|Azerbaijan forward Orhan Haciyeva turned heads around Europe this summer by leading all players in rebounds in the EuroBasket Qualification Round|
By Jeff Taylor
In one of the great stories in international basketball in recent times, the men from Baku won four of their eight games in Group B and missed out on a spot in next year's Final Round in Slovenia in narrow fashion.
Aliaga's Haciyeva, a versatile 23-year-old small forward, averaged 17.5 points and 12.5 rebounds.
That 12.5 rebounds per game was not only a team-high, but led all players in the Qualification Round.
Haciyeva was thrilled with his own performance, but the only thing that mattered was team success.
He will not be able to take part in a glamorous 24-team EuroBasket in Slovenia.
"It's a pity," he said. "Basketball in Azerbaijan in Soviet Union times was good, but that was many years ago.
"No one plays any more. The same players that were playing nine years ago when I left for Turkey are the same players that are still there."
When asked if Azerbaijan had captured the imagination of sports fans in Baku and surroundings with their impressive performances, he answered: "The first games, there were few fans in the gym. I couldn't believe it.
"It was our first time in the Qualification Round and there were no commercials, no advertisements.
"After two or three games, the gym was really crowded.
"There were people who started watching us that didn't even know that there was basketball in Azerbaijan.
"If we had made the EuroBasket, this would have changed for sure."
RIDING THE MOMENTUM
Aliaga Petkim will be one of the beneficiaries of Azerbaijan's strong showing in the Qualification Round.
They have gotten a 2.00m small forward back whose confidence has reached an all-time high.
Truth be told, though, Aliaga Petkim may be the ones that deserve much of the credit for Haciyeva's emergence in 2012.
Having spent several years in the Efes club system, starting as a youth, Haciyeva departed for Aliaga Petkim last season.
| Haciyeva will probably not have to pull down so many boards in the EuroChallenge, as the Aliaga frontcourt features the likes of Marcus Arnold - the veteran center averaged 8.4 rebounds for Pardubice last season |
"When I went to Aliaga, I had to learn the system and the coaches didn't really know me that well," he said.
"But the last six or seven games, I played really well.
"Last year, we had seventh place and made the play-offs in Turkey."
The club has been emboldened by their great 2011-12 campaign when the post-season was deemed by some to be out of reach.
Everyone has returned to the club this year looking to prove that last year was no fluke.
They must survive a difficult Qualifying Round tie with Joensuun Kataja to advance to the Regular Season.
"They're really good, everyone is serious," Haciyeva said.
"The club is doing everything, the management, coaches and players - everyone is focused.
"We're trying to do everything to pass this round."
Haciyeva doesn't like to get too far ahead of himself, but rather take it one step at a time.
But he can't resist thinking about the possibilities.
"If we pass this Qualifying Round, we'll play in a group (Group B) that is not such a hard group.
"We'll play the team from Russia, Krasnye Krylia, they're a really good team. When I spoke to my coach, he said maybe they would take first place and we'd have to qualify for the next round as second.
"Of course, we'd want to qualify as the first."
"I read an interview where our coach, Werner Sallomon, said, "Maybe we can make the Final Four in the EuroChallenge."
"I thought, ‘Why not?'
"Let's take it step by step. First pass this round, then go to the next round, then another group.
"But it's a really big challenge for sure. For me, this will be the first time that I have played in Europe."
As far as the domestic competition goes, Haciyeva said: "In the Turkish league, there are five teams with budgets that are much bigger than the other clubs.
"If you beat them, it's a very big win for the club. I think if we finish sixth, seventh or eighth again and make the play-offs, that would be a good season for us again.
"As far as the club goes, we know we need to make the play-offs."
THE FEEL-GOOD FACTOR
It's going to take a while for Haciyeva to come back down to earth after playing in such an exciting competition as the EuroBasket Qualification Round.
"It was really good for me and us," he said. "It was great."
Haciyeva admits it was sort of a journey into the unknown and he didn't expect things to unfold for him and his country as they did.
"Not like this," he said.
|Haciyeva has only ever played a total of 24 minutes in the EuroChallenge, with Türk Telekom in 2011 - the Ankara outfit did not make it past the regular season but this year Aliaga Petkim even dream of reaching the Final Four|
"I expected to play really well. We were playing with just six people, so I didn't have a player to come after me.
"I knew that I was going to play for 35 minutes, for sure. I knew that I was going to show myself, but like this? No, I didn't expect it to be frank."
People started buzzing about the player from Baku after he pulled down 17 rebounds in a 96-79 defeat at Sweden on 21 August.
"After the third game, when it was reported on the official EuroBasket website that I was the top rebounder, I said, "Why not?" I just have to keep it up, keep going."
Haciyeva then remembers a nightmare against a Germany side led by veteran coach Svetislav Pesic.
"The worst game that I played was against Germany in Baku," he said.
"I was the top rebounder and everybody was reading about that.
"They (Germany) watched the video and boxed me out like crazy.
"When someone took a shot, they were boxing me out.
"In the first half, I had zero rebounds. In the second half, I just tried to do my best to get some and I got just five. In the last game (at Germany), I got 14."
When it was put to Haciyeva that Pesic can come up with a game plan to take the strength away from any opponent, the Azerbaijan star laughed and said: "Exactly. And they did."
Though he fretted about the performance against Germany, Haciyeva learned a lesson.
"I was really upset after the Germany game," he said.
"When you looked at the games we'd lost, all of them we lost in the last five or six minutes when we were out of energy.
"The other teams, when you look at Germany, they sub (substitute) each other, pressure like crazy.
"After the Germany game, I was really upset and I spoke to my assistant coach, Ali Ton and I said a big player should play the big games.
"He just said, ‘These things happen.'
"I just tried to forget about it and after two days, played another game."
BRINGING ATTENTION TO AZERBAIJAN
There are big issues surrounding Azerbaijan basketball.
Haciyeva hopes that the national team has raised some awareness with its solid performances in the Qualification Round.
"Let me tell you a story," he said.
"Our point guard, Fuad Niftaliyev, is the best point guard in Azerbaijan and no one can stop him.
"Every day, five days a week, he goes to his club team, Gala BC, and then after the practice he stays in the gym and works with the kids.
"He coaches the kids. You know why? Because he earns $1,000 a month, if not less.
"He teaches basketball until 5 or 6 in the evening goes home and then does the same thing the next day.
"When you think about that, I think we (the national team) really did a great job with these types of problems."
The word is definitely out that Azerbaijan have a forward that knows how to play the game.
"Agents called our manager of the national team, our assistant coach, and asked, ‘Who is this guy? What is he doing?' Haciyeva said, referring to himself.
"I think there will be people will come to our games to see me play. I will do my best but the most important thing is for the team to win."
"I'm the kind of person that has goals, but I don't dream too much about what will happen in five years, or 10 years," he said.
"I just want to focus on my duties now, give 100% in every practice and in the games, just try to do my best, go step by step.
"My goal is to play in Europe with a top team.
"If we have a big season, and I have a big season, it could help me move to a bigger club. If I could make a leading team in Turkey, who knows? I'll do my best. I hope God is going to help me with this."
He is even allowing himself to consider something else.
"I never thought about the NBA before," Haciyeva said.
"But when I saw this summer that Pablo Prigioni of Caja Laboral had signed in the NBA (with the New York Knicks) at 35, I thought to myself, "Why not?"