By David Hein
Look at Deniz Kilicli and not many people would think he looks soft in a basketball sense. The full beard, broad shoulders and about 250 pounds of mass make him one of the most physically imposing players at the U20 European Championship Men.
But talking to the 18-year-old Turkish center, one learns that besides helping Turkey attempt to win gold in Rhodes his number one goal for this summer is to get tougher.
That was the assignment at least from Kilicli's head coach for next season - West Virginia University boss Bob Huggins.
"He thinks I'm soft," said Kilicli with a matter-of-fact expression about Coach Huggins.
"He said that's my biggest handicap. He said you're soft. You need to be a little stronger. He likes my touch. He thinks I have talent as a center or power forward. I need to be a little tougher and that's the biggest thing."
Kilicli says that's been somewhat difficult at the U20s in Greece, adding: "When I come here, everyone says, oh man you're too tough. You're strong. We don't want to play against you."
The Samsun native has not, however, been able to dominate competition here in Rhodes and Ialysos, scoring 4.7 points and grabbing 1.5 rebounds in 11 minutes per game in helping Turkey to the quarter-finals.
Still, he has a clear goal in mind for when school at West Virginia starts this fall - to become a beast.
"Bob Huggins is a coach that can make you a beast. I always say that. Look at the players that he practiced with and worked with, Joel Alexander, Kenyon Martin, (Jason) Maxiell. I want to be like these guys," Kilicli said of the NBA players.
And Huggins was the reason Kilicli chose West Virginia.
"There are a lot of good teams. But coaches are the biggest difference. That's my style of coach, so that's why I went to West Virginia."
Kilicli also went to high school in West Virginia last season, attending Mountain State Academy in Beckley.
"I decided to go because first I wanted to play the American style. I talked to lots of people playing in the NCAA and playing in European leagues, and I think the American system is better fit for me. So I decided to go to the U.S. But everybody's way is different. But I think that's my way - to go to the U.S.," said the former Efes Pilsen prospect, who was also recruited to attend high level colleges such as UCLA, Connecticut, Kentucky, LSU, NC State and Oklahoma.
But while Kilicli loves all the benefits he had from playing in the U.S., he admitted coming back to Europe for the championship this time around was different.
"I come here and I didn't play with my teammates for one year. So it's a little bit of a separation. So that's the only thing I can say that the U.S. is not good about for me."
Turkey struggled at the start of the tournament but then collected a 49-point win over Ukraine and an 11-point victory against Serbia. And despite losing by 13 points against Croatia, the Turks grabbed fourth place in the qualifying round Group F and a quarter-final date against Spain.
And Kilicli is sure that his team will rebound from the loss against Croatia and has the talent to fight for the title.
"I think when we start to concentrate and try a little bit more, I think we can reach the final here," said the big man after the Croatia loss.
"Actually our team was really bad in the beginning when we first started. We couldn't make our shots or find a rhythm. But we're getting better. We're good actually. We're in good condition. But you know sometimes something happens and you can't play and that's one of those days."
Kilicli hopes that Turkey do not have another one of those days while also looking forward to a future of being a beast.