Anadolu Efes Istanbul has been one of the great stories of the first part of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague season. Playing arguably the best defense in the competition, and as the only team holding opponents below 70 points per game on average, Efes was among the first teams that qualified for the Top 16, while also holding the best record and top spot in the Turkish League.
There have already been some great moments this season for the club that has put a coaching dean Dusan Ivkovic in charge and has assembled a new team over the summer, a balanced squad that combines a couple of Europe's most promising youngsters in Dario Saric and Cedi Osman, with the experience of Nenad Krstic, Stephane Lasme, Stratos Perperoglou, Matt Janning, and a player who has silently been orchestrating this ensemble – point guard Dontaye Draper.
During the regular season, veteran playmaker Draper made just four starts but he played the most minutes (240), led the team in assists (4.3 apg.), was the team's co-leader in accumulated steals (11), and was among its top three in three-pointers made (9) and average performance index rating (9.3 per game) – all while Efes fought with Real Madrid until the last quarter of the last game for first place in Group A. Efes got off to a great start in the Top 16, too, winning its opener on the road against Laboral Kutxa Vitoria. With the team getting back injured center Krstic, and bringing Draper backcourt help in the form of Thomas Heurtel, Efes has the foundation and all the tools for a deep Euroleague run.
One of the smallest players in Euroleague, Draper has paid his dues in seven countries on three continents to get his chance to be in the role he is today. Draper stands at only 1.81 meters tall, and currently is one of the three smallest players in Euroleague, but being one of the smaller guys on any basketball court has motivated him to prove himself again and again.
“It has always been the case since I was little, since I was 7 years old I was the smallest person,” said Draper. “It is about proving people wrong. I'm quick, I can use my size and my speed and just get around people. It helps me on defense too. It's always been a good motivation.”
It is not only this motivation that has led him to success. Throughout the years he displayed incredible perseverance, and great ability to learn the European game season-by-season. For the player who arrived in Europe in 2008, it has all paid off in the past four years.
“Adapting [to European game] was the hardest. Being a point guard in Europe is totally different than in the United States,” Draper said.
Among Draper’s biggest achievements are being named the 2010-11 Eurocup MVP with Cedevita Zagreb and being a two-time Euroleague runner-up with Real Madrid. Those are two of the seven different clubs in as many countries - including Australia, Italy, Belgium and France – where Draper not only found success, but also discovered various ingredients he now uses to make an interesting recipe for success.
But according to Draper, two people get most of the credit for the maturity that characterizes his game today. The first was his teammate at Hyeres Toulon, a former French star guard and Olympic silver medal winner: “When I was briefly in France, Moustapha Sonko sat me down a few times, and told me you got to play at this pace, you have to slow down, or you need to get this person the ball, got to find places to score,” Draper said of Sonko’s influence. “Because I played at one speed, I just wanted to go go go. He told me you have to know when to run, when to settle down. He schooled me on that.”
The second influence was another great former guard, but in a role of a Cedevita coach.
“Coach Aco Petrovic really let me play how I wanted to play [in Cedevita],” Draper fondly remembered. “We played up-tempo, pick-and-roll, he gave me a lot of freedom and a lot of confidence to keep playing. I had so much fun with him. He told me to do everything - score, pass, rebound...From the first day I joined the club, he put the ball in my hands and said 'get in the paint and make everybody better'.”
During two seasons with Cedevita, he was not only the Eurocup MVP and led Cedevita to the Eurocup semifinals, but he led the team to its place in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague for the first time, too. It was a building block for the club from Croatian capital, which has since become a fixture in the Euroleague and Eurocup. But it was also a huge thing for Draper's career. “That is why I'm where I am today,”, Draper said. “They gave me the opportunity to showcase my talent. Especially Coach Aco. I was happy for that, and that gave me the confidence.”
That gratitude often went both ways with Draper and his coaches and teammates alike. He was a do-it-all star with Cedevita, a role player off the bench in Real Madrid, and now he is a glue-guy point guard in Efes. That proven adaptability to succeed and make the best out of any role and any situation – which happens to be an especially tough task for a point guard - had those around Draper always feeling comfortable with him. And it did not take long for the great Coach Ivkovic to join that club.