Aleksej Pokusevski just played at the Adidas Next Generation Tournament for the second season in a row, but this time at ANGT Belgrade was a lot more special for the U18 Olympiacos Piraeus talent than last year's showing in Munich. Not only did the 2.11-meter guard earn a spot on the tournament Best 5 team, but Pokusevski relished playing back home in Serbia.
Pokusevski led the tournament both with 3.5 blocks per game and in three-point shooting percentage at 52.6%. He ranked second with 2.3 steals and fourth in performance index rating at 22 in addition to 15.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Pokusevski's efforts played a big role in the Reds finishing with a 3-1 record and in third place overall.
"It's a big tournament and a big experience for the whole team," said Pokusevski, who averaged 10.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks last season at ANGT Munich. He said he learned a lot from last year's tournament in Germany that helped him become one of Olympiacos's leaders.
"I was the youngest on the team last year and I was learning from the other players, so it helped me. Those were tough games and they helped me learn to stay confident and play for the team," he explained. "I want to help other players get better. I am trying to be the best player on the team and to win every game."
Olympiacos may have been one of the road teams in Belgrade, but there was definitely a large welcoming committee for Pokusevski.
"There are 20 family and friends here. It's really nice to play in front of them," said Pokusevski, who was born in Belgrade in 2001. "I was very excited to see that we would be playing in Belgrade because I knew that everyone would be really excited to be able to see me play."
Pokusevski's family fled the war in Kosovo in 1999, going from Pristina first to Podgorica, Montenegro, which is where Pokusevski's older brother Onjegin was born in 1999. They moved to Belgrade in 2001, where Aleksej was born and about a year later they moved to Novi Sad in northern Serbia.
It was in Novi Sad where Pokusevski started his basketball playing at age 6. Pokusevski's father, who was a coach at smaller clubs in Serbia, would take video clips of all of Aleksej's games. And those YouTube clips ended up bringing Pokusevski to Greece.
"Some coach from Olympiacos saw them and called my father," Aleksej recalled.
He was only 13 years old when he moved to Athens. Pokusevski said initially he didn't realize what it meant to be going to Olympiacos. "It is a club with a big history, but I was young and I didn't know that. I was like okay, I will go there and play there and do what I do best," Pokusevski said.
His mother accompanied him for the first two weeks and then Pokusevski was alone for about two months before his father and then brother came. Now, the whole family is with Pokusevski in Greece.
"It was tough. I was alone in a new country, a new city, a new language and culture. It was tough to be there and play basketball with any concentration," Pokusevski said about his first season in 2016-17. "After a year, I knew that there was a pressure and that it was a big team and you have to do your best to win."
One of the people who made Pokusevski's transition easier was Olympiacos center Nikola Milutinov, who has been with the club since 2015 and hails from Novi Sad.
"When I was young, he was practicing on the same court with me. Now after about 10 years or so we are together. He's helping me to read the game and see the game in other ways," Pokusevski said of the 24-year-old Milutinov.
Pokusevski worked out about twice a week with Olympiacos's senior team last season. This year he is practicing solely with Coach David Blatt's senior squad. He has not played in any regulation games, but did appear in some friendlies. The youngster has been all eyes and ears trying to learn from some of the club's legendary leaders.
"Playing alongside Vassilis Spanoulis and Georgios Printezis, they are unbelievable. The concentration of Spanoulis is unbelievable. Every single practice he is 100 percent focused," Pokusevski said.
Kostas Papanikolaou is another great example for Pokusevski, who said about the two-time Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion: "I learn from his energy and defense."
Pokusevski said he is working his hardest to get into a game for the Reds: "I am just trying my best in practices and trying to play smart and not make any turnovers, play good defense and help the team so that coach will believe in me and put me in a game,” Pokusevski said. "It's going be a great experience. To play for Olympiacos in any game… to play with Spanoulis, Printezis and Milutinov will be amazing."
Another memorable moment came for Pokusevski in his first game at this event. Pokusevski made his debut with the Serbian national team last summer at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018, where he averaged 7.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 3.0 blocks.
Olympiacos's ANGT Belgrade opener was against U18 Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade and proved to be a reunion for Pokusevski with several of his teammates from that Serbian U17 team in Argentina - Stevan Karapandzic, Marko Pavicevic, Nemanja Popovic, Lazar Vasic and Lazar Zivanovic. That made ANGT Belgrade even more special for Pokusevski.