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'I love getting better' | Worldly rookie Jeremy Sochan, Spurs' highest pick since Duncan, could be an all-world defender and more

The Spurs' Jeremy Sochan has traveled the globe and played high-level hoops all over. He was one of the most versatile prospects in the NBA Draft.

SAN ANTONIO — Jeremy Sochan has played basketball at a high level everywhere he's been, and even though he's just a teenager, he's been all over.

From top level competition in England to elite American high school ball, and from playing in Germany to representing Poland on the international stage at just 17, he's showcased astonishing versatility that made him a top-10 pick in this year's NBA draft.

The vibrant, cheeky, competitive kid seems like he could grow into an ideal power forward for the modern NBA, and he also seems to have found a perfect landing spot in San Antonio.

Citizen of the world

If you ask Sochan where he's from, you'll find that it's a complicated question to answer.

His mother, Aneta, was a point guard for Polonia Warsaw in Poland, and she came to the U.S. to study at Panhandle State University, a D-II school in Oklahoma. It was there where she met Ryan Williams, a player on the men's team who had won an Oklahoma state championship for Midwest City High School. 

Jeremy was born about 15 minutes from Texas in Guymon, Oklahoma, but at 19 he's already seen more of the world than most people. At the age of 2, his family moved to France as his father pursued a pro basketball career. His parents split up, and he moved with his mother to England, first to Southampton and then to Milton Keynes. 

His father later played professionally in England as well for the Reading Rockets and Bristol Flyers, setting the Rockets' club record with 46 points in one game. Jeremy remembers seeing some of those games growing up.

"I would go to his games and watch them, and be a part of the team, mess around with him and the players, so basketball was always with me," he told Sam Neter of Hoopsfix.

He was coached by his mother for most of his life and wasn't allowed to call her mom on the court, just coach.

"My mom was a point guard, so she knows the game. I think that's where I get my playmaking from, my IQ, the way I see the game," he said.

He started playing for MK Trojans and added three training sessions a week with his mother and pro player Ishmael Fontaine. As his body grew and his skills improved, he knew he needed a higher level of competition, but he wasn't ready to go overseas just yet. 

"I always thought I could do whatever I want, but I realized around 13, 14 that I could do this for a long time if I put my mind to it and work hard," he said.

Around that time he was also dealing with the loss of his father, who passed away in a car accident at just 37.

He went back to Southampton to play for Itchen Basketball Academy in the EABL, the top league for players 19 and under. His mom had a strong relationship with coach Matt Guymon (no relation to Sochan's hometown in Oklahoma), and Jeremy developed a solid foundation with his mom, Guymon, and coach Jack O'Keeffe.

"I just needed that year of being away from home, becoming more mature, and that's why we decided to move to somewhere else in England other than Europe or America, which is pretty big at the age of 15," he said. 

"It was a big jump, especially physically," he said, noting that he was guarding bigs several years older than him. But he played well, and it did wonders for his confidence. "I always thought I was natural, and I realized I could play at this higher level."

The initial plan was to leave after two years there, but he quickly got promoted to the Solent Kestrels, an NBL affiliate where he would play with and against players nearly twice his age at the top level of competition in the country.

He also started to get on the map internationally after playing at the youth level for the English and Polish national teams. He's stuck with Poland, leading the U16 team to a Division B FIBA championship and a promotion to Division A in 2019, earning tournament MVP honors.

"I don't really care about the MVP trophy or whatever it was, the championship meant the most. Doing it for my family, my stepfather is Polish, my mom's Polish, my family came over to watch it, it meant everything," he said.

His coaches and family agreed it was time to go overseas. The question was whether to go to the United States or Europe. Since he dreamed of eventually going D1 in the states, he decided on high school. La Lumiere in Indiana is one of the best, counting Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jordan Poole as recent alumni. 

American high school basketball is almost mythical in England, and Sochan was a bit nervous on his first flight back across the pond. That quickly dissipated when he arrived and began playing at a high level.

"Really when I got there I realized I can play with this, and it's not as big as people think," he said.

"I think it was a lot easier for me to transition because I played Division 1 (Solent Kestrels), I played at a high level in the European championships, and I also went to the NBA Academy games before the European championships, so I kind of knew what I'd be going up against in high school," he said.

"I think one of the main adjustments I had to do was get a little bit quicker and more aggressive. Over there in basketball they're a lot more aggressive. I also think players in America aren't as smart as players in Europe, I think the IQ is a lot worse," he said.

Sochan has always enjoyed playing on a big stage, and this was his biggest stage yet.

"That's one thing that America stands out in, the exposure level is crazy," he said. "Every game there's some college coaches watching. I think it just helps so much with confidence as well. I think I played a lot better when there's pressure on me."

He played a bit out of position at the 4 and the 5 and guarded prospects from Jalen Green to Jalen Duren. La Lu was ranked fifth in the country for the biggest stage of them all, Geico Nationals, but the tournament was canceled due to COVID. Still, he took a lot from his high school experience.

When the season came to a grinding halt, recruiting ramped up. He committed early to Baylor, one of the top programs in the country.

"It was crazy to think about, since I was a little kid I always dreamed about going to college," he said. "Realizing that all these D1 colleges were talking about me and really interested in me, I just thought it was crazy. I also didn't want to get too attached to that. Great things happen, but you need to let go of them as well. Being attached to too much can drown you, and make your ego go up a lot."

At 17, he became the youngest player to ever represent Poland's adult national team. He scored 18 points on Romania against grown men.

With American high school ball in an uncertain space due to COVID, he returned to Europe and played U19 ball in Germany with OrangeAcademy of ProB. He learned a bit of German, went to an international school to get his credits, picked up a love of art and continued to work on his game. 

Sochan has traveled the world and hooped at the highest level possible everywhere he's been. On his journey he's actively sought out new experiences, foods, fashion and ideas that he can incorporate into his own life.

"Since I was 15, I've always been away from home," he said. "I think that just matures you a lot. You see more and you're more open-minded, so I think that really helped me as a player for sure."

Spurs GM Brian Wright spoke about that international fit with San Antonio. 

"He kinda reminded me a little bit of Boris (Diaw), just kind of worldly. His interests, and hearing about how he thinks about basketball, but life outside of basketball, really lined up with what we hope to be, and what we hope the environment and culture will be, so we think he's really going to add on and off the court." 

Standout season at Baylor

Sochan's basketball journey took him to Waco, where he broke out for the Baylor Bears.

He only started one game, but he made the Big 12 All-Freshman team and earned Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year honors. He showed off all the range and versatility on both ends of the floor that he'd developed in different places over the years.

Coach Scott Drew told CJ Moore of the Athletic that Sochan had learned to play physically down low in the states and on the perimeter in Europe. With those skills and the right mindset and preparation, Drew deployed him at small forward, power forward, center, and even point guard.

"Most people can only learn one position. He memorized four spots on the floor offensively," Drew said. " That's pretty good in a program that we run a lot of entries and sets."

He can punish smaller defenders in the paint, and he can blow by big men on the perimeter and make plays for himself and others. Knowing where everyone should be has improved his ability to find teammates with intuitive passes. He was one of the best finishers at the rim in college ball, especially off of cuts. 

Sochan is far from a finished product offensively, but he seems to be on the right path with all the right tools. He's a strong playmaker for his size, but he can aim for more assists and fewer turnovers. He shot just 29% from three and 58% from the stripe, though his shot doesn't look broken by any means. He's well aware that he needs to get more consistent with his shot to open up the full, lofty potential of his offensive game.

We also got to see more of his unique personality at Baylor. He's big on being himself and expressing that self to the world, and one of the ways he did that was through dye for his hair and ink for his skin. All reports suggest he's a lovable goofball who builds strong relationships with the people around him.

An extensive profile by Damian Burchardt for the Ringer revealed that Sochan let his teammates shave off his long, colorful hair while they were sitting on a runway. The job was only halfway done when they got off the plane, making it an extra-memorable bonding experience.

In another anecdote from the Athletic, he slipped away from the team to bang around on a drum set he saw in the arena.

He told me on draft night that he loves playing videogames with his friends, particularly FIFA and F1. His favorite driver is Daniel Ricciardo, who used to race for Milton Keynes-based Red Bull. Sochan himself doesn't yet have, as he put it, a driving license.

Spurs GM Brian Wright made note of the hair, but focused on the versatility and character in a post-draft interview. 

"He's a connector right? He connects you on both ends of the floor, he can pass, he can think, he's physical, he's willing to guard multiple spots, he's unselfish, he's coachable, he's all the things that we identified that we want to add to this team, and he's a little fun when you throw in the hair."

Sochan didn't come in thinking he'd be one-and-done, and says he didn't think too much about it until after the season ended. 

"The way I live is just staying in the present," he said. "I never really think about the past, or try to think ahead of myself. I think just staying in the present and getting myself better every day."

Presently, he's a teenaged top-10 pick because he may be the best overall defender in this draft class.

Versatile defensive ace

How many players in the world can defend every position on the floor at the highest level? Switching 1-5 even passably is an admirable, important and rare skill, but we're talking about something more. We're talking about a guy who could line up across from Steph or Embiid and give them each a hard time.

It's a thing that requires an elite level of skill, talent and intelligence combined with a perfect blend of size, quickness, strength, agility, length and reflexes, the kind of player 2K won't allow you to build.

It's a short list with names like Draymond Green, Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo near the top. Kawhi, Bam Adebayo, and Pascal Siakam also come to mind, maybe Marcus Smart if he's feeling exceptionally tall and feisty that day. These are masters of defense, true difference makers on that end of the floor, guys who can check literally anybody.

At the college level, Sochan was that type of defender. He moves with graceful fluidity you just don't see from teenagers who are 6'9" and about 230 pounds of muscle: Feet always bouncing, eyes always darting, brain always thinking about how he can best put that frame and 7-foot wingspan to use.

He generates steals and deflections in passing lanes but doesn't often get burned by gambling. He offers help defense that's fundamentally sound and instinctive, and he can cover ground and cause problems in a blink.

But he's so much more than just a devastating off-ball rover. He's just as special defending in isolation, often voluntarily seeking out the toughest matchup. He's been asked to guard bigger, stronger players for most of his young but impressive career. He has all the strength, length and smarts to play in the paint with the big boys.

If you're a quick point guard on the perimeter, Sochan will likely stay in front of you. If you pull up, good luck getting the shot over him. If you manage to beat him and get downhill, he'll be right back on you to erase any chance of a layup. You made the smart pass to the cutter? Sochan is already in perfect position to meet him at the rim chest to chest.

"A lot of times he guarded the four," Scott Drew said. "A lot of times he started out on the five, but if a perimeter guy got hot, we could move him on to him, and he would remember scouting reports as far as, 'Make him go left, don't give him the three, this is his favorite play.' He didn't have a ton of mental mistakes."

Drew also noted his ability to communicate, not just on defense, but by providing energy in the huddle.

Per Brian Kalbrosky of For The Win, Sochan held opponents to an absurd 15% shooting when they tried him off the bounce. Those are industrial strength multipurpose clamps.

"I think it's just being active. For me it's trying to be that disruptive player. The Draymond Greens, the Patrick Beverlys, the Jae Crowders, they all have one thing in common, and that's being irritating," Sochan said. "Just being long and athletic and disruptive. That's what I try to show in my game and my defense, and I think it helps get players off their rhythm."

Talking rubbish

Asked if he likes to talk trash like some of those guys, Sochan answered in the affirmative with a smile. The accent can throw people off too.

"The amount of times they're like, 'Oh where are you from?' I'm like, 'What, didn't do your scout?'"

It's nothing new. When Itchen was trying to avenge a loss to then-undefeated Barking Abbey, he crammed a poster dunk and yelled "Let's play!" across the court as his teammates gave him those hyped up shoves that say, "You're a bad man." He finished with 31 and 15 in the upset win.

"My mentality is to play well, but also to get into other people's heads," he told Sam Neter of Hoops Fix at 17. "Be a little bit cheeky, talk to them, get them a little bit frustrated. That's the best way to get in someone's head and make their game go down."

As his reputation grew in England, so did the number of players who had something to prove against him.

"They wanted to go at me and talk trash to me as well, and I mean, I like that. I like when other players talk trash to me, because it's just gonna get me more motivated for the game."

NBA fans got a taste of his methods during Summer League. He didn't suit up for the Spurs after missing time due to COVID, but he was mic'd up by ESPN for a contest against the Rockets. 

In pregame warmups, he walked up to rookie power forward Tari Eason, smiled at him and said, "You ain't got no bounce." 

RELATED: Cheeky! Rookie Sochan trash talks during Spurs' Summer League game against Houston

When rookie TyTy Washington was standing in the corner waiting for the ball, Sochan chuckled and said, "Tyty, they ain't going to pass it to you."

"Cheeky" seems a perfect word for this sort of banter. When someone playfully delivers a direct and rude message, how are you supposed to react? That's the question Sochan is forcing his opponents to answer while they also try to focus on the task at hand.

He's not afraid to poke fun at the stars of the league either. He was playing a guessing game with Malaki Branham, and the phrase was triple doubles. When Branham said that Russell Westbrook gets a lot of these, Sochan's quick response was, "bricks?"

Branham's eyes widened as he said, "No no no no no!" Sochan covered his mouth and looked around with a grin like, "Did I do that?"

After the clip went a bit viral, Sochan posted an old picture of him in a Westbrook jersey and said he was a longtime fan, Oklahoma roots and all. Still, it seems like he'll be comfortable chatting rubbish to just about any of his new peers in the NBA.

RELATED: Whoops! Spurs' Sochan clears up the air with Westbrook 'bricks' answer

Seamless fit in San Antonio

Sochan's globetrotting basketball journey has taken him to San Antonio, a culture fit if there ever was one. He's thrilled to learn from Gregg Popovich and play Tim Duncan's position for his team.

"They've won the most, they play as a team, and I think that's what I'm all about," he told me just after he was drafted, and just before answering a question in Polish. He's not fluent, but he's getting there.

His lavender suit was a hit on draft night, and he told me fiesta colors may be next as far as the hair goes. 

Making it to the NBA is the culmination of a lifetime of work, largely away from his family, to challenge himself and improve his craft. That continues, now in the best basketball league in the world. He's excited.

"Just being in a new environment a professional environment, being around players who have done this for a long time, coaches. I think I'm just excited to become a sponge, learn a lot of different things, work hard, and get better," he said. "I love work, I love getting better, getting tired, I think that's just me. I'm a morning person, so I go in the mornings. I don't know why I'm a morning person, I just wake up."

In the pre-draft process, that meant getting shots up around 7, then a lift, then a full two-hour workout before noon. That work has always built the skill that backs up his confidence.

"I think overall I'll be able to impact a team quite early on," he said before the draft. "I think a lot of teams admire the way I play, my defensive versatility, the things I do not on the stat sheet or the box score, just the little things that you can't really see unless you really watch the game, that I do, that I think a lot of teams really admire."

He's San Antonio's highest draft pick since Duncan, and he joins a rebuilding team that may give him more opportunities to play than most Spurs rookies in the past two decades alongside Blake Wesley and Malaki Branham. Soon he'll be testing his mettle against the best there are, the guys he'd wake up early to watch back home in England.

There's no doubt it's where he's meant to be.

"I'm gonna bring energy every day," he said. "I'm gonna really compete and bring a lot to the table, and I can't wait, we're gonna have fun."

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