Iceland: Ice Cool Stefansson

01 July 2004
From Johannes Berendt, PA International, Dallas

Iceland's Jon Stefansson has had a crash course in character-building in his first NBA season with the Dallas Mavericks.

The young point guard was a coveted star with an average of 13.5 points and 2.8 assists per game as a rookie for German team Trier, when Dallas plucked him out of the Bundesliga to take him to the most famous basketball league in the world.

However a year into his five-year deal, Stefansson has so far found opportunities limited in the NBA, after a niggling ankle problem kept him on the treatment table for most of the campaign.

When asked about his Icelandic import, coach Don Nelson joked: "Stefansson? I thought he was dead. Is he still around?"

Stefansson hopes to play for the Icelandic national team in September
However Nelson also added that his rookie has "a great body and a good shot and needs playing time," and Stefansson is determined to show the coaching legend that he should be a major part of his future plans.

"That's the way Nellie is," Stefansson told PA International.

"He's always cracking jokes and you have to earn his respect. I haven't played to my potential this year and I still have to show him what I can do."

Stefansson admits that the transition from being a hero at relegation-haunted Trier to a squad member at Dallas has not been easy.

"I knew I wouldn't play much in my first year because I've got Steve Nash and Travis Best in front of me. Both are very good point guards," said Stefansson.

"I've been learning from the older guys like Steve and Dirk Nowitzki. I've been practising, working on my game, watching film and trying to learn the NBA game.

"It's very frustrating. I'm a happy guy - always smiling. I knew it was going to be like this but you can't prepare yourself for it. There are many ups and down of course.

"It's hard to say whether I have improved my game.

"I understand the game much better, but it's hard not to play five-on-five every day like the other guys do in games.

"I can't really judge how much better I have become, but skill-wise - my shot dribbles, ballhandles and knowledge of the game - I have improved a lot."

Despite the frustrations of his predicament, Stefansson does not regret the move.

"It was a question of joining a bigger team in Europe but then I would still have to make it to the NBA, which is one of the hardest things a player can do. I'm happy where I'm at today," he added.

Thankfully for the likeable Stefansson, his first real US test is on the horizon.

He is hoping to get invaluable playing time in the summer league in Long Beach, California between July 10 and 15.

"It's a very important time for me," he said. "I'll get here early, work out for a month and prepare carefully."

He already has a taste of NBA action, as during the pre-season, he appeared in five matches. In 16 minutes against Orlando Magic, he chalked up six points and five assists - a "nerve-wrecking but very exciting experience."

"The first couple of minutes I was shaking.

"I was so nervous I can't remember any highlights but after a few minutes it was just another game."

Mavericks assistant coach Rolando Blackman also recognises Stefansson's potential, but also knows that the summer tournament will be vital to his progress.

"I think Jon is very talented," Blackman told PA International.

"He is as quick is anybody, as fast as anybody, he can shoot the basketball, he can leap into the air, he is strong.

"It's difficult for him to keep his working habits and focus up. He's young and learning and there are great players ahead of him, so it's not like somebody (is benched) because he is not playing well. He's a young fellow with the chance to apply himself.

"The summer league in LA and Utah is a big deal for him.

Stefansson will spend the summer working on his game

"To have the ball in his hands as the point guard will help him to learn much, and if he does well there, our coaches get an idea of what to do with him. The important thing is we know we have someone. And the question is how well he can play, how fast."

Although the youngster knows he has a heap of pressure on his shoulders, life isn't all that bad, and he can laugh at his own mistakes.

He admits his most embarrassing moment happened at a shooting clinic in front of 1,500 kids.

"I had to take shooting series from several positions," he said.

"I was out on the court alone, with everyone staring at me. And I missed my first five shots. That was the worst time of my life. But fortunately I got better."

Nowadays, Stefansson wakes up at around 9am, starts shooting baskets at 10 before joining practice at 11.

After lunch with the team, he goes home to read books, do some shopping, chat with friends in Iceland or just lie in the sun.

Dallas' billionaire owner Mark Cuban is known for his unequalled generosity - each player has an own DVD and CD player in his locker and the team has a private aeroplane.

There are fitness as well as nutrition assistants. To sum it up - the players get pampered around the clock.

However, Stefansson does not want to lose touch with his roots, and back in his home country, the 21-year-old is a huge hit.

"Everyone knows me because I'm the only guy in the NBA. It's good for Icelandic basketball."

Stefansson hopes to help his country in this summer's Eurobasket Division B qualification games.

Iceland will take on the likes of Denmark, Azerbaijan and Romania. "Hopefully I'll play but with Dirk Nowitzki and the other guys, the insurance is the only problem," he added.

"The German federation has enough money to cover it but it's a problem with the Icelandic federation because they are not as big. It's questionable.

"If we (Iceland) have a full team - we have a few guys in college over here - I think we have good chances of going to the next round of the tournament.

"Our national team is not very good because we're a small country and only have an amateur league in Iceland, but I think we have a good chance."

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