Arizona freshman center Henri Veesaar likes to think of his home country of Estonia as a basketball-crazed nation even if the rest of the world is just discovering the talent there.
“I would like to think it’s the main sport,” he said.
The northern Baltic country of 1.3 million people isn’t known for its hoops exploits. In the latest FIBA World Rankings, Estonia comes in at No. 48, well behind European powers like Slovenia, Serbia and Lithuania.
At the age of 15, Veesaar took a leap of faith and left his family back home so he could pursue a professional basketball career. Veesaar wound up at Spanish academy Real Madrid, where he excelled for their junior team. He averaged 10.2 points and 4.8 rebounds in 2021-22.
Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd took notice of Veesaar’s performance and began contacting him in a way different from other coaches.
“He has a lot of experience with European guys," Veesaar said. "He knew how to talk with us. Normally the coaches hit you up every day asking, ‘Did you eat good? Did you sleep good?’ Some questions I think are too much.
“Tommy, he gave me space. He was respectful of my time. We talked a couple times a week.”
The decision to play college basketball came down to Veesaar recognizing he needs time to develop into his 6-foot-10 frame.
Veesaar sees a natural transition to the college level.
“I think being from an academy really helps you because you have to fight every day for your spot at an academy,” Veesaar said. “I think most kids who come from high school, they have been the best player on their team for the whole time. There was no competition for them.”
Growing up in Estonia, Veesaar likened his game after Blake Griffin. Veesaar started playing basketball when he was 9 and got into watching the NBA two years later.
He now models himself after Minnesota’s Karl Anthony-Townes and Nikola Jokic.
Veesaar knows he joins a loaded front-court at Arizona featuring returners Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo. Tubelis should serve as a mentor for Veesaar, even if their styles of play are different.
“It’s great for me to learn every day at practice from him,” Veesaar said. “It’s his third year here so he basically knows what’s going to happen, he’s ready for all the season, what he has to do. I can take little parts of his game every day.”
Veesaar expects Arizona’s versatility down low to overwhelm other teams.
“Oumar is a big beast. I don’t think there’s many people that can guard him in the post because he’s so much stronger,” Veesaar said. “Zu is fast. He can jump out of the building. I think I’m going to be good at stretching the floor.
“I would say I will give a couple highlight plays with lobs, dunks and shoot threes.”
Veesaar is aided by the fact he has a built-in relationship with fellow Estonian Kerr Kriisa, whom he calls a “good friend.” Though they weren’t close growing up, the two got to know each practicing with the Estonian national team during COVID.
“He has great energy,” Veesaar said. “He’s very good for the team. Even if he doesn’t have that good of a day, he’s still going to be amazing because he still gives that energy to everybody.”
As the competitors they are, Kriisa and Veesaar would both like to accomplish something their country hasn’t seen in decades: reach the NBA.
Estonia has only produced one NBA player in its history, former Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks big man Martin Müürsepp, who played in the late 90s.
Veesaar could potentially become the second, if Kriisa doesn’t get there before him.
“I’m not going to put much pressure on myself,” Veesaar said. “I want to be in the NBA, yes, but I’m not going to tell when or why or what time period. Hopefully it’s going to happen. Let’s see how it goes.”