While his Seton Hall teammates spent their summer in South Orange participating in team workouts, Sandro Mamukelashvili was living out a childhood dream.
For the first time, Mamukelashvili was honored with the opportunity to play for his home country, Georgia, in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup Qualifiers and the FIBA U20 European Championship.
“I always dreamed of playing for Georgia,” Mamukelashvili said. “It was great. A lot of great players on my team and other teams, too. I feel like I got a lot more experience playing with the other national teams because every national team is built from the 12 best players in the country. I feel like it was a great experience, I learned a lot, I had some mistakes and I learned from them.”
After coming to the states and enrolling at Montverde Academy in Florida, Mamukelashvili embraced the faster-paced American style of play. In returning to Europe, the sophomore forward had some adjustments to make if he wanted to remain in the good graces of his coaches.
“Here it’s more like a faster pace,” Mamukelashvili said. “You decide faster what you want to do. In Europe, coaches have their own style of playing. You need to play how they like you to play. It’s more sets, cross half court, call a set, organize the offense and it’s a lot of extra passes. It was harder because coming from here, I wanted to run and go one-on-one, but it was not that easy. My coach had a different perspective on the game, so I had to listen to him.”
Despite the methodical approach of his national team coach, Mamukelashvili did try to incorporate some of the skills he has picked up playing in America into his game overseas while staying within his coach’s desired style of play.
“Sometimes when I thought I had an advantage over my defender, I took it,” Mamukelashvili said. “But mostly I tried to do what my coach was telling me. I trust my coaches and I think they have the best solution for us.”
While the Big East is known as one of the more tough and rugged conferences in college basketball, no big man in the conference could compare to the level of physicality that Mamukelashvili faced while playing in the World Cup Qualifiers.
“My teammates were a lot stronger because they’re playing in Euro league on some of the top teams,” Mamukelashvili said. “I loved playing with them and we also played against Serbia. That game wasn’t that good because Serbia is the second-best team in the world. We lost that game but I played against Boban Marjanovic and a lot of other Serbian talents. I got a lot of experience playing with the older guys.”
While Mamukelashvili did learn a lot in his summer trip overseas, the experience was about more than basketball for him. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Georgia native, as he was reunited with family members and friends who had not seen him play in years.
“It was my first time playing in front of my parents in at least three years,” Mamukelashvili said. “My mom was so proud, and coach Willard came down to see us play. It was an unbelievable experience for me. I played my first game with my national team in front of Coach Willard and my parents. It was amazing.
“Playing in front of my parents, my aunt, my friends who haven’t seen me play since I was 13, it was honorable. They were cheering my name and I could see they were proud. I love Georgian people because we’re a small country and everybody cheers for each other, everybody loves each other. Everyone was cheering for me and telling me to go hard.”
Mamukelashvili has since returned to South Orange, but the work for the Georgian national team is far from complete. With qualifiers for the World Cup still going on and European Championships on the horizon, Mamukelashvili’s time playing for his national team should come aplenty next summer.
After averaging only 2.6 points per game as a freshman, playing overseas provided Mamukelashvili with a look at where he should be in his development moving forward. College players typically make their biggest jump from year one to year two and Mamukelashvili believes the experience he gained this summer has him in a prime position to shine as a sophomore.
“A lot of my teammates played in the NBA or are playing in Euro league right now,” Mamukelashvili said. “Looking at them and seeing how developed they are, it helps me a lot to develop as a player and to get where I want to go. I think my experience and knowledge for the game increased because my great coaches in Europe helped me to develop.”
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.