Great Britain and European star Joel Freeland is finally set to make his long-awaited NBA debut tonight, as the Portland Trailblazers take on the Los Angeles Lakers in their season opener.
Freeland, drafted in 2006 by Portland, has been plying his trade in Europe since 2005, rising to prominence as one of the best big men on the continent. Ironically, his jump to the NBA comes after one of his most difficult seasons in Spain, giving him a little chip on his shoulder to show he can hang with the world’s best.
“Everyone knows that followed me in Europe that last year was a tough, tough season for me, mentally more than anything else,” Freeland said, talking in a conference call from his new home in Portland. “Even the season before wasn’t too great either, it’s been a tough couple of years. I think I’ve got something to prove to myself, more than anything.”
Like many other notable British players, Freeland grew up playing football until a broken leg forced him to reconsider his sport of choice. With his height, basketball was the obvious choice, having to rely on his dad to ferry him to practice and workouts with the legendary Jimmie Guymon on the south coast.
“My dad was taking me everywhere,” explained the 6’10″ forward. “I was living in Farnham at the time and we had to travel 3 or 4 times a week to Southampton, so he was the one there putting in the time and effort to make it happen.”
(Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t working in a supermarket to fund his career – “that’s been blown out of proportion, it was just a part-time job like every kid has”).
Europe soon came calling, and Freeland signed with Gran Canaria before moving to Unicaja Malaga in 2009 which is where he has played up until now. As you’d expect, the transition to the NBA game hasn’t been without its difficulties.
“It’s been a different transition, it’s been a little bit tough because it’s a different game to what it is in Europe, obviously. But I knew it would take time.
“There’s a lot of things I’ve gotta learn, defensively especially. One thing that has been getting me a little bit is the defensive 3 seconds,” he admitted, a rule that doesn’t exist in Europe. “That’s something that I’ve never really had to learn but it’s something I’ve gotta get used to because it’s a big part of the game. I can’t be getting into bad positions on the floor and getting defensive 3 second calls.
“Obviously people in this league are a lot bigger and stronger, it’s not an overwhelming thing but you notice it a lot of more in this league, the presence of people, than in Europe.”
Portland finished 3-4 in the pre-season, with Freeland averaging 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game. His best outing was an 11 point performance against Utah in a 120-114 victory, with every indication being that he’ll see minutes in his rookie season, however, the incredibly humble Freeland recognises he has to earn everything he’s going to get.
“I can’t come on to this team and expect to jump to the top of the list. I’ve gotta work my way into the team, I’ve gotta put in the hard work to get my minutes and earn my minutes, and that’s what I’m doing so far. This past month of pre-season has been tough, it hasn’t been easy by any means, but I’m learning every day and enjoying every minute of it.”
The Olympics helped provide an insight into how tough the NBA would be, he says, but was still completely different to how it actually is: “When you get all the players together onto one NBA team it’s completely different. The speed of the game, the strength of the game, everything’s completely different. So it’s something I’m gonna have to adjust to.”
Despite being an experienced pro, Freeland hasn’t received any “pass” on standard rookie initiation duties.
“They know I’m not fresh out of college but they know, at the end of the day, in this league I’m still a rookie,” he continued, adding he has already had to dance at mid-court in front of thousands of fans for Portland’s fan fest. “I’ve got things to learn, obviously I’ve learned things in the 5 or 6 years I’ve been in Spain but this league is different. I’ve got to put in my dues, I’ve got to put in the hard work. Everyone knows I’m a rookie on the team but I’m also bringing some experience to the team as well.”
With a 3 year contract worth just under $9 million it is just the beginning for the 25 year old, but he’s already thinking about how he can give back to the British game. The Surrey boy is already in talks with his agent about doing something along the lines of a camp, and would love to emulate his fellow GB teammate Luol Deng.
“Luol Deng does a lot for the sport in England but I would like to help in anyway I can as well,” Freeland said passionately. “I thought with the Olympics it was gonna blow up but it hasn’t, it just hasn’t really caught on like we’d like it to and I can’t really put my finger on why it is.
“It needs another push in the right direction, there’s a lot of kids that are interested in the sport obviously but fighting against huge sports like football it’s kinda hard to get it out there.”
Looking ahead to his debut tonight against the Lakers, with one of the toughest front courts in the league, he knows it will be anything but easy, but he says he’s going to relish every moment.
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming of for a long time and now I’ve finally got the opportunity to go up against guys like this.
“To play against the Lakers is gonna be incredible. To go up against Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, to even be on the same court as Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash is gonna be amazing and it will be an amazing experience. But we’ve got a job to do, we’ve gotta get the win some how, some way and I think we’re ready to do that.”
Watch Joel Freeland’s NBA debut against the LA Lakers tonight (Wednesday) live or on demand via NBA League Pass. For more information and for a free trial before November 6th visit www.nba.com/leaguepass
Image Credit: Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
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