel have played. They have played outstanding basketball. After that we had a lot of pressure going into the game against Spain. The team responded big, and we got a win in Spain last summer. In the next window we also split our results. We beat Romania pretty handily and have lost again to Israel after a really good game. This window in Gliwice, Poland made me really proud of our guys. We have competed in a great game against Spain. It was a hard whistle at the end but again sometimes things like that are going to happen, we can’t control it. I think the game deserved an overtime and I also think our guys have handled it very well. Our young guys gave a pretty impressive performance against Romania, I’m really excited about the future of Polish basketball. For us to go from a Top 8 finish in the World Cup to qualification in Eurobasket is a pretty good achievement. We are on track and I’m very pleased with where things are.
When you have spoken about your excitement about the state of Polish basketball before the World Cup I was really sceptical. Now I’m far more convinced that your work is really changing the face of Polish basketball. You have a group of young talented players like Aleksander Balcerowski, Jeremy Sochan, Lukasz Kolenda and Marcel Ponitka who are contributing very significantly to the success of the team. Are they going to be a part of the team in the Olympic Qualification tournament this summer or would it be too early for them?
I think we have established a really strong core in my first five years in Poland. Great personalities and great players and that led to our success in China. However, as a coach you are always looking whats next. Our next generation was on the floor against Romania. People for the first time had an opportunity to see Olek Balcerowski, Jeremy Sochan, Lukasz Kolenda and other young players like Marcel Ponitka playing so many minutes. People we were surprised and I think came away really impressed with the way how these guys had played. For me it’s a great situation when you have an established core of veteran players and you try to pass down the tradition, values, standards and system to the younger generation. It is a great place to be when you have a great group to choose from. Sometimes you must make tough personal decisions but that is where I want to be. I want to develop a lot of players, to have a different options and dimensions to our game. Balcerowski is a very mobile big player with great size and length. What Jeremy Sochan has done against Romania is absolutely impressive. He was the youngest player to make his debut in the Polish National team at the age of 17, for him to score 18 points and be blocking big shots at the end of the game, it was really special performance. We have a lot of reasons to excited in Poland and we will see how we can move this team forward and accomplish this transition from the core into the future.
You don’t need to wait very long for the next huge challenge. The Olympic Qualification tournament will be probably the toughest test so far. Going to Lithuania to play the tournament knowing that only the winner will travel to Tokyo is a very daunting task.
First of all it is a dream come true. When you look at the way how we responded during the World Cup when we were talking about being the best version of ourselves, being the best team these were the value which we have tried to emphasise with our group. The way how the team responded to the challenges in China is a historical moment for Polish basketball and a memorable achievement for all of us. We must think along the same lines, ok it was the World Cup and now it is Olympics. It’s the biggest dream for any sportsperson. Poland had a golden age of basketball in the late 50’s and 60’s but since that time Polish teams were far, far away from the Olympic Games. For us it would be really a dream come true to play there. At the same time we embrace and respect this competition. In our group we have Angola and Slovenia and obviously on the other side is Lithuania, Venezuela and South Korea. I love that all these teams present different styles and come from different backgrounds. We have a lot of experience with playing against Lithuania. People are saying that Poland versus Lithuania it is a well-established rivalry. It is tough to be a rivalry if they have got the better of us for years. We respect Lithuania and we know that will be a tough competition but from my standpoint it is a stuff which dreams are made of. You have to put your heart into and do very best you can.
You have been in your position as Polish National team Head Coach for eight years which is a remarkably long period of time and an achievement by itself. Yet quite often in the past a large section of media was accusing you of mediocrity. Simply you have won what you supposed to win and you lost what you supposed to lose. Then you have massively overachieved at the World Cup in China and totally changed the perception of you personally and that of the Polish National team. Does that put extra pressure on you to finish much higher than before at the European Championships? Of course, we have already established that going to Olympics would be a dream come true.
For me the most important evaluation is my own self-evaluation. I have always tried very best I can within any situation. In Poland we have came a very long way. When I arrived here the first time I think Poland was ranked 42nd , now we are up to 13th.Obviously in my first 3 years here, we won our qualifications groups and in Eurobasket 2015 we have advanced from our group. So, in these three years we were very, very solid. Then in Eurobasket 2017 we have struggled and after that we had successful qualifications for the Word Cup in China. I think in my time in Poland we were very successful, we have increased Polish basketball and we helped to develop a lot of players. So we have accomplished a lot. Of course, there always will be people who are supporters and the people who are criticising no matter what. How I said I do evaluate myself and trying to be the best I can and be honest. I really love what we have been able to accomplish here. First of all we have established that the Olympics would be a dream come true for us and we will go for it just as we have done in China. People were saying Word Cup and Poland ? They were there only once in their history! Then ok we made to the second World Cup and not only made it but we also had a great run. Right now the most important thing was to qualify to Eurobasket 2022. The only thing which you could be critical in my era is Eurobasket 2017.We had a great team, we had great preparations and the tournament was really difficult for us. We beat Iceland and we have competed with every other team. We were up by 9 against Finland with one minute thirty second to go. We made a couple of bad plays, stupid turnovers and then Lauri Markkanen had a big steal and the game went to the double overtime and we lost. AJ Slaughter got hurt and he could not play in the next two days. That is how things go sometimes. I really loved that team, we really competed then. I really truly believe that through these difficult experiences we become better. These experiences prepared us for success in China. I’m also hopeful that these difficult experiences will help us in Eurobasket 2022. Honestly if you look at the teams which qualified for Eurobasket 2022, what a fantastic tournament we will have coming up in 2022. The teams will be great, competition will be great. In Gliwice we had coaches talk and everyone agreed that the difference between the best teams ,or to say it better traditionally biggest teams and traditionally lesser teams will be very small. The gap is closing, the difference is not as great as people think. I think this Eurobasket will be fantastic. My personal goal is that we will have a great run and we will rewrite the story from Eurobasket 2017 in Finland.
Did you feel a bit disappointed, frustrated and perhaps even undermined that your success from China was overshadowed by arguments around your captain Adam Waczynski. It looked like his conflict with the head of the Polish federation Radoslaw Piesiewicz is somehow affecting your selections and one of the most influential Polish players stayed outside the team till the last window in Gliwice
No, no. We are a basketball family and people can understand that there was a conflict in our family. Again, we made a huge strides in the last few months to solve it. Adam came to the last window and has played . Everyone was really happy to put this thing behind us. I will say this, we all took ownership of the situation. The main point is that we had a great achievement for Polish basketball, we were voted the Sports Team of the year in Poland. We achieve a great success and then a situation like that. We are better than that, this is not an example of handling success well. How I said since that time we made big strides, I had good talks with Adam this window. He did play very well, he has done great job. From our standpoint we are really moving forward. Like I said that the time, it is not important who is winning the conflict, what is important is that the team is winning. I’m really pleased that he is back in the fold, back in the line-up. We are looking to be at full strength when we are taking on our goals in the Olympic qualifier and the next year Eurobasket.
Would you agree that this crazy qualification system really favours countries like Poland which are able to field almost the strongest teams all the time. You had only Mateusz Ponitka missing while traditionally stronger countries have cohorts of NBA and Euroleague players missing, forcing them to field very depleted squads.
Well, look the whole trick with the windows is to the best with the players on your rosters. Some countries may have a bigger pool of players to choose from. But if you have a higher number of high quality players they could be involved in the NBA or Euroleague and are not available. The most important thing for coaches is to do the best in situation which you have in front of you and not to use excuses. There will be a times when you have a full roster available to you and there will be a times when you are missing players for this reason or another. It is all about maximising your team. One thing which we have done really well during all windows was the fact that we have put out a pretty consistent roster. We have used these windows in different ways. In my first three years here I was in a very comfortable situation when during the summer I could have all players for a couple of months. We have established the core, we have established the systems. When the time came for the windows we gather quickly, we review quickly and were ready to play. It was a reason for our success. We were 8-4 in the World Cup qualifiers. Now we are 3-3 but we were playing Spain and Israel which are really good teams. So I feel that we have done very well to be consistent with our rosters and we have created a really good environment within the team when players really want to come and play. During the last window there was a scheduling conflict with Mateusz Ponitka but I don’t think people understand what heroic efforts Mateusz made to come to the window in Valencia to play this game against Israel. Everyone within the team greatly respected what he did. Again, we try to make the best out of the situation, we have done a good job with being consistent with our rosters but the entire situation is a challenge for everyone.
You are leading a true revolution in Polish basketball, bringing a cohort of young players. Jeremy Sochan was beyond impressive against Romania and players like Balcerowski and Kolenda at the age of 20 play very important roles in your team. What is your assessment of young Polish players and what is the most important factor in developing them?
I would say that the most important thing is how we are building our team around our core. Olek Balcerowski was the youngest player at the World Cup in the age of 18 years old. He played a role for us and he has done very well. On a couple occasions he had a tough time at Gran Canaria but he came around and is playing now much more and much better. I think playing with us has built his confidence and we really like where Olek is right now. Obviously, Jeremy has made a fantastic first impression. With Jeremy we must be aware where his interests are, he is committed to Baylor and we support this choice very much. Baylor is an excellent programme and I think it will really help him to reach his potential. From our standpoint we will see how he fits in for the Olympic qualifying tournament, we don’t want to rush guys, we don’t want to pressurise guys. If it is a right decision we will make it. We are trying to develop the depth, quality and options of the squad and these young guys have made a great impression. I’m excited for them and very happy with this group and will probably have to make some tough decisions before the Olympic qualifiers. It is fun to work with these guys, they are bringing a lot of energy to the trainings. It is great to watch videos with them or go to walk throughs. For me I want them to enjoy the process and have fun, I think this is something which we have been able to do with Poland in recent years.
What about Lukasz Kolenda? While I would say Poland is very strong at the perimeter, but not at PG position. Veteran Lukasz Koszarek is approaching the end of his career and Poland desperately needs a successor at this position.
I feel like Kolenda had a really great game against Romania. He is playing well for Trefl Sopot this year. For years the only international PG Poland has had was Lukasz Koszarek. We love Lukasz and respect him, he is a true legend in Poland but his career is getting towards the end and we want to identify the players who will take his place. Kolenda is on top of this list. He is getting experience, seeing how we work and operate. In the last windows he had more responsibilities, most of it in the last game against Romania. He continue to progress and I’m very positive about Lukasz and I think he will continue to grow and develop his game. We are looking at all options. I am also excited about Marcel Ponitka. He is an elite perimeter defender, he has been wreaking havoc through the Polish league this year and he recently has moved to Perm in the VTB league. When you watch our game against Spain in the last window, he was absolutely outstanding, So you have Marcel with this unique outstanding defensive ability also capable to play PG for a couple of minutes combined with a pure PG Kolenda and that creates an exciting opportunity for the future. If Marcel further develops as perimeter defender who also can play at the wing and PG we have our problem at the point guard position solved for several years. It is worthwhile to experiment and continue to help our players develop in everyway possible, it’s a fun process to be involved in.
Photos courtesy for FIBA.basket