At the start of every Warriors game, Zaza Pachulia, the only current NBA player from the Republic of Georgia, finds himself on the court alongside the most star-studded cast on one team in the NBA: Olympians Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
How does Pachulia think he earned that distinguished role in his 14th season in the NBA?
The starting center chuckles. “It just means that I did something right throughout my career,” the elder statesman of the Warriors’ starting five told the NBPA.
“Here’s the thing,” the 32-year-old goes on to explain. “There’s so many people who would like to be in my shoes. But it’s not that easy to get to this point and to get the trust from the coaching staff, the management and your teammates. I played this game the right way and put in energy and effort and a lot of hours and a lot of sweat, so I think I deserve this spot. And I think I’m a complement and I fit well on this team. My hard work continues and the love of the game is the most I have ever had. I’m giving everything I have.”
In his first season with the Warriors, who hold the NBA’s best record at 34-6, Pachulia is shooting a career-high 53.5 percent from the field, and in January he’s upped his averages to 9.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game—the same month the early returns of the All-Star voting ranked him second after Durant in the Western Conference frontcourt. In fact, Pachulia came within 15,000 votes of being a first-time All-Star—and starter—last season with the Mavericks.
“It makes me feel good and happy that I’m getting love and support from so many people,” he said. “The NBA is such a global game and there’s fans all over the world. Georgia has a huge impact and Georgian people who have been supporting me for such a long time. It’s not that easy to get this much support, so I’m so thankful. And it’s not about the voting; it’s about support honestly. That’s what means a lot.”
For Pachulia, he’s surprised himself with how well he’s been keeping up with the Warriors’ faster style of play—No. 1 in the NBA in fast-break points per game (22.0) and No. 2 in pace (102.9), measured by the average number of possessions a team uses per game.
“I kind of forgot that I could run,” he said, laughing. “I noticed myself running better and more this year, and I have no complaints. Last year [in Dallas] was a different system. It’s just good to remember how to run frequently, really often. For us, it’s a layup or three-point shot, so it’s great.”
Pachulia utilizes his quickness in a unique way at the top of the key, where he’s often used as an anchor for dribble hand-offs. He has a knack for faking the pass and driving in for a layup, using his underrated speed and 275-pound strength to finish. He also has strong box-out skills—not afraid of contact with driving his base low into opponents to create more separation for a miss—and quick hands around the basket to capitalize on offensive rebounds. He’s also a heads-up passer and can read a teammate cutting backdoor.
Defensively, Pachulia’s deceiving mobility enables him to switch if need be on to a wing player, which complements the Warriors’ versatility guarding different positions. Assisting wherever possible is the name of his game, and he’s not concerned with having a post play called for him. His whole mindset with the Warriors is mostly surveying the court and finding the right crease.
“We have scorers, so you need the role players who do their job and it’s not seen as much on the paper, but appreciated by his teammates,” he said. “I’m enjoying helping my teammates with my presence, my ability, my IQ, my passing—you name it. Don’t forget defense is a huge part, reading the game is a huge part and helping your teammates either with setting the screen, or just rolling and taking a couple guys with you. That way someone stays open. There’s so many aspects of the game that can help your team win a game.”
Pachulia said that it took him a couple of weeks from the start of the season to pick up the Warriors’ offensive schemes. With the team’s emphasis on three-pointers and layups off of cuts, he needed time to study all of the different ways to set screens to get his teammates open—his biggest role in the offense.
“I needed to learn where the guys like to go, when to set the flare [screen], when to set the ball screen or when to just get out and let the guy play one-on-one,” he said. “With so many great shooters we have, I think they need to start putting in the stats of how many screens I set. And they should because it’s such a big part of today’s game with the pick-and-roll. We have such great offensive players and shooters, so it’s just so much fun to get them open and then let [the ball] fly in all arenas.”
So what are Pachulia’s pointers for setting a good screen? He credits the fundamentals he learned in Europe, where he played for the Turkish club Ulker G.S.K. from 1999 to 2003—the year he was drafted in the NBA.
“First of all, have a wide-enough base parallel to your shoulders and don’t move, don’t use your hands and just get to the closest guy, and try to block the direction that he would like to go,” he said. “You’ve got to know where the offensive player likes to go—the right side or left side. And sometimes you come up and set the screen without the defender expecting it, and that’s my favorite because he doesn’t know. You know the Chinese [Great] Wall? He hits the Georgian wall.”
Pachulia admits occasionally to running back on defense too soon, like other Warriors players have done in the past, when his teammates launch a long-range shot. “I’ve done it a couple of times,” he said, laughing. He just has that much confidence in them, and deservingly so: they’re No. 4 in the league in three-point percentage (.382).
Pachulia said the biggest thing he’s learned about being around his teammates is the pain they still feel from losing in the Finals last year. “They still have that taste,” he said. “It’s everybody’s goal to win a championship. I know it’s not going to be easy because every team we face against, they bring their A game.” But, as he noted, the Warriors are only improving: “The chemistry is getting along, defense is getting settled, we’re moving better. It’s just fun because it’s getting easier.”
Soaking in the season of his career, Pachulia is amazed at the Warriors’ attraction wherever it goes.
“I thought Dirk [Nowitzki] had a lot of fans in every city we went to, but here you have so many stars and everybody is bringing their own fans,” he said. “It’s a crazy atmosphere from the hotel to the bus to the entrance in the arena. You want to have a career where you play against the best, and you want to have a career where you play with the best. So I think I’m having a wonderful career and that joy continues, and hopefully it’s going to continue for a long time.”
Off the court, Pachulia is focused on growing his basketball academy in his hometown of Tbilisi, the capital and largest city in the Republic of Georgia. In 2015, the Athletic Federation of Georgia, the governing body for athletics in the country, upgraded the complex to prepare for the European Youth Olympic Festival with adding four basketball courts, locker rooms, a weight room, restaurant and dorm-style living.
After the event, the Federation gave Pachulia the honor of running the facility. And this past summer, when he hosted his inaugural basketball camp for 325 kids (ages 6-16), it was the first time he had been there in 18 years since he trained as a youth. He was so nervous about making his first event a success that he had a high fever entering the opening day.
“When I touch something, I take it very serious,” he said. “So when the government decided to give me this building, it’s a huge responsibility; it comes with so many things. So that’s why I treat [the campers] like my kids because I want all of them to succeed, because once they succeed it makes me proud. I want all the best for all those kids. I want all of them to be NBA players. So can you imagine having 300 Georgians in the NBA?”
Not only did he have his first camp, but he also did it with the old Bucks’ basketball court installed as one of the four in the facility. Pachulia, who played for the Bucks from 2013-15, purchased all 267 pieces of the court in 2013, when the team rebranded itself. Then last summer, after being transported on a cargo ship across the Atlantic Ocean, the court arrived and was assembled at his academy.
“My goal was motivation for these kids,” he said. “I’m thinking about how exciting it is for kids in Georgia that they have a chance to practice on an NBA court where all these amazing playoff games happened, all these greatest players played. That’s a great story to me.”
For the camp, Pachulia had the assistance of NBA officials, local coaches from Georgia, WNBA player Kalana Greene and former NBA player Zarko Cabarkapa, who was selected in the same 2003 draft as Pachulia. For about a week, two sessions per day in the gym, the kids also learned about discipline, professionalism, hard work, goal-setting and, most importantly to Pachulia, education. Through the years, he has taken classes at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, Harvard Business School and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
Pachulia said there’s so much interest in the camp that for this summer, there are already 560 kids enrolled and another 80 on a waiting list.
“We don’t want to put more than 20 kids per group, or you lose the quality and the kids don’t get as much attention as they need to,” he said. “We might even expand and open another gym in a different location.”
In the meantime, Pachulia is building an all-purpose training area in the roughly 13,000-square-foot basement of the complex. He envisions all kinds of athletes training there, including gymnasts, wrestlers, rugby and soccer players, and even the Georgian national basketball team. The inspiration came from two athletes: former Bucks teammate Mo Williams, who has a basketball academy in Dallas, and former Olympic gold medal sprinter Michael Johnson, who has a performance center outside of Dallas. Pachulia worked out at both locations.
Currently, he’s hosting basketball leagues for all ages at his academy. His goal is to place kids in colleges and high schools in the U.S., and develop relationships with clubs throughout Europe to create more opportunities. Going to Turkey was his big break.
“That’s when I felt like the NBA was kind of realistic as long as I continued to grow and progress,” he said. “From Georgia, it was very difficult, especially back then where we didn’t have these new conditions that we have now—not even close. We were practicing with hats and gloves; it was so cold in the gym during the winter. But now we have great conditions in our country, so those kids have a great opportunity to practice.”
Back in the Bay Area, Pachulia maintains his roots with his Georgian wife, Tina. They cook native food together and two of his favorite Georgian dishes are khinkali and khachapuri. But when his mother, Marina, comes to town—like next month when he turns 33—she takes over the kitchen. “I don’t care what you eat,” he said. “Mom’s food is mom’s food.”
Thinking about the rise of basketball in Georgia with his leadership, his NBA success capped off the Warriors and the early All-Star voting polls, he’s glad his small nation of more than 3.7 million people is getting more recognition on the global stage. He said he notices more Georgian flags at NBA games and he’s encountered a “really good population” of his countrymen in the Bay Area. Overall, he said, New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia compile the most Georgians, while Atlanta, where he played for eight years, has the second-largest community in the U.S.
In a month, Pachulia could become the first player ever from Georgia to be an All-Star. Then in June, he could bring a never-before championship celebration back to his country.
“To come to this point, it tells you the personality and the character of our nation,” he said. “That’s what I’m proud of honestly. We have really good athletes, but our country understands the value that we have and we know how to support each other. People should think about visiting Georgia because the hospitality is amazing. So it comes with a lot of positive things, and you can see with this All-Star voting. I’m really happy and glad what’s going on right now with my country.”