Former NBA Three-Point Contest champion Cook thriving in Israel
NESS ZIONA (FIBA Europe Cup) - A lot has changed since Daequan Cook lifted the Three-Point Contest trophy at the 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend, but his expert marksmanship has duly followed the Ohio native all over the world.
In all six countries he has played in, the long-ball has continued to be the trademark asset for the 31-year-old shooting guard during his time overseas, just as it was in his Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder days.
After one-year spells in Ukraine, Germany, France, Portugal and Iran, globe-trotting Cook has been taking and making them for Israeli up-and-comers Ironi Ness Ziona for the second consecutive season now.
"I felt I owed the fans more and that was one of the biggest reasons to come back."
Averaging a sixth-best 17.8 points per game in the FIBA Europe Cup on a dazzling 55.4 percent accuracy from three-point range, he has single-handedly taken over the highly prestigious 50-40-90 society and is close to turning it into an exclusive one-man 50-55-95 club.
We caught up with Ironi Ness Ziona's star player to talk new times and old, covering everything from the club's ongoing maiden international campaign to the days Cook was playing alongside some of the world's best athletes.
Daequan, let's zoom out and look at the broader picture to start things off. How would you say this season has gone for you, both in the Israeli championship and the FIBA Europe Cup?
It's been good, it's been great. I'm getting into a really good rhythm. I did have a couple of injuries here and there that put me back a little bit. But it hasn't been anything too serious to where it has messed up the rhythm I am in. Lately, I've been feeling very good about my game. Really comfortable, I've just been enjoying the moment right now. Living in the moment and loving everything.
After a series of one-year stops in the previous five countries, you decided to stay in Israel for the second year. How much does that have to do with finding that rhythm?
It plays a big role, being able to come back to the same team for the second year in a row behind the same coach and with a lot of the guys that played last year. The core of the team was also here last year so the rhythm, the chemistry and the roles haven't really changed.
What were the main reasons in deciding to stay with Ness Ziona?
For me, making that decision to come back, it was pretty easy. Last year, we gave ourselves an opportunity to make a good series of the first round of the Play-Offs in Israel against Maccabi Tel Aviv. I think it was in Game 4 where I got my ankle injury and it kind of hurt me. We were in a position to tie the series at 2-2 and I felt like I let the fans down by getting hurt. I think if I had played that game, it could've been a different outcome and a different outlook on things right now. But I felt I owed the fans more and that was one of the biggest reasons to come back.
On top of that, the organization here is very organized and very professional. It's a big deal when you're deciding for what club you're going to play with – how things are run, how professional the club is. For me, it was a no-brainer on top of the fact that I owed the fans more, especially with me also being out for the first ten weeks of last season with a knee injury. I missed a big part of the beginning of the season as well, so I just felt like it would be better for me to come back and start fresh and give the fans what they want to see.
Daequan Cook has been delivering for Ironi Ness Ziona fans this season
There has been some roster turnover at the center slot this season, with Talib Zanna filling the center spot previously occupied by Mikael Gladness and then Gerald Lee. Zanna was part of the club last season as well. What does he bring going forward?
First off, Glad and Gerald were great players for our team. Unfortunately, things didn't work out the way everyone wanted them to. As a professional, I just want to thank them for what they did for our team and the organization. They also loved playing here.
Seeing what Talib Zanna was capable of doing coming off a knee injury the previous year, it just shows what he would be capable of doing fully mobile. He came to Ness Ziona after that knee injury and averaged almost a double-double last season and then went over to the Spanish league this year and performed at a high level.
I'm happy to have him back, knowing what he's capable of and what he has been through. It makes it easier, when you bring someone over who has that experience. That can help. It helps a lot. Bringing someone with experience and someone who knows what it takes to win, I'm glad to have him here.
You were on a good roll until that latest home defeat to Alba Fehervar, when you didn't have the full squad available. How confident are you about being able to secure a top-two finish?
Like you said, we were shorthanded. You can't really say what we could've been capable of doing if we had the full roster. Alba are a great team that can never be underestimated. They came and performed and they did their job. Now it's time for us, with our full roster, to make the changes and play the best basketball from here on out. That's the most important thing for us. The next game for us against the Bulgarian team [Lukoil Levski], that's the most important thing to focus on. That is the next task at hand. It's a tough group, but we've been looking forward to playing each and every game with the most confidence. And then, may the best team win.
"Winning the Three-Point Contest was amazing. At the end of the day, I'm in the history books. I'm in the books with Larry Bird, Craig Hodges, Steph Curry, Ray Allen."
It's the first-ever international season for Ironi Ness Ziona. What were the expectations going into the season and what has the atmosphere been around the club when it comes to getting a chance to compete in Europe?
The organization wouldn't have put us in this position if they didn't feel confident of us going and playing in the FIBA Europe Cup. They got a group of guys together that can compete at a high level in European basketball and that's what we're doing now. As you can see, we've been playing great basketball, made it out of the first group. And now, we are in a position where we can continue the success. Like I said before, we have to take it one game at a time. One team at a time. But we've put ourselves in a position, where we can advance to the next round.
It's actually not your first go-around in the FIBA Europe Cup, having participated with SL Benfica. What do you remember most from that campaign and from that year in Portugal?
It was Benfica – a top team in Portugal and we had a lot of hype and expectations for ourselves. And we came up short. When it came to FIBA basketball, we came up pretty short. We had high expectations, but finished [third] behind Antwerp and Cibona in our group at that time. The competition was there, there were a lot of great teams and, unfortunately, we came up short. It was a great experience, because it was my first time playing in the FIBA Europe Cup and we all learned from that. We competed at a high level in Portugal, but we ended up losing the Finals to FC Porto. Overall, it was a good experience for us and we learned the lessons and took something from that.
Daequan Cook represented SL Benfica in the FIBA Europe Cup during the 2015-16 campaign
Going even further back and looking back on your NBA days – how much do you appreciate the fact that you had a chance to play with some of the best talent out there in Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook?
For me, it was an experience that I wish every professional athlete could have before becoming that lead guy on his team, being that main star or scorer. I had it pretty good, playing behind Dwyane Wade my first three years, being traded to Oklahoma City and playing with three of the top, premier guys in the NBA. I'm still great friends with all three of them. Just getting that experience that was needed, learning from the best and taking note, not knowing where my next stop was going to come. Whether it'd be in the NBA or overseas. Just taking all that in, studying and paying attention to what these guys were saying. For me, it was easy to make that jump from the NBA to European basketball, being able to come over here and be that guy that for the teams that I played for. It helped me out so much and I think it still does to this day. Still friends with those guys. The conversations that we have are not necessarily about basketball, more about life but it all helps and helps in so many ways.
In addition to reaching the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder, would you say winning the Three-Point Contest in 2009 is the other big highlight of your career?
Of course. The most important moment, first and foremost, was the day I was drafted. It was one of the biggest days, to hear your name called in the first round. That was one of the biggest days for me.
Then, winning the Three-Point Contest was amazing. At the end of the day, I'm in the history books. I'm in the books with Larry Bird, Craig Hodges, Steph Curry, Ray Allen – great shooters everywhere. It's an honor, it's a pleasure and I'm happy to be a part of the group of guys who have won that trophy and that accolade. For me, that was a big thing for my career in basketball in general, being able to win that and being among the top three-point shooters.
Have you taken part in any other three-point contest during your globe-trotting career?
I think I did in France during the All-Star Event. Last year in Israel, they tried to get me to do it, but I just try and enjoy being part of the All-Star Game. I'm always thankful for the opportunity that I was given, but for the most part it's just about participating in the All-Star Game. That's what I've been doing right now.
Let's finish off on a look to the future. What are the things you will be looking to achieve in 2019?
I'll be looking to build on what I've started so far this season. To continue to be efficient, to continue to do well in the league and help my team in any given way possible, for us to compete at a high level for Play-Off positions and a championship. These are just my goals in general. Playing overseas, you hear about all the rumors about playing the Play-Offs over here, playing in the FIBA Europe Cup and advancing. It's all about advancing and making title runs, that's just something I want to be a part of. I'm not getting younger, but I'm still at an age where I still want to be able to enjoy the game and have fun playing, competing at a high level and building on what I've done so far. It's a long season, I'm kind of used to it, so I just want us to continue to compete at a high level.