RCW: From the U.S. to Ukraine and back again
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, more commonly known as “Svi,” came to Lawrence, Kansas for the first time when he was just 16 years old. Just six days after his recruiting visit, Mykhailiuk committed to play basketball for the University of Kansas over Iowa State, Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia.
“It’s a great basketball college,” he said. “There’s great tradition and it was important that (is what) I knew about Kansas.”
The adjustment from high school to college is a difficult transition for many, but Mykhailiuk would face some different challenges than his peers. By the time Mykhailiuk enrolled at Kansas he was only 17 years old and was 5,532 miles from his hometown of Cherkasy, Ukraine.
Kansas men’s basketball assistant coach Kurtis Townsend praised Mykhailiuk’s ability to adjust to life in a new country.
“I thought he adjusted really well and made friends quickly,” he said. “He had seen a lot of other parts of the world and when you travel, to me, you become worldly and understand things a little better.”
Fast-forward three years and Mykhailiuk returned home to Ukraine for the first time since he came to Kansas in 2014.
Mykhailiuk made the trip back to his home country when he was chosen to represent Ukraine as a member of the Ukrainian National Team in the FIBA under-20 European Championships hosted this past summer.
The first stop on Mykhailiuk’s international trip was to his hometown of Cherkasy for the adidas Eurocamp. The Ukrainian team spent two months practicing against the best teams in Europe at the camp for the European Championships.
“We played against the best teams and players in Europe. It was a great experience to play against those guys,” Mykhailiuk said.
While in Cherkasy for the camp, Mykhailiuk got to spend time with his family in addition to catching up with former teammates and coaches.
“It was a great time to meet with my family, to meet with my coaches, to see my former teammates, to play with them again and to play for my country,” he said.
Mykhailiuk took time to fine-tune his skills while at the adidas Eurocamp. He focused on ball handling and driving the basketball, something that fans hadn’t seen him do much of in his previous two years as a Jayhawk.
“[I was] playing with the ball, driving the ball more,” he said. “Trying to be more efficient.”
After spending two months preparing in Cherkasy, the Ukrainian National Team, as well as 16 other teams from around Europe, traveled to Finland to compete for the FIBA European Championship title.
Ukraine placed eighth out of 16 teams led by Kansas’ own Mykhailiuk. The 6-foot-8 guard led Team Ukraine in scoring at 14.9 points per game and in minutes played, averaging 29.6 per contest. Mykhailiuk also recorded 5.6 rebounds per game, good enough for second on the team.
Mykhailiuk’s trademark at Kansas, the 3-point shot, didn’t fall overseas this past summer. He shot just 19 percent from behind the arc despite shooting 40.2 percent from long range during his sophomore season at KU.
Townsend wasn’t concerned about Mykhailiuk’s 3-point scoring struggles, however. He was excited about the overall experience Mykhailiuk had competing in Finland.
“It’s really helped his confidence; he’s had a really good year so far,” Townsend said.
Mykhailiuk has connected on 44.9 percent of his shots thus far in his junior season including 44.4 percent from behind the arc. The 3-point specialist is third on the Kansas team with 36 baskets from long-range in the 2016-17 season, a notable improvement already from his sophomore season, where he made 37 total 3-pointers throughout the season.
As the statistics tell, Mykhailiuk has come a long way since he first put on a Jayhawk uniform.
“My first year, I was 17 and wasn’t physically ready. I was not really strong or mature,” he said. “A lot of kids at 17 years old are sophomores in high school, so it was kind of hard.”
Townsend agreed that Mykhailiuk lacked physical maturity when he arrived in Lawrence; however, he was impressed by how coachable he was.
“He was already pretty fundamentally sound. I think the thing that doesn’t translate for a lot of the European kids is how physical and how much better of athletes he plays against here, as opposed to what he was used to playing against,” Townsend said.
“That was hard, but the fact that he was young – he was like a sponge.”
After two-plus years in the Kansas system, working with not only the coaches, but also the KU support staff like assistant athletics director for sports performance, Andrea Hudy, Mykhailiuk has developed both physically and skillfully.
“His body wasn’t physically mature [when he first came to KU]. He’s put on 25 pounds since he’s got here. I think he’s done great,” Townsend said.
After shooting 45 percent overall in his sophomore season and 40.2 percent from long range, it was obvious that Mykhailiuk’s new stronger physique had benefited him on the court.
However, both the KU coaches and Mykhailiuk agree that it is his international experience, which has been the key factor in his success so far in his junior season.
“I went back home [this summer] and played with the National Team there and it gave me some confidence because I was playing a lot and playing a lot with the ball,” he said.
The confidence and success Mykhailiuk had playing with the Ukrainian National Team has helped him in his new, increased role with the Jayhawks.
Mykhailiuk has played in all 16 games this season, averaging 26.6 minutes per game and earning the start in six of those contests. The long-range shooter has more than doubled his playing time from his sophomore season where he averaged 12.8 minutes per game.
“I don’t think he was quite ready to have a little bit bigger role [last year], and now he obviously is,” said head coach Bill Self.
Finding that confidence he needed this summer has been crucial in his junior season as a Jayhawk.
“He was one of the best players on that (Ukrainian National) team and that just helped him coming in here,” Townsend said. “It’s given him a lot of confidence.”
Mykhailiuk’s offensive presence has been undeniable thus far, scoring in double figures in 10 out of the 16 games this season. He is fourth among the Jayhawks, averaging 10.6 points per game. The key to his offensive success: driving the ball to the lane.
“Everybody expects me to shoot it. I don’t think everyone expects me to drive, so I’ve just been driving more and its been getting me the open shot,” he said.
Mykhailiuk demonstrated his newly refined skill with a buzzer-beater against Kansas State in the Sunflower Showdown on Jan. 3 to give KU the 90-88 Big 12 Conference win.
“It was a great play by Svi (Mykhailiuk) because it wasn’t exactly what we drew up, but he improvised and made it happen,” senior forward Landen Lucas said.
Self praised Mykhailiuk’s ability to make the play and get the win for the Jayhawks.
“Svi (Mykhailiuk) made a great play that won the game for us and he showed some athletic ability there,” Self said.
Mykhailiuk’s newly developed skill to drive the ball to the paint has impressed fans and coaches alike.
“He was always kind of a second-thought kind of guy and everybody just labeled him as a spot-up shooter and he went over there (overseas in the summer of 2016) and was able to drive the ball and score,” Townsend said. “I think that experience just helps him because he plays against older and really physical men [in the United States].”
Mykhailiuk’s redefined game has made Kansas an even bigger threat in the quest for its 13th-straight Big 12 Conference title.
“His shooting is a big weapon and he’s gotten better defensively, which was a weakness, as was his ball handling,” Townsend said. “He’s gotten better in both of those areas.”
Kansas teammates Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson have made draining threes look easy for Mykhailiuk this season. The Jayhawks’ four-guard lineup has spread the floor and allowed him to get open shots.
“It’s helpful for him to play with guards like Devonte’ and Frank who can get him the ball where he wants it and now even Josh, who’s a really good passer. It’s really benefited Svi this year,” Townsend said.
The focus for Mykhailiuk and Kansas right now is yet another Big 12 title, but there will come a time when he has to start looking toward the future.
Mykhailiuk was required to play basketball at the college level until he turned 19 years old due to National Basketball Association (NBA) age regulations. Since reaching that milestone, he now has the opportunity to play at the next level if he chooses to leave Kansas at the conclusion of the season. Playing in the NBA is a dream for many, but few have the chance, and the ability, to make that dream become a reality.
“To get to the NBA, which I know is why he came here, is his dream,” Townsend said of Mykhailiuk.
The experience provided at both Kansas and with the Ukrainian National Team has helped prepare Mykhailiuk for the next step toward the future when he chooses to take it.
“It [Kansas] helped me a lot with practice rhythm and with the game,” Mykhailiuk said. “We’re playing really fast and really hard. You’ve got to be tough to play here and you’ve got to be tough to play in the NBA too. Kansas is helping me to adjust to the game.”
Mykhailiuk’s extensive experience playing with different teams and having different roles on each of those teams will help him adjust to the NBA as he steps into various roles depending on which team he might play for.
“He could use a little bit of everything he’s learned from the international game and being the best player on that team to playing with us [Kansas], where he’s the third or fourth option,” Townsend said. “He won’t be the primary option [in the NBA]. He’ll be the fourth or fifth option or the first guy off the bench that they’ll need to come in and make shots for them. I think all of it combined will be good experience for him.”
In order to get to that next level, Mykhailiuk believes he still has some work and improvement to do.
“I need to get tougher, get more aggressive,” he said. “I’m trying to drive more, shoot more and play good defense.”
Continuous improvement on the court has been important to Mykhailiuk since he came to Kansas. He started putting in extra work when he was at a disadvantage because of his age, physical size and strength.
As a freshman, Mykhailiuk had the mindset that because he was young, he couldn’t be as tired.
“I would stretch out and put in extra work. I would go to weights all the time and every day off, I would try to put up some extra shots,” he said.
Now, as a junior, Mykhailiuk still focuses on working extra and spends the majority of his off time in the gym.
“I’m just trying to improve when I have the time,” he said.
The experience that Mykhailiuk gained playing overseas this summer is invaluable, but the opportunity to represent his home country and to spend time with his long-distant family was priceless.
“It was exciting for me playing there for the first time in three years. I’ve always wanted to play for my country. I’m just so proud of my country and (I’m) trying to help any time that I can,” he said.
The ability to fly home for breaks from school has never been an option for Mykhailiuk because of the long distance from Kansas to Ukraine. However, this has allowed him to build strong relationships with his KU coaches. In fact, Mykhailiuk was able to spend Christmas Day with the Townsend family.
“I’ve spent the last two Christmases in Lawrence. The coaches and staff that stay here welcome me into their homes. That is part of Kansas basketball, being like family,” Mykhailiuk said. “This past Christmas was with Coach Townsend’s family and we had a fun time celebrating the holiday.”
Mykhailiuk’s Jayhawk family has stepped in numerous times during his time at KU, but once a year he has the opportunity to spend time with his immediate family when they make the trip to the United States to watch him play.
Mykhailiuk’s family makes the 5,532-mile journey to Kansas each year to watch him play in a Kansas uniform. Mykhailiuk’s father, Iurri, and former coach, Maksym Mikhelson, who coached him this summer at the FIBA World Championships, traveled from Ukraine to Fort Worth, Texas for the conference opener against TCU on Dec. 30 and then to Lawrence for the K-State (Jan. 3) game in Allen Fieldhouse.
“They come one time a year and they came at the right time this year,” he said.
Iurri and Mikhelson were not surprised that Mykhailiuk made the shot to give KU the win over its in-state rival, K-State.
“It was very good. The players believed in (him taking) the last shot,” Iurri said in a recent interview with the Kansas City Star.
Mikhelson had seen Mykhailiuk make similar heroic plays for the Ukraine during the FIBA under-20 world championships and had a feeling that he would be the one taking the final shot.
“He has been a hero before. He had the same moments in the European championship,” he told the Star. “I had a feeling he would take the last shot. It was a very good game, great emotion.”
In all, Mykhailiuk’s transition to long-distance and to American basketball thus far is praised by his family, coaches, teammates and Jayhawk fans alike.
“It’s different for kids overseas, but he’s adjusted really well,” Townsend said.
Now we anxiously await the outcome of where, and how far, those adjustments will take Mykhailiuk in the future.