Svi Mykhailiuk of Ukraine delivering on prodigious promise for Pistons
Detroit — It was when Battle Creek’s Jason Washburn arrived in Cherkasy, Ukraine, in 2013 for his new life as a professional basketball player when he first heard of the local wunderkind.
“Sviat” was a Cherkasy 16-year-old prodigy, already a Ukrainian fascination.
The boy was not there for the start of training camp with Cherkaski Mavpy, as he was playing a tournament abroad with the Ukrainian youth national team.
When Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk eventually came home, Washburn was underwhelmed at his first look.
“At first I first I saw him, and I was like, ‘This skinny little kid is one of the best players in Europe?’” Washburn recalled last week. “It didn’t take long for me to realize exactly what they were talking about.”
Back then, Mykhailiuk (pronounced myk-HIGH-luke) was more of a creator and penetrator than now, billed these days as a young NBA marksman with those playmaking skills still a work in progress.
Washburn would later call Sviat the “LeBron of Ukraine,” a quote that has followed the young Ukrainian at each of his three American stops.
To clarify now, Washburn said he wasn’t then comparing Sviat to the runaway locomotive that was a young LeBron James. Instead, the Battle Creek Central graduate was likening Mykhailiuk’s hype to the frenzy that surrounded James in high school in northeast Ohio, and later the pride James brought to his Akron home.
Emerging as a promising building block in his second NBA season with the Pistons, the 22-year-old boy who became known in America as “Svi” is starting to deliver on that promise.
“I feel like just proving that, since I’ve been in the league, that playing hard, playing defense, doing whatever Coach wants me to do, and I just try hard,” Mykhailiuk said. “I think when you play more, you get more adjusted to the game, and you get a better feel for the game.”
The more and more he plays in coach Dwane Casey’s rotation, Mykhailiuk is allowing Detroit fans to dream of better days with the Ukrainian prodigy as a significant piece of the next great Pistons era.
Building a star
Cherkasy is a city of more than 250,000 in central Ukraine on the banks of the Dnieper River.
An only child with teachers as parents, sports were a big part of Sviat's upbringing in the industrial town. His mother, Inna, played basketball, and his father, Iurii, was an amateur soccer and volleyball player.
As a child, Sviat had toys all over the house, but seemed to always want to play with a ball.
During Mykhailiuk’s upbringing, basketball was growing locally in popularity, and businessman Mikhail Brodsky founded a pro team and funded youth developmental programs in Cherkasy.
Brodsky is now president of the basketball federation of Ukraine. Washburn said Brodsky had one of the best organization’s he’s played for in seven seasons barnstorming in six countries.
Young Sviat came of age in that basketball pipeline and also excelled in soccer, table tennis and chess.
But free moments were dedicated to his favorite sport. He’d shoot paper wads in the trash can when bored, and a teacher set up a small basketball hoop in class to keep him from escaping to the gym for unattended practice between classes.
In an email to The Detroit News, Iurii Mykhailiuk said Sviat was 6 or 7 when he decided he would become a professional basketball player.
At a school that taught 10 different languages, Mykhailiuk chose to learn English with eyes set on the NBA.
Iurii, who left home at 6:30 a.m. most mornings to drive Sviat to train, remembers vividly the moment a 14-year-old Sviat looked up from checking NCAA results on the internet and told his father that he wanted to attend Kansas or Duke.
Within the Cherkasy program, coach Maksym Mikhelson molded the teenager’s skills in the early years.
In international youth competitions throughout the continent, word began to spread about Mykhailiuk.
Michael Lelchitski, a Russian and longtime observer of young European basketball stars, said Mykhailiuk was given perhaps the highest compliment from scouts, drawing comparisons to a young Drazen Petrovic, the Croatian who had his legendary NBA career cut short by his tragic death at age 28 in 1993.
“I remember those being thrown out like, ‘Hey, this kid is really special,’” said Lelchitski, now Mykhailiuk’s agent.
Mykhailiuk joined the local professional team at 16 years old, playing against grown men while attending school during the day.
Washburn, a 7-footer fresh off a four-year career at Utah, came to Ukraine as a Michiganian ready to start a life abroad along with his fiancee, Elizabeth.
There were three other Americans on the Cherkasy team, a mediocre group in what was a strong Ukrainian Basketball SuperLeague.
In February 2014, more than midway through Washburn’s rookie season, citizens overthrew the Ukrainian government in a series of protests in Kiev, the nation’s capital.
About a two-hour drive away in Cherkasy, Washburn remembers driving around town one day with Elizabeth as the town shut down because of unrest about the protests.
“They cleared money out of their banks, I mean it was a ghost town,” Washburn said. “It was a scary situation.”
Ever scarier later was a road trip to Kiev, where the team stayed two blocks from the heart of the protests.
“I remember being able to hear it and they told us to not go anywhere near it, stay in our hotel,” Washburn said. “Shots were fired, we could hear it. There was a sniper incident there once when we were there.
“I remember, my (now) wife and I, and all the other Americans, we had an exit plan. We actually got together, and were trying to figure out what we would do if we needed to get out of the country that night, like how would we get out?
“We might have been exaggerating, but we just had no idea.”
Things got more tenuous in March when president Vladimir Putin and the Russian government deployed troops to Crimea, eventually taking control of the peninsula, a conflict that continues today.
One Ukrainian basketball club near the conflict disbanded, and league play was interrupted throughout the country.
“I remember one of our teammates in the middle of the night just was up and gone,” Washburn said. “He drove back to his country in the middle of the night, and he was gone. He drove home to Lithuania. He had a wife and kid.”
The Cherkasy team was called into a meeting by management and told the team would no longer be able to ensure the players’ safety.
“Then we’re like, you know what, I’m done,” said Washburn, now 29 and rehabbing an injury in Chicago, anxious to resume his pro career aboard. “I’m leaving.”
Though he hoped to one day return to the Cherkasy club, Washburn was off to Belarus to play for Tsmoki-Minsk.
Cherkasy's Americans left Ukraine for safety, but Mykhailiuk already had gleaned precious information from his teammates.
Looking toward his future, Mykhailiuk was interested in the nuance of American basketball life.
"He’s such a young kid, he wanted to absorb everything; that was the greatest thing about him,” Washburn said. “And he asked us because, he could’ve went and played for the best teams in Europe, he really could’ve.”
Virginia sent staffers to watch Mykhailiuk play in Ukraine, and elite European clubs were in hot pursuit. Still, Sviat favored the NCAA route to the the NBA.
"I just wanted to try something new," he said. "I saw the NCAA games on TV and it was a lot of fun, so I thought I would go and try it out. I thought I could be successful."
When the Mykhailiuks visited Real Madrid, the famed Spanish club made an offer for “quite a lot of money,” Iurii recalled.
“Svyatoslav remained firm in his desire to get into the NCAA,” Iurii said of his son, who would commit to Kansas. “We treated our son’s desire with understanding and respect, supported him and did not regret it for a minute.”
That summer at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Oregon, Mykhailiuk joined the World Select team and matched up with foreigners like Nikola Jokic and Clint Capela against American high schoolers such as Stanley Johnson and fellow incoming Jayhawks Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre.
During practices leading up to the exhibition games, about two months before his 17th birthday, Mykhailiuk officially got on the NBA radar.
“The intriguing part was his age,” said Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski, who was then with the Memphis Grizzlies front office. “You could tell he had a skill set. But he needed a lot of work, and obviously going to Kansas, you knew he had a high-profile team like them that obviously saw something in him.”
Before heading to Kansas, Mykhailiuk played for Ukraine in the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.
There, he wrapped up his tournament in a 95-71 pool-play loss to Team USA, a unit that included future teammates Derrick Rose and Andre Drummond.
Newly 17 and prepped to be the youngest player in Big 12 Conference history, Mykhailiuk arrived in Lawrence armed with plenty of hype.
Though he was missed at home, his parents understood the stakes. They knew their own sacrifices had led to this point, developing nutritional plans and sacrificing their own pursuits at times to cultivate Sviat's dreams.
“We treated our son’s desire with understanding and respect, supported him and did not regret it for a minute,” Iurii said. “We believed in his talent and maximally supported his desire to become a basketball player. And now we understand how correctly we did everything.”
Mykhailiuk scored in double figures in three of the team’s first 10 games — six coming in starts for coach Bill Self — but those games were more the exception than the rule.
The young guard eventually fell to the bottom of Self’s rotation, finishing the season averaging 2.8 points and 0.7 assists per game. He made 15 3-pointers with poor 28.8-percent shooting from deep.
With at least one more year until the 17-year-old was allowed to enter the NBA Draft, observers wondered if he would leave Kansas and return to the comforts of Europe to continue pro preparations.
But Mykhailiuk persevered, building a solid four-year career at Kansas that included a cold-blooded 3-pointer to down Duke, leading to a Final Four appearance in 2018.
Mykhailiuk left Lawrence, where the game of basketball came of age under professor and coach James Naismith, as the single-season record holder for career 3-pointers made in his senior year, knocking down 115, or 100 more than his freshman year.
“He got coached really hard by a Hall of Fame coach, and he was able to withstand a lot of ups and downs,” Lelchitski said. “There is an adjustment period for young guys coming from overseas to college, being dropped off. He has no one here, no family, learning the culture, learning the language, adjusting to food, adjusting to the coaching.
“A program like Kansas, they recruit the best of the best, and those kids are alphas. I think he deserves a ton of credit for making it through that, pushing through that, having the willpower and the belief in himself to push through it.
“It’s such an awesome story. He’s going to be beloved there in Kansas history.”
A month before the 2018 NBA Draft, Stefanski was brought in by owner Tom Gores to run the Pistons, hiring Casey, a defensive-minded leader and the reigning NBA coach of the year.
Selecting No. 42, Stefanski and the Pistons drafted Bruce Brown out of Miami (Fla.), though Mykhailiuk was among the options in the 40s of Detroit’s draft board.
Stefanski doubled-down on defense by trading for the 38th pick from Philadelphia, Creighton’s Khyri Thomas.
Mykhailiuk was off to the Lakers at No. 47 and helped Los Angeles to the finals of the Las Vegas Summer League as a rookie.
He then shined for South Bay of the G League and played well in limited minutes with LeBron’s Lakers in the regular season.
Meanwhile, Stefanski was shopping Reggie Bullock near the trade deadline, knowing the Pistons wouldn’t be able to sign the impending free agent that summer.
Stefanski said he had offers of two second-round draft picks for Bullock, but instead opted for Mykhailiuk and a future Los Angeles second-rounder.
“There’s no question Svi could score the basketball,” Stefanski said. “We had a lot of work he had to do defensively and get his body better. But the whole front office felt that he was a good name to at least take a shot at as opposed to getting two seconds.”
Mykhailiuk appeared in three Pistons games last season and gained more experience in the G League with Grand Rapids.
Making the leap
This year, with a hobbled Pistons team giving more minutes to young players amidst a disappointing half-season, Mykhailiuk is among the players finally giving Pistons fans some hope.
Entering Monday, Mykhailiuk was fifth in the NBA with a 44.5 percent mark on 3-pointers, leading the Pistons.
Stefanski said Mykhailiuk has the short memory of an elite shooter and the team’s veterans value his sweet stroke.
“They tell him over and over, when you’re open, just shoot it,” Stefanski said. “When you have your teammates having that much confidence in you, that speaks volume.”
Mykhailiuk has worked defensively to get into Casey’s good graces and has been awarded with more playing time alongside young cornerstones like rookie Sekou Doumbouya and Brown.
“We know he can shoot; he’s one of the top shooters on our team,” Casey said. “But where he gets in trouble is not cracking down, being physical defensively, getting into his man, making him work to catch it, bodying up.
“We’ve got them in an important role right now, so I like the way they’re progressing, but they still have a ways to go.”
Last week was Mykhailiuk’s best as a pro, setting consecutive career highs with 21 points in a win at Boston and then 25 more Saturday at Atlanta.
His parents stay up to the wee hours to stream every game, mostly getting just two or three hours of sleep on game nights. A following of Pistons fans has developed in central Ukraine because of Cherkasy’s biggest sports celebrity, and Iurii said he interacts on social networks to chat about the Pistons.
Mykhailiuk drilled a nearly three-quarter court shot to beat the third quarter buzzer at Boston. And just like his shot for Kansas to help down Duke, there was no pronounced celebration from the sharpshooter.
“He’s not going to bring attention to himself, he’s not a flashy kid,” Washburn said. “Just as long as I’ve known him, all he wanted to do was put his head down and work, and play basketball.
“That’s Sviat, and it will always be Sviat.”
Washburn said his friend will continue to grow on Detroit fans. He would know, as a lifelong Pistons fan who idolized Ben Wallace and was starstruck when he shook hands once with Big Ben, the soul of the last great Pistons team.
“I remember being that starry-eyed kid,” Washburn said. “Now that kid is Sviat. That’s crazy to me.
"It’s a small world and it comes full circle sometimes.”
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.