A Winning Culture in Leverkusen Helped Alexander Blessig Become More Efficient Playing Less Minutes

Alexander Blessig is a 25 year old 188cm guard from Berlin that completed his third professional season with the Bayer Giants Leverkusen (ProB) averaging 8,7ppg, 2,8rpg and 3,4apg and shot 44,4% from outside. He began his basketball career with FC Bayern Muenchen (ProA) and also played with Alba Berlin 2. He then played a season with Florida Gulf Coast (NCAA) helping the team win the A-Sun tournament and reaching the NCAA Sweet16. He then moved to Rollins (NCAA2) and played three seasons totaling 66 games. He spoke to germanhoops.com at the end of the season.

Alex thanks for talking to germanhoops.com. Before we get to the incredible season, I have to ask you about your stomach. When you touch back down at home what will be the first eatery that you will visit?

Of course, thank you for having me on – I appreciate it. Probably my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Cologne, yum!

Congrats on winning the 2019 Pro B title. How good does it feel winning the title and where does this rank in your basketball career highlights?

It is such an overwhelming and relieving feeling, we still cannot fully grasp what we have accomplished this year. Being ProB champion is a reward not only for the team but also the entire staff, volunteers and management, which fully supported us along the way. All the hard work that we put in together as a team over the course of the season has finally paid off. This season is definitely up there along with the Sweet16 run at FGCU.

How were the celebrations? Did the team do something special afterwards? Was there anything you learned about certain teammates in the celebration that you never would have dreamed of?
The celebrations were exciting! We stayed in the gym after our win to celebrate together with all our fans and the staff, we had a great time. Unfortunately, I was not able to participate until the end, because I caught a fever a few days earlier – needed to get some rest!

It was the first time that the arena was sold out since the legendary game 5 against Frankfurt in 2008 which I luckily was at. Please describe the atmosphere and what your feelings were after the buzzer sounded?

The atmosphere was something for the ages. As a player, I have never experienced something like that in a basketball arena. A huge thank you goes out to the Nordkurve12 soccer fans, who brought candles and flags to create a unique spirit during the game. I thought it was second to none, especially for the ProB. The last 5 minutes of the game felt like ages but when the buzzer finally sounded, I experienced pure joy.

After Munster played you tough in game one, the Bayer Giants Leverkusen came home and destroyed them. Was there anything special that head coach Hansi Gnad stressed before the game or was it pretty clear after a 28-2 season what had to be done?

Coming into game one, Coach wanted us to defend hard and take their 3 Point shooters out of the game. We have to give Muenster credit for totally crushing us from three and thus ripping our game plan apart. In our Thursday practice after game one, we focused on our Pick and Roll defense and on not overhelping on their shooters. I think we executed that well in the second game as we only gave up 60 points in total as opposed to 86 in the first matchup. We also knew that Muenster was not going to shoot 50% from three again and that we would not lose our first home game of the season. I want to congratulate Muenster on an amazing season. It is truly remarkable what they have been able to build over there, especially coming from 1. Regionalliga. Bringing 3,000 fans into the gym for a ProB game is second to none in the league, it highlights what their team has been able to accomplish on the court.

The Bayer Giants Leverkusen played a great game 2 at home hitting 11 three’s and outrebounding Munster by 26. How much fun was it playing this game at home and what will you always remember from it?

The atmosphere and the stakes of the game created a special environment. It was a perfect finals matchup, the first of the north against the first of the south clashing. Having the second game at home to close the series out was a big advantage for us as we are undefeated at home this season. The finals were definitely a great advertisement for basketball in Germany.

Let’s talk about the season. The Bayer Giants Leverkusen came out strong and finished consistently until the end. Is this the greatest team that you have been a part of in your career?

Apart from the FGCU team 2012/13 and Bayern Munich season in 2010/11, which I did not really play minutes on, this was the greatest season and team of my career. In terms of chemistry and team play this was by far the ultimate roster! I was never really in doubt that we would achieve the goals we set ourselves. Even with multiple key players being out because of injuries during the course of the season, we always managed to compensate as a team.

You stressed in our first interview this about the secret of the success. ‘We are definitely not doing everything right; there are many aspects we still need to improve. Generally, we are a defensive-minded team, which translates into easy offense. Therefore, we try to play intense defense and rebound well so we can run the floor and generate easy baskets – leading to a high scoring output. How do you feel was the team able to grow from the start to the end of the season?

Over the course of the year, one could feel how we were growing closer together each week, not just certain players but the entire team. We all get along and that visibly translated onto the court. I think our team defense as well as ball movement on offense has benefitted from that. This is what made us strong as a team and gave us a team identity, a sense of togetherness.

It is never easy to have such a consistent season after teams keep gunning for you each weekend and the pressure builds. What was most key for the team being able to cope with the building pressure week in and week out?

I don’t think we viewed our success as pressure but rather as a motivation. The team was constantly hungry, we were never satisfied with what we had achieved up to a certain point in the season. This is why we were able to continue winning in the important Playoff games, stepping up our game when we needed to.

How much of a challenge was it for the team being the team that everyone guns for you. How do you feel did the team grow in character during the season? Did you see teammates make a special transition in their character just through this incredible season?

I think we handled the pressure of being the number one team after the regular season appropriately. I wouldn’t say that anyone in particular grew in character, but we as a team definitely improved in that area. Especially in the playoffs, we managed to perform at our best when it counted the most.

 

Obviously the team chemistry was huge, but what part of the team’s game do you feel improved most over the course of the season?

Our defense and ball-movement on offense has drastically improved over the course of the season. Our team chemistry became so good, that we would always find the right people at the right time. We basically had a different top-scorer every game, which made our offense so versatile and really hard to scout us for the opponent.

The team had so many massive highlights during the season like the 103-101 win over Giessen, the exciting 94-92 playoff win over Schwelm or the crazy come from behind win in Bernau 101-97. What was your personal favorite team moment?

My favorite game was the win in Bernau. Coming back from a 21-point deficit in the second half is very rare and shows the character as well as the fighting spirit of the team. After we beat a decimated but great Bernau team we knew that we moved up to ProA, which was our ultimate goal this season.

You stated this about head coach Hansi Gnad in our last interview. ‘Hansi likes to play all of his players, giving everyone a chance if they practice well. He simulates game intensity in practice by getting us to work hard every day. As players, we sense his spirit of winning; often times, it seems a lotl ike he is one of us, he is a player’s coach for sure. He has been waiting for this opportunity for a long time and has taken full advantage of it now. Together with talented Jacques Schneider and Nick Bruewer, they form a complementary coaching staff. How do you feel did he grow further as a coach this season?

Coming in as a head coach I think Hansi did an amazing job. He is a coach, who listens to his players and involved them in his decision making. He is open to advice and makes all his players feel like they are part of something bigger. Being a former standout player, he was able to transfer his energy and winning mentality onto the team. You could tell how he got more confident and experienced as a coach during the season.

What was your most special moment with Hansi Gnad this season. Was there a specific tip he gave you on or off the court where you will be forever grateful for?

I wouldn’t pick out a special moment with my Coach, but there were many instances in which we had 1-on-1 talks. Those helped me understand what he required of me as a player and made me feel like he really cares about his players and their comfort.

Let’s talk about your teammates. You stressed this about Nick Hornsby in our last interview. ‘To me, if there is one player standing out of this conglomerate of players, it is Nick. His versatility is unique: He rebounds extremely well, posts up, finds the open team mate like a point guard, finishes around the rim, and can hit the occasional three-pointer. I enjoy playing with Nick to the fullest’. How did his game grow further and does he have to be considered as an MVP candidate?

Going into the season, we knew that Nick would be one of our key players. Looking back at the season now, I believe he even exceeded those expectations on the court but also off the court. Apart from his endless skillset with the ball, he is also a great person. Nick doesn’t care about his own statistics, he wants to make his teammates better and did so very successfully – I personally scored many points of his passes (he has such good court vision and awareness). He also developed as a vocal leader this season, for example in the Bernau game, when Nick carried the team at a point when we needed it the most. If you ask me, he is he league’s best player and MVP – he leads the championship team, which only lost 2 games all year and won all its home games.

You stressed this about the guard duo Nino Celebic and Alexander Blessig. ‘We are both aggressive point guards who put the team first. Nino and I try to set the tone for the team on defense and push the ball on offense to generate easy shots for our shooters as well as layups for the big guys. The depth of our roster allows us to maintain that aggressiveness for 40 minutes’. How much of a pleasure was it being his teammate and on what phases of his game did he grow most on?

It was awesome playing together with Nino. As the season progressed, we played more minutes together on the court. That way, I was able to learn so much from his experience and skillset. Nino is a special player for our league as he reads the game extremely well, passes the ball like a true point guard and makes the crowd ‘awe’ every once in a while. We shared the starting PG position this year and the great thing about us was, that as soon as one of us exited the game while the other one entered, there was absolutely no drop-off in the game. We were able to play on a high level for 40 minutes.

How vital was co-captain Tim Schonborn. He is a player where you will always get 100% and that lethal three pointer. Is there something you picked up from him in the leadership area?

For sure, Tim was one of our most consistent weapons on the court. He really leads by example as he works hard at all times while staying humble. He is such a good three-point shooter that he opened up the lane for drives from guards and post-up plays for our big men. Whenever I passed the ball to Tim, I knew the ball was going in. I was able to feed off Tim’s desire to win during tough games, which gave the team a huge lift.

The club had many young Germans like Lars Thiemann or Lennart Winter. Which player so you feel made the most strides this season?

I think both of them made huge strides during the season. Coming into the year, they were both kids – mentally and physically. Today I can proudly say that they formed into young men. I think playing with an experienced pro team all season and having a big role on the NBBL team fostered their development as players. I am very proud of both guys and am sure that they have prosperous careers ahead of them!

Let’s talk about your game. Your stats have been pretty similar the last three seasons. How content were you with your stats despite having Nino Celebic. Obviously he was vital for you, but you may have had better stats without him, but I know for you in the end winning was the biggest.

That’s right. I actually was more efficient than the past two seasons, although I played less minutes. This is a testament to the depth and strength of our team. Almost all of our players played less minutes and had smaller roles than they could have had on other teams in the same league. However, all of us were able to put their egos behind and sacrifice for the team – in the end that paid off big time. Winning above all was the mindset not only for myself this year, but for the entire team.

You continue to grow as a three point shooter having improved your shooting each season with Leverkusen. This season you led the team at 45%. How content were you with that and how did that develop better over the course of the season?

Over the summer, I really focused on improving my shot by changing a few small things on my technique and getting a lot of repetitions in. Together with Jacob Engelhardt and Valentin Blass, we worked very hard on our game. During the season I made sure to always get shots up after practice or go shooting in the morning if my class schedule allowed me to. Those repetitions made me feel very comfortable shooting threes in the game. I still believe that I can be more aggressive, and look to form my shot a bit more, especially shooting at a high percentage.

In our last interview you stated this about improving your game during a season. ‘I constantly try to work on every aspect of my game – defense, ballhandling, shooting, passing, and hitting the weight room. Most recently, I have been focused on the mental part of basketball, reading many books and looking at the game from a different angle’. What part of your game improved the most in this championship season?

I think my leadership abilities have improved the most. This season was my first as the team captain, leading very experienced guys like Tim, Dennis or Marian. I constantly tried to improve team chemistry by talking to players a lot and knowing what was going on in their life. I focused on keeping a positive mindset every day in practice and motivating my teammates so that they can perform at their highest level. With some many good players it was important to keep everyone happy during the year so that no one would get frustrated because of their playing time.

What was your personal most favorite personal game? You had many great games but was your 26 point explosion in the exciting 103-101 win over Giessen your favorite?

Sure, statistically that was my best game. With Nino not playing that day, I knew I would have to carry a much heavier load. It turned out well as I got into the zone and felt like I couldn’t miss a shot in the second half. The best part was though that we got the close win over a tough Giessen team.

Who was the toughest player that you battled in the Pro B this season?

There were many tough opponents we faced. On my position it was probably Niklas Geske, his drives were extremely hard to stop, and he also shot the ball well from deep against us – a very tough cover.

What is the next step for you? I can imagine you will stay in Leverkusen or will you seek another opportunity in another country?

This really depends on the job I will pursue. In about two months I will be done with my Masters so I am currently looking for job opportunities. Once I have figured out my job situation, I will make a decision regarding basketball.

On what things will you be focusing most in the lab this summer as you continue to look to improve your game?

I would like to continue improving my shot, especially off the dribble and in Pick and Roll situations. Additionally, I want to work on my floater and high off the glass finishes. Lastly, I am looking to gain some strength and athleticism during the course of the off-season.

What was your most special Dirk Nowitski moment that you remember?

Getting up at night – although having school the next morning – to watch the Mavericks sweep Kobe and the Lakers in 2011. I will never forget that and hope that my mom doesn’t read this!

What was your reaction when you heard that Lebron James named himself the greatest of all-time?

I am not a huge LeBron fan and I believe that the debate between him and Jordan is a waste of time.

Charles Barkley recently proclaimed that Tom Brady Is more of a GOAT than Michael Jordan. Do you share his opinion?

I can’t really answer that as I don’t follow American Football at all. However, to me, there is only one GOAT and that is MJ!

What was the last movie that you saw?

Euroleague-Playoffs or books. I don’t really watch movies.

Thanks Alex for the chat.

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