Oleksiy Pecherov wasn’t the only honored guest at the Washington Ukrainian Festival in Silver Spring a few weeks ago. But standing 7 feet tall and wearing cool wraparound shades and several yards of beige fabric, he clearly was the most visible.
Accompanied by his parents, Vladimir and Olga, and his younger brother, Sasha, on a steamy Saturday afternoon, the 21-year-old Pecherov acted sincerely glad to be at the event.
The Washington Wizards‘ first-round draft pick in 2006 was introduced and said a few words of thanks. He checked out the dancers and musicians and strolled among the craft and food booths, stopping to chat, sign autographs and pose for pictures. He sampled the native cuisine, which he deemed acceptable. He got to meet the Ukrainian ambassador, Oleh Shamshur, who said of Pecherov, “I’m not an expert, but he’s an excellent player.”
Despite the heat, Pecherov, who goes by “Pech,” was gracious and accommodating to a fault. He likes to talk. He smiled often, greeting all who wanted to welcome him to the area or just say hello.
“I’m glad they invited me, and I’m glad to participate,” he said in heavily accented but understandable English. “I feel comfortable here, like it’s part of my country. They got a lot of stuff going on here.”
The festival was another means of facilitating Pecherov’s coming to America. His family is helping with the transition by spending a month with him before returning to Kharkov, the second-largest city in Ukraine. Pecherov loves his hometown so much he sounds like a member of the chamber of commerce or whatever it’s called over there.
“People know the capital, Kiev, but they don’t know Kharkov,” he said. “It’s very beautiful. If you have the chance, you should go there. We’ve got a lot of stuff there.”
These days, Pecherov is dealing with moving his stuff into his Pentagon City apartment, and the requisite hassles have proved to be a rather jarring experience.
“I was living with my parents four years ago,” he said. “They did everything. But I need to go through this, restart everything. The furniture, cable TV. I’m a little confused. But I think I’ll be OK in a couple of weeks.”
The Wizards, too, are hoping Pecherov will be OK. And they believe he will, although it might take longer than a couple of weeks. As the Oct. 2 start of training camp approaches, he looms as an intriguing talent, a 7-footer with a sweet shot and the ability (and desire) to mix it up inside. But he is raw and untested. He will be cultivated and nurtured and brought along slowly.
“No question he has the potential to be a rotation player,” team president Ernie Grunfeld said. “How quickly that happens, only time will tell. … We’re very excited about him and his upside. But we don’t want to put pressure on a young player.”
Pecherov played in the Las Vegas Summer League for a second straight year and led the team in scoring and rebounding. The Wizards’ brass liked what it saw, especially compared with 2006.
“It took a game and a half to get his feet wet, and then, I’ll tell you what, he looked pretty darn good after that,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “He rebounded. He was physical. He caught on very quickly.”
Jordan said Pecherov can play both forward positions and maybe even a little center if the Wizards go small. He envisions Pecherov, at least for now, as a useful role player who can hit the boards and provide of jolt of offense. He is a matchup problem waiting to happen.
“We expect him to be able to make 3s,” Jordan said. “That’s what he can give us immediately. … He’s a really good offensive rebounder. When someone else shoots, he finds the alley. He’s got really strong legs. He’s got good hops.”
Asked to assess his game, Pecherov said, “I feel like I can score. I can shoot the ball, and I can rebound.”
But Jordan, like Grunfeld, offered a cautionary note.
“He might not be as effective early,” Jordan said. “He’s gonna have to work hard and find his niche. It won’t come easy.”
As she tagged along at the festival, Olga was asked what her son was like as a kid. With Pecherov translating, she said, “His favorite thing was the ball. He was with a ball all the time.”
The ball, though, was not a basketball. He hardly ever touched one, not until he was 15 and had grown about five inches in one year. “It was soccer, soccer all the time,” his mother said.
“I was driven about soccer,” Pecherov said. “In school maybe I couple of times I would just shoot [a basketball]. It was only soccer for me.”
But during a family vacation he ran into a coach from Kharkov who noticed Pecherov’s growth spurt and persuaded him to attend his school, which placed a heavy emphasis on sports. When he showed up, “the volleyball coaches jumped on me and told me I needed to play volleyball,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about volleyball. I didn’t like the game. That’s how I went to basketball.”
Pecherov immediately took to it.
“After that, it was step-by-step,” he said. “After a year I knew I could be a good player. … As soon as I started to play, I got more interested. I watched TV and read about it. It was fun.”
He played for his school for three years, kept growing and improving and drew the attention of the best pro team in his country, BC Kyiv. He went there in 2004 and helped the team from Kiev win the Ukrainian Cup.
“We had a lot of foreign players,” he said. “It was a great situation for me.”
He evolved rapidly. Pecherov played in Paris for a year (he returned to BC Kyiv last season) and played for Ukraine for three years in the Global Games held in Dallas. His team won the 2004 championship and Pecherov was named MVP. He also excelled at the Reebok Eurocamp. NBA scouts started paying attention.
Not only was Pecherov learning how to play, his exposure to the international game helped his English. He took the language in school but never really absorbed it until he played with foreign teammates, such as former Florida State player LaMarr Greer, in Kiev and Paris.
Yet Pecherov still has played basketball for a relatively short amount of time, competing against athletes whose involvement in the game has been lifelong. But here he is.
“I realized I wanted to be a great player and I wanted to be in the NBA,” he said.
Said Grunfeld: “He’s made outstanding progress for a player that’s played only six years. He has a good feel for the game. He has a good skill level for a 7-footer. Obviously, there’s still a lot of room for growth.”
Pecherov said the Wizards have done everything to make him feel at home. He likes his new teammates, and they, in turn, seem impressed with him.
In an interview with NBA.com, forward Caron Butler, who played in pickup games with him at Verizon Center, said, “I love Pecherov’s game. He is relentless on the glass, and he does all the little things.”
Even though he can shoot, Pecherov’s appetite for work and his desire to succeed seem to be cited the most among those who know him. He practices constantly, spending countless hours doing drills at Verizon with Wizards assistants, often twice a day.
“He’s got a great work ethic,” Grunfeld said. “No question about that.”
“He’s willing to be good,” Jordan said. “His work ethic is off the charts.”
Said Pecherov: “I want to be a good player. I try to learn from everybody. LeBron [James] can play at 18 years old, and he’s a star. That’s what I want. I understand I need to work hard. I need to keep working.”
Part of what spurs Pecherov is his family. His father was a construction worker who helped dig the subway tunnels of Kharkov until a serious accident cost him use of his right arm. That happened only a few months before Oleksiy was born.
Vladimir Pecherov had to stop working full time. He became a “pensioner,” which means he has been receiving government assistance since. Olga stayed at home raising the boys. Pecherov said his father doesn’t like to talk about what happened, but it obviously made a lasting impact.
“My goal was to help them out when I grew up,” he said. “I do my best to do better things for them. If they need something, I’m ready to help. I want what’s best for my parents and brother.”
Pecherov knows better than anyone that he has much to learn and far to go. Besides being inexperienced, several components of his game, such as defense, need work. He lately has filled out a bit but still needs to add muscle to his 235-pound frame. Yet he remains supremely confident he belongs here. His immediate goal is to play in the Rookie Challenge during All-Star weekend in February.
“I don’t know how many years it will take to be a good player,” he said. “One, two, three or four. But I know I will, for sure.”