Former Zags star Heytvelt shapes game on Old Continent
Josh Heytvelt can rattle off a few words and phrases in Turkish, Italian and Croatian.
The Gonzaga University graduate also can tell a story or two about being homesick touring around Europe. But most important, the former Bulldog is happy to be earning a living playing basketball.
Entering his third season in Europe, the 25-year-old Heytvelt has already chiseled out a solid career with hoops on the Old Continent. He has played in three respected European leagues in Turkey, Italy and Croatia; has won a domestic league championship in Croatia; and is competing for a second time in the European continental club competition Euroleague – considered the best basketball in the world outside of the NBA.
“I feel that I have had a decent career so far over here in Europe. I have played in three different countries and in a couple of the top leagues,” said Heytvelt, who is playing for Croatian club KK Zagreb – a team that features former NBA players Sean May and Mario Kasun, professional rookies Diante Garrett from Iowa State and Papa Dia from Southern Methodist as well as 17-year-old Croatian star Dario Saric.
After going undrafted, Heytvelt’s agent found the Clarkston native a job with Turkish first division club Oyak Renault Bursa. The power forward responded with strong numbers: 17.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.2 blocks per game.
“Turkey was by far the hardest stop for me,” said Heytvelt of being in Turkey’s fourth-largest city of Bursa with a population of 2.6 million.
“It was my rookie year and the Turkish culture is nothing like being at home. I had never traveled to Europe before so I had no idea what to expect.
“Every day in Europe is a learning experience. Living in Turkey, Italy and Croatia, you see life in three completely different forms than you are used to back in the States. The people and the cultures are very unique. I am getting great life experiences living in Europe, but I do miss being home very much.”
Despite Heytvelt’s efforts during his rookie season, Bursa failed to make the playoffs and Heytvelt returned to the U.S. for a couple of weeks.
Then he received a call from Italian club Lottomatica Virtus Roma, which was looking for some help for the Italian League playoffs. Heytvelt jumped at the offer and played two games, averaging 2.5 rebounds a game.
The Roman club re-signed the outside-shooting big man for the 2010-11 season, but Heytvelt broke his nose in the preseason and was out about a month after surgery. He was never able to find his rhythm with 5.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game over 10 contests in the Italian Serie A league and 5.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in Roma’s 10 Euroleague games.
“After a few months of not playing very much and not getting many chances, I chose to go to another team,” said Heytvelt, who landed with Croatian side KK Zagreb last January.
The team had success right away with Heytvelt, who had 9.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in helping the Zagreb club to the Croatian A1 league title.
“It was a good move for me. Coming in I knew my role and we had a really good team,” Heytvelt said.
Heytvelt signed a new deal last summer to return to the Croatian capital and he has retained a pertinent role as one of the first bigs off the bench. He is averaging nine points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals through four games in the Adriatic League – a separate league consisting of most of the best teams from the former Yugoslavia.
Heytvelt has had less of an impact in Zagreb’s three losses to start the 2011-12 Euroleague season, with just five total points to go along with four rebounds per game in an average of 20 minutes.
The former Gonzaga star, however, recognizes the importance of the current campaign.
“This season is very important for me to advance my career,” he said. “We are competing in Euroleague and the Adriatic League, which is very competitive this year. I feel that I still have room to grow as a player and I need to come out every day and improve.”
He still is getting accustomed to the game in Europe – a completely different one than in the U.S.
“The game over here is played much more with the head than with talent and athleticism,” Heytvelt said.
“I feel much more comfortable playing American-style basketball, but learning some of the tricks of the trade how ball is played over here adds some things to my game that I didn’t have before.”
Heytvelt used to be considered an NBA lottery pick until his tumultuous time in Spokane. Despite being thousands of miles away, the NBA is still on his mind.
“Obviously, it would be great to play in the NBA and be in the States,” he said. “But I am focused on where I am playing. If my career takes me to the NBA, then so be it. And yes, it is a dream of mine and it always has been. But if I never make it, I would not be disappointed.”
Heytvelt is, after all, earning a strong salary, seeing much of Europe, learning new languages and cultures – and all because he can play some good basketball.