One-on-One with Pero Antic
Pero Antic, the Hawks’ 31 year-old rookie, was recently selected to the Rising Stars game at All-Star Weekend — which he will unfortunately not be able to participate in due to a stress fracture in his right ankle. Antic came to the Hawks this season after playing in various European leagues since 1999, where he won multiple league championships as well as individual awards.
During the 2007-08 season, while playing for Academic Sofia, Antic won the Bulgarian National Basketball League MVP award averaging 23.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Most recently, Antic played for Olympiacos Piraeus where he won back-to-back Euroleague Championships in 2012 and 2013 averaging 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game.
In his first NBA season, Antic has performed well with 5.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game and is shooting 36.7% from three-point range. When Al Horford went down with a season-ending pectoral injury, Antic stepped in to the starting role and excelled in his increased role. In 11 games played since the Horford injury, Antic averaged 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in 23.8 minutes per game and shot 39.6% from three.
Antic sat down with Hawks.com after practice last Friday to discuss his journey to the NBA, Rising Stars selection, excitement about going to All-Star Weekend, and his success this season.
What was your reaction to being selected to the Rising Stars game?
I was happy, you know. Coach was happy, the team was happy, it was a big thing for me. Coming my first year from Europe, old rookie, and for people to respect your game and acknowledge what you do on the court it’s a big thing for me, my country, this team, this city and I’m just happy.
After such an accomplished career in Europe, where does this rank among your personal achievements?
Every year I forget what I won and I just leave it in the past. Every year I try to put a goal for me to try to achieve something, reach some goal, win a championship; that’s my goal, that’s why I came to the [NBA] at this age. After two Euroleague [championships] this was the next step, to try to do it. I’m not saying we’re going to do it, but to try and compete that’s why I’m here. So this is at the top right now, we will see how the season’s going to go and the next season.
Did you ever have the opportunity to come to the NBA prior to this season?
Yes. I was supposed to come to Orlando Magic in 2009, but I refused. I didn’t even go to the Summer League, because in the third day of the preparation I got a very nice offer from a Russian team. I was supposed to come for the minimum at that time, but my mind was different and I chose that offer that was far bigger than what I was getting here.
What made this the right time and opportunity to come to the NBA?
Yeah [I had accomplished everything in Europe] and the coach. Coach Bud was the main reason. When a coach calls you, you cannot say no. He told me what he expected from me and that I would be good in the system, and you just want to die for that kind of coach. He’s got a nice group of guys that fight and play without ego who compete, and I had to come, you know. It was the opposite this year. I didn’t want to make that mistake, I refused all the offers from Europe, much bigger, but it’s not always about the money. I want to do something for my country, and the NBA, to be honest, didn’t know nothing about Macedonia. Now everybody knows. They can see what kind of warm-hearted people there are on the court and from the fans when they come.
There has been a strong Macedonian fan presence at a lot of road games this year. Do you feel like you are a bit of an ambassador for your country?
Definitely. I feel that there’s a responsibility as the captain of the national team. I did a lot of stuff for my country, good and also bad. You’re not going to always have the success, you have to learn also when you lose. Everybody follows it from our country, and they respected and acknowledged what they did from 2001 to this year. It means a lot to them, like when we were fourth in 2011 that was the biggest thing. The president, everybody, like 100.000 people came to the square. Spain won the gold, they had like 5 or 6000, I don’t know, we didn’t win we were fourth place, but that was biggest success. So I always say, step-by-step. Don’t be a pressure for the younger generation just go step-by-step and try to reach it, don’t have it as a pressure.
Coming to a new league, with a new system and a different style of play, how was your transition and what have you done to be so successful early on?
It was a little bit difficult, because you’re well-known in Europe. You’ve done a lot of stuff that European players have done to win Euroleagues, and then you come here and, like I said, rookie, you have to start from the bench, maybe some games you will not play. When I spoke to Coach, he said, ‘this is what I expect,’ and I told him I don’t care if I play one second or 40 minutes, it’s your decision, this is a team sport and I’m not selfish. I want to play basketball. Extra pass, get the assist and two guys are happy. People have scored 50, 60 points and lose a game. I had my best game against Golden State, I made a decision I have to live with, it happened. Everyone was telling me congratulations and I felt [bad] to be honest after the game. We traveled, and I was disappointed you know. So, I don’t care [about personal stats] at the end of the game if you win, everyone is happy.
Once Al went down you took over a larger role. What were you able to do to take on that larger role and produce as well as you have?
That was my role in Europe most of the years. I play on a high level with that role, on the national team I have the role to decide what to do. It was easier because the guys made it easier for me. When you have teammates like that to find you, to pass to you, that read and love playing the game. Two-on-two game with Kyle, I like. He always finds you. All the other guys, Jeff, the whole roster. They made it easy for me [to take a bigger role] and then you have the support from the bench. You cannot have much easier job.
What did you want to show the fans in the Rising Stars game that they might not have expected?
They haven’t seen me dunking. They’ve seen some dunking, you know with two-hands, but, I know I’ve had two surgeries, but I used to dunk a lot. I did, in the Orlando warmup, a windmill, 360, between the legs, so I can do some stuff for an old white dude.
What are you most looking forward to experiencing during All-Star Weekend?
I had European All-Stars, but they cannot measure with this. This is a big show, so I’m looking forward to see how it is like. I don’t know if I will be able to play, I hope so, but anyway I will be there, at the bench and just try to meet the new minds and new people and talk with them. Just have fun, to be honest. All-Star weekend is about having fun and performing for the fans if nothing else.
Are you looking forward to any of the events in particular?
Definitely. I’m the most excited to watch the dunk contest. I’ve missed many All-Star games, but I never miss the dunk contest. So, I want to see that. I’ll have some friends over there, just try to have a nice time, and then come back ready.
It will be nice having Paul and Wally with you for the experience…
Yeah, yeah, they will be there, Paul [Millsap], Wally [Blase], and, I don’t know, I hope something happens and Mike Scott deserves to be there 100%. Honestly, he’s playing great ball this season. He’s young and he deserves it. They have to see, but I don’t know how they do it [if they have any extra roster spots] but I hope Mike is one of them. We’re going to have fun definitely over there.
Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images