Imagine being the only NBA player representing your country with millions of people watching each night while you play for a title contender. That’s Zaza Pachulia’s reality.
“Every step I make, honestly, in my career, Georgia is always on my mind, just like the song,” Pachulia told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like, when I’m in Georgia, I represent my city, I represent my family. But, when I’m outside my country, I represent my country as well because, right now, being the only player, unfortunately as of today, but obviously we have multiple players [eventually] coming from Georgia to play in the NBA. So, there’s something that I have on my back or on my shoulders.”
Pachulia’s broad shoulders carry the basketball hopes of Georgians, and also allow him to set bone-jarring screens for his teammates to score. Pachulia’s screens won’t be found in a box score nor featured on television highlights, but they are just as important.
How valuable can a screener be? Just ask a player like Khris Middleton, who got a five-year, $70 million deal from the Milwaukee Bucks thanks in part to pin down screens from Pachulia while the two were teammates.
While Middleton got paid in the summer of 2015, Pachulia was expected to get his big contract this past offseason. Pachulia, 32, came off one of the best seasons in his career as he averaged a career-high 9.4 rebounds per game.
For Pachulia, leaving millions of dollars and a longer deal on the table with other teams wasn’t a tough decision.
“Not really,” Pachulia told Basketball Insiders. “Honestly, at that moment of time, [Golden State] is what my gut feeling was, especially after talking to Coach Kerr on the phone made that decision so much easier for me. He convinced me that this was a good group of guys with a really great goal to win a championship, how much confidence he had in me, and I was his first option. All these things, the little things, made my decision so much easier. I’m glad that I made the move.”
Golden State owns the league’s best record (30-5) and appears set for a third consecutive matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the championship.
While the quartet of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have lived up to the hype, Kerr also values Pachulia’s role in the offense, which allows the star-studded foursome to succeed.
“Zaza gives us toughness, gives us smart play,” Kerr said. “He’s a great screener, he’s always getting Steph and Klay open and KD.”
As of January 2, Pachulia’s ability to set screens on pick-and-roll plays, as well as off the ball on pin down screens, has helped the Warriors lead the league in scoring average (117), assists (31.2) and field goal percentage (.497). On defense, Golden State leads the league in opponent field goal percentage (.428) and three-point percentage (.324).
“[Pachulia] loves the game and just loves to play basketball,” Curry said. “So, every night you know he’s going to be locked in and give us energy, give us that toughness. He’s got a high IQ for the game.”
“Obviously, for me, it’s all about the experience, a good experience, and getting something on your game, getting something on your career and, I think, after the last few years, I felt to be part of this kind of team would be amazing,” Pachulia told Basketball Insiders. “I just signed a one-year deal, and so far it’s gone really well. I’m enjoying it, enjoying the experience, enjoying playing, being with these guys on and off the court, enjoying playing for the coaching staff and Coach Kerr. It’s fun. We have a huge goal, we have the big picture, and we’re working hard on it. Overall it’s a good decision, I think.”
It should be no surprise Pachulia passed on millions of dollars for a shot at the championship with the Warriors; he wants to win a title for Georgia as much as himself. Why? That’s who Pachulia is, a selfless person and player who makes the game better for those around him.
“I’m not worried about next year,” Pachulia told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just enjoying so much about this season, and this is something I’ve been in this situation a lot of times, being a free agent. It’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about finishing this year the way we’re supposed to finish it, with us winning a championship.”