By Paul Nilsen
Having tasted EuroBasket Women action last year, it's back to Latvia again this summer for Olesia Malashenko.
One of the hottest prospects in Europe, the forward will be spearheading the challenge of Ukraine at the U20 European Championships in Liepaja.
Malashenko has had a super year and in addition to her inclusion for the senior team, she was also one of the star performers last year at the U18 Championships in Sodertalje, Sweden and has impressed during her first season in the highly respected LFB in France with Arras.
Reflecting on a fantastic 2009, it is clear the experience has left her hungry to continue her progression and continue being a part of the senior team again as Ukraine try to qualify for Eurobasket 2011 against Great Britain, Germany and the Slovak Republic. Despite being one of the most exciting players to emerge from the Ukraine for a few years, she is still taking absolutely nothing for granted.
|Malashenko gained valuable experience playing for Ukraine at the U18 European Championship Women but would have liked a different outcome.|
"I will never forget what happened last summer. That was my first time when I saw real professional Womens basketball with true real stars of the game!"
"I am very grateful for this and just thank our coach for the chance that he gave me even just for a few minutes on the court."
"Of course I hope to be in a team again this year but we will see. I have to work hard for this to happen. Each game is always a big test and as yet, I can't say for sure that I will be there."
It is at the youth levels where Malashenko is likely to be the most influential at this stage of her career and while she enjoyed the tournament last year at U18 level, she was quick to point out that things could have been even better.
"The Championship was really nice but it was also sad that we lost three close games by just a few points and if things had happened another way, we could have taken a much better place. For me it's always the same in any game or tournament - simply to do best that I can!"
"I think its will be difficult at the U20 Championships this year but we can do it and we can take a good place."
With games coming thick and fast all year round, Malashenko rarely enjoys time-off and with another busy summer schedule beckoning, she had had to ponder the concept of ‘burn-out' and doing too much, too early during her fledgling career - but is isn't easy to say no when things are going so well.
"I mean if a team wants me to play, I will."
"However during this season, when I was injured a couple of times, I started to understand that I have to take care of my body! So of course I am now thinking about my career but it's difficult because I also want to play so badly!"
One thing that resonates within any player representing the Ukraine is the sense of pride in representing their country with a collective belief that they rarely get the credit they deserve as a basketball nation.
Malashenko is no different and she also knows what she is taking on in terms of her burgeoning reputation and the responsibility that will slowly begin to build on her young shoulders. Far from worrying, she intends to thrive on it.
"Seriously, when we go to any Championship or tournament with Ukraine, all we think about from a motivational viewpoint is that we will prove that we are far better then everybody hears about us."
"It is a pressure because everybody waits to see something good from you in every second of each game but it's a small pressure really and it actually helps me."
With so many plaudits coming her way it can't be easy to keep her feet on the ground and having found her way into the top ten for the FIBA Young Player Of The Year, she showed how grounded she has become by claiming it isn't something she can afford to dwell on.
"To be voted in the Top Ten of the young players in Europe is great but I prefer that I don't think about it too much."
This however won't stop the praise coming and team-mate Valeriya Berezhynska who has also been playing in the French league this year gave her a glowing reference.
"From having played with Olesia a little bit in the national team and seeing her in France I would say that she could be a great contributor in the national team."
"She is still very young and is getting a lot of experience at a great level of competition: the national team, in a strong French league. She plays hard is cool/level headed from what I've seen."
"As her role on the team rises with time I think those will be some great assets, among others, as her teammates will be able to enjoy playing with her and respect her not only for her ability but for her character."
Her contribution with Arras this year has been excellent with a near 10 points and 5 rebounds in just twenty minutes per game helping her club to a creditable third place finish and play-off semi-final.
However one feature of the season for Malashenko which has been conspicuous by its absence has been European competition. Having debuted in EuroLeague with former club Dexia-Namur, the forward has been without it for the first time although there are other ways she likes to continue her education.
"We have a lot of games to play in the French league but yes, I do miss it."
"EuroLeague Women is obviously just a different level."
"The players are pretty much all stars and when I was on the bench back then it was just about learning as much as I could and I definitely learned a lot!"
"Now I like to watch NBA games and especially post moves and the man-to-man defence they use!"
"I just like beautiful basketball!"
Things might get a little more beautiful for Malashenko pretty soon if she is retained by Arras which is likely while if France is given three spots for EuroLeague Women in 2010-11 then the club would have first option to enter the elite competition.
Meanwhile http://www.womensbasketball-in-france.com/ have had a keen eye on Malashenko right through her rise through the youth ranks and of course during her first year in the LFB. They have seen Malashenko really develop in the last year although told me there are still areas which need some work.
"This is the first season since she left Ukraine that she has not been involved with inter-continental club competition and I feel that has worked in her favour because she has had more time to work on her low post game."
"Malashenko has always been a good free-throw shooter and she has maintained that in the LFB, she belongs to the school of tall women who can shoot well from beyond the arc."
"She has improved on her shot selection in this category and has hit some big three-pointers this season. However the big improvement is her finishing in the paint, the French league is much more physical then what she had in Belgium and as a consequence, her reading for blocks has changed."
"She has now turned 19 and is ten times better then the young girl that came in Belgium in 2007 but she is no way near the finished product. "
"Since she has been in France, she has made the necessary adjustments and has improved in every area of her game. If she can spent another season with a club like Arras or a club with a youth development system then she will be able to complete her basketball education and become one of the stars of the future.
"She has improved and is still on track in becoming one of the top junior players in Europe."