Former Seton Hall basketball star Sandro Mamukelashvili talks hoops, his homeland and this week’s NBA draft with The Post’s Steve Serby.
Q: If you could pick the brain of any player in NBA history.
A: Kobe Bryant. I would ask him about his mentality, about his passion and aggression and how he got to the point where he got and what did he have to sacrifice, what he had to focus on to be where he was at. And like, what type of mindset I should have going into the league, and how can I help myself changing myself to a rotational player and hopefully a starter and just having a bigger role. I think I would pick his brain about everything off the court, as well.
Q: How would you describe your mentality on the court?
A: I’m a really passionate guy, I feel like I’m really competitive, so my mentality is always to go out there and win the game, no matter what it is, and to help my teammates to be better. Basketball’s a team sport, so we all help each other. If the people say Mamba mentality, I feel like I always have that mentality where I want to kill my opponent, and by kill I mean like outwork him, out-rebound him, out-hustle him and do little things to help my team win, as well as just always stay in the zone. It don’t matter if I miss one or two shots, just keep shooting and keep helping my team get where we want to go.
Q: We can call that the Mamu mentality.
Q: What drives you?
A: I feel like NBA gave me the platform and Seton Hall gave me a platform to reach out to these little kids who are going through a similar situation as me, and especially Georgian kids who have not a lot on their plate and are trying to make it out. What drives me is to be an example and be the hope for them that everything is possible. No matter how your life is, just keeping my word and keep being a good person, because I feel like being a good person will always help you in the long run, and just spreading good energy will always help you in the long run. Also, my family motivates me because I feel like they’ve done so much for me.
Q: Making your country proud is a big part of it?
A: Helping the younger generation and teaching them and just guiding them will help Georgia provide more athletes and help the younger generation believe and just dream big.
Q: What are you most proud of about Georgian people?
A: Georgian people are really warriors. They hustle hard, they work hard. … When we meet somebody, when somebody comes in our house, we’re always so open with them, and we always try to feast with them and enjoy our time with them, so I feel like we’re really big-hearted people, and we just love having company.
Q: How often do you get back to Georgia?
A: I try to go back every summer, I haven’t been there for three years, but aiming to go next summer.
Q: What was that period like for you when you knew your father had cancer?
A: My family did a great job covering it for a long time. They would just tell me he’s sick. Sometimes, I would live with my aunt, my father’s sister. Sometimes, I would just go and stay in my friend’s house, or I would stay with my grandma sometimes. I feel like they were trying to be as positive as they can. Like even my father, he’s a warrior, he’s the strongest man I’ve ever seen. He was weak, but he was showing, like, his strength, like nothing is going on and everything’s OK. For a little while, I thought it was just a sickness which will go away, and of course later on, they told me what it was. When I first found out, I was scared, but my mom is such a strong woman, she never even gave us a thought that we might lose our father or something might go bad. She always had my father’s back. So I feel like they just played it so great. Of course, I was nervous, but I never thought something could go wrong.
Q: That was like a Hollywood ending when you scored the game-winner against Butler with your father in the stands.
A: It was, it was. It was like an indescribable moment, especially after being out for injury for so long. First of all, Coach [Kevin] Willard trusting me at that position for me to finish that shot was a blessing. As soon as he drew up the play, I was like, “I’m gonna make this.” When I did, all I did was stare at my father the whole time. He was pointing at me, and I was pointing at him. I feel like it was one of the proudest moments he had. He was behind me on the interview, I had an interview with the TV after, and he was behind me and he said, “I’m not on the TV in Georgia, but I already made the TV in America.” It was really funny.
Q: What was it like for you playing for the Georgian national team?
A: It was an honor. I grew up idolizing Zaza Pachulia, Tornike Shengelia, all those big players we had. I would be the one sitting all the way high in the stands, so I would just be staring down, and as soon as the game would be over, I would go in my neighborhood and start playing basketball with my Georgian national team shirt on. I always imagined myself in those shoes, and it was an honor to represent my country, and I loved it, so I’m looking forward to playing with them.
Q: You were living with your mother’s sister in Chicago when the Russo-Georgian War broke out in 2008.
A: I was young, and I didn’t know how bad it was. But when I returned to Georgia, and I heard the stories, and I heard how young kids were going to war who never held a gun and stuff like that, it really kind of made me upset. Like, they occupied our territories and some of the beautiful Georgian places. It was definitely hard to understand how bad it was. I’m just proud of them how they defended themselves.
Q: You can go one-on-one with any player in NBA history.
A: Toni Kukoc, my favorite player, I always looked up to him. He’s [6-foot-10], pick-and-pop guy from the past, dribble, really versatile all-around player. I feel like I try to always model my game towards his.
Q: Besides Kukoc and Kobe, who else did you like?
A: I would say LeBron [James], Ben Simmons, Nikola Jokic, Shaquille O’Neal was one of my favorite players when I was young, Magic Johnson … ,[Kevin Durant], [Kevin Garnett]. I had this poster all my life in my room, I [have] still got it, I think.
Q: Michael Beasley was another one, and Anthony Davis as well, right? Anyone else we’re missing?
A: I think that’s it. I think that’s a solid list.
Q: Wait a minute — Lamar Odom.
A: Oh yeah, Lamar Odom.
Q: And Domantas Sabonis.
A: Ohhhh. … I try to study his film and try to put my style in there and just mix it up. I like Sabonis a lot.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: I feel like [an] all-around stretch big who can put the ball in transition, pass … do a little bit of everything all-around … play with an IQ, play smart.
Q: You played with RJ Barrett at Montverde Academy.
A: I think he has an amazing, amazing future. I think he will be an All-Star-caliber player one day.
Q: Whatever comes to mind: Kevin Boyle.
A: One of my mentors. A great coach.
Q: Athletes in other sports you admire.
A: Ronaldinho (Barcelona); Sergio Ramos; Rafael Nadal; Roger Federer.
Q: Three favorite Seton Hall memories.
A: Winning the Big East championship, the regular season; scoring a game-winner in front of my father against Butler; winning [2021 Big East co-Player] of the Year.
Q: Sum up Myles Powell.
A: I feel like in general how dedicated he was on the court and how much he wanted to win and how competitive he was. If you had a bad game, he would come to you and tell you everything’s OK and pat you on the chest and tell you to keep playing and pushing.
Q: Sum up Coach Willard.
A: I feel like he’s very, very, very dedicated to his craft. I remember one time I went to his office, it was really, really early in the morning. And I saw a blowup bed in his office. He was studying us all night, and he wanted to sleep in his office. I don’t think he slept all night, I think it was just there. We talked about how he can improve some things. He’s an amazing coach just because he takes our opinion in consideration, and I feel like he helps us all around to be better people.
Q: The first time you played at Madison Square Garden.
A: That was my Texas Tech game my freshman year. I feel like I was asking everybody, I was like, “How is it, how is it? How is it when you go out there? How does it look? How does it feel?” I had so many emotions running through my body. It was worth it. I didn’t play a lot, but the atmosphere, the lights, I feel like you’re just going out there and you feel like you’re on the biggest stage in the world, so I loved it.
Q: You answered this tweet — There aren’t 30 better players in this draft — with — Best tweet I’ve seen since 1999.
A: I’m the least cockiest person, I think. But in my opinion, I’m one of the most underrated guys in this draft. I think I can be a top-30 player in this draft. No matter how it goes, I’ll be blessed, I’ll be so excited. I’ll be with my family, and I’ll enjoy it. But I’ll definitely try to prove to everybody that I have what it takes to be one of the best players.
Q: Would you be disappointed if you dropped into the second round?
A: No, I will not be disappointed no matter how the night goes. It’s a celebration for my family. First, my parents coming to stay, we are all together. I had a lot of workouts. I did my best. I just can control what I can control, control the controllable.
Q: You tweeted this Nipsey Hussle quote: “Seize the opportunity, believe and take control of it. Then get on your marathon and grind it ’til it’s over with.”
A: Whatever you get, seize the opportunity, and just strive for something better. Don’t ever think like it’s over, just always strive for better. No matter what opportunity I get, I know that I’ll always try to be better than that, and to be in control and to grow as a person and as a human being. And also my favorite quote is “Yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today’s a gift. That’s why it’s called present.”
Q: If I were an NBA GM, tell me why I should draft you.
A: Because I feel like you are getting somebody who’s very hard-working, unselfish, positive, loyal and competitive. I feel like I’m also a great listener who wants to improve his game because I know [I’ve] got flaws in my game, but I’m always open to learning, listening, improving and getting better every day, and hopefully one day winning the championship, that’s my goal. On this journey, I’ll be 100 percent locked in and always try to be the best version of myself.
Q: How was your Knicks workout?
A: It went really good.
Q: How was your Nets workout?
A: It went good too, to be honest.
Q: The possibility of playing for the Knicks or Nets?
A: I would love to play for any team.
Q: Seton Hall associate head coach Grant Billmeier.
A: Definitely my mentor. Definitely has a big, big role of why I’m here. One of the hardest-working people I know, one of the most dedicated people I know.
Q: Former Hall assistant and current St. Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway.
A: He’s a great, great human being, always texted me, always reached out, even when he left. Great coach, St. Peter’s is in great hands.
Q: What do you think of James Harden’s beard?
A: I’m a really big beard guy, so hopefully I can compete with him later on in my career.
Q: Three dinner guests.
A: Michael Jordan; Alexander the Great — by the age of 30, they had the largest empire in history; Michelangelo.
Q: Favorite TV shows.
A: “The Sopranos,” “Vikings,” “The Last Kingdom.”
Q: Favorite actor.
A: Denzel Washington.
Q: Favorite actress.
A: Zoe Saldana.
Q: Favorite singer/entertainer.
A: Biggie Smalls.
Q: Favorite Georgian restaurant.
A: Chama Mama. When you go there, just get as much as you can because you won’t regret it.