Artem Zabelin:
Avtodor Can Make Noise In The Playoffs!

Avtodor Saratov broke the league record for points in a game multiple times this season and improved on last season's record to finish 6th in the standings. Set to face either Zenit or Lokomotiv-Kuban in the first round, Saratov will be a tough out no matter the opponent.

Players often enjoy career breakthroughs in Avtodor's frenetic, up-tempo offense. Russian center Artem Zabelin is one such case, returning from a serious injury to take his game to a new level in Saratov.

Zabelin spoke with VTB-League.com about his return to Saratov, the team's record-breaking offense, playing alongside Artem Klimenko and his desire to make an impact on the Russian national team.

- You started your career at Avtodor. Seven years later you returned to put together the best season of your career. How did you do it?
- Yes, I returned home. Avtodor invited me after a serious injury and helped me get back in shape and regain confidence. I don't think I'm doing anything crazy, but I'm playing well. A lot of the credit goes to the team. We've got a great group of guys.

- Despite your size, you're often listed as a forward. Do you think of yourself as a forward or as a modern center who can shoot from outside?
- I don't think there's any point trying to put me at one position. I can play center as well as power forward depending on what the team needs. The position doesn't matter. I just do what's asked of me on the court.

- Is Avtodor's up-tempo basketball a natural fit for you?
- I grew up at Avtodor, so of course I know the club's style of play. It hasn't changed for years. It's exciting, fun to watch and it brings the fans to the arena. Plus, it works and can help you win. It does fit me and I think that's true for most other players. It's easier and more enjoyable to play like this. We know exactly what's expected of us and we do it.

- What's Avtodor's secret? You broke the league's scoring record three times this season! Why did this team do it and not last year's edition with Courtney Fortson? Or teams like Khimki and CSKA that have an entire collection of attacking players?
- It's probably because we ended up with a great group of guys. No one is selfish. We share the ball with each other and really enjoy playing together. That's why we always push the tempo and never slow down, even if the outcome has already been decided. We continue to play until the end.

- Avtodor improved on last season, finishing 6th in its 2nd year in the league. What hopes do you have for the playoffs? What are Saratov's advantages when playing against the league's best teams?
- The fact that the team has improved on last season's results is already an accomplishment. It's great that the club is progressing.

Right now our team is capable of competing with practically any team in the league. With some luck, we can make noise in the playoffs.

Avtodor's advantages are the same: an unpredictable style of play and quickness. We'll try to surprise our opponents and advance as far as possible.

- You compete with Artem Klimenko for playing time and I imagine you go at each other in practice a lot. What are his biggest strengths and what else is still missing from his game?
- I wouldn't say that there's fierce competition between me and Klimenko. We essentially split the minutes and make an almost identical contribution to the team. We don't necessarily compete for the same position. At times, we are both on the court at the same time.

Klimenko's physical gifts and basketball IQ allow him to play at the highest level. He's a young player and probably needs to be tougher mentally. Artem needs to believe that he's going to be the best player on the court.

- Four years ago, you were seen as one of the most talented big men in Russia, but didn't get a chance to play in the NBA. What advice would you give Klimenko and younger players? Should they fly to the US at the first opportunity or try and wait for guaranteed playing time?
- I think that if you get an invitation to the NBA, you need to go and test yourself. You can always return home. You don't get many chances to play in the strongest league in the world. If there's an opportunity, you need to take it.

- How big of a role has Vladimir Rodionov played in your life?
- It's tough to overestimate the role of our president Vladimir Evstafevich in my basketball career. Rodionov gave me a path to professional sports and taught me much of what I know. I'm grateful to him for that.

- You're a terrific three-point and free-throw shooter. What advice do you give fellow big men that struggle from the line? Some players in the NBA are even intentionally fouled in order to regain possession. What do you think about the Hack-a-Shaq strategy?
- I wouldn't say that I've shot that well from the free-throw line this season. Probably worse than Avtodor's other centers (Artem underestimated himself. He has the best free-throw percentage among Avtodor centers: 72.7%). I'm not sure I could give much advice to other big men on how to be a better shooter.

As for the Hack-a-Shaq strategy. I think it's smart. You should take advantage of anything you can. As long as it's not dangerous and permitted by the rules, why not take advantage of an opportunity to win the game?

- You've played for CSKA, Loko, Dynamo St. Petersburg, Spartak-Primory and Krasnye Krylia. Foreign players were often the stars at each of these clubs. Whose professional appoach made the biggest impression on you? Who had the best sense of humor?
- J.R. Holden and Trajan Langdon from CSKA were true pros. They quietly went about their work on the court and did an excellent job. They were cold-blooded and didn't shrink in big moments.

Julian Wright had the best sense of humor. We played together at Krasnye Krylia. He was a really upbeat and mischevious person with an unconventional, but extremely effective approach on the court.

- Foreigners fit in quickly at Avtodor. Chappell, Peterson, Brooks, Stoll are huge fan favorites. What's the secret?
- I'd say again that we have a great group of guys this season. All of the foreigners are awesome guys and fun to play with.
The atmosphere at games in Saratov is special. Anyone who comes to our home games knows that. The fans make us push the tempo and play our best. They pay for our good performances with their devotion.

- Even though the Russian national team will miss the upcoming Olympics, many think that the team is developing a good young generation. Who would you single out among the young players in the VTB United League and VTB United Youth League?
- I wouldn't say that I follow the younger players that closely. Of course, I know the guys I play or practice with the best. First of all, Artem Klimenko. From Avtodor's youth team, I'd mention Yuri Tribun and Agasy Tonoyan, who practice with the main team. I know that CSKA's Anton Astapkovich is one of the best players in the youth league.

- You're included on the Russian national team's preliminary roster. What attitude will you have entering camp?
- For different reasons, I haven't made my debut for the national team yet, but I really want to make the roster and will do everything I can to make that happen. I hope that the conflict between the Euroleague and FIBA will be resolved and the national team can play in the European championship.