Herd rookie spends time with Bucks

Jacob Link, Asst. Sports Editor

Wisconsin Herd rookie forward Sandro Mamukelashvili has enjoyed time with both the Herd and Milwaukee Bucks, under whom he is signed as a two-way player. A two-way player is someone who is allowed to play on both an NBA team and that team’s G League affiliate.

“Coming here (to the Herd) gives me that boost. (It gives me a chance) to improve on some things I want to improve on,” Mamukelashvili said. “I just love being with the guys.”

Born in New York City on May 22, 1999, Mamukelashvili, or “Mamu” as his Herd teammates call him, grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia. Tbilisi, a city of 1.1 million people, is the capital of Georgia, a small country that borders Russia. Mamukelashvili was introduced to the game of basketball by his older brother David, but his family connection to the game goes back further. Mamukelashvili’s grandmother, Ira Gabashvili, was once the captain of the Soviet Union women’s national team.

“(I) feel like we’re a really small country, so every time I can put them on the map (is great),” Mamukelashvili said. “I played for them (at the 2019 FIBA World Cup); I work to make them proud.”

Mamukelashvili grew up idolizing the Georgian basketball legend Zaza Pachulia, who had two different stints with the Milwaukee Bucks and won two NBA Championships with the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Eventually, Mamukelashvili would be mentored by his idol Pachulia, who instilled the skills necessary to compete in the NBA.

“It was tough (starting in Georgia and making it to the NBA). It’s a very small country, only a few NBA players have ever made it out here, so I feel like I always had to challenge myself and be more mature than the other kids,” Mamukelashvili said. “I had to leave my family at an early age and go through the struggles to get here. I’m not even halfway where I want to be. There is so much more to prove, so much more to work on.”

Sandro Mamukelashvili dribbling
Photo: Thomas Savoja, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Sandro Mamukelashvili averaged 17.5 ponts and 7.6 rebounds at
Seton Hall University as a senior.

At 14, Mamukelashvili moved to Biella, Italy, to pursue his dream of going pro. In Italy he played for Pallacansetro Biella better known as Angelico Biella and helped the U17, U18 and U19 teams finish third in the national finals.

Mamukelashvili became fluent in Italian and now speaks four languages fluently: Georgian, Russian, Italian and English.

In 2016, Mamukelashvili moved to the U.S. where he joined Montverde Academy in Florida, a private K-12 school in Florida that’s known for basketball. At Montverde, he played alongside NBA star RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks. It is also at Montverde where Pachulia became a mentor to the young Mamukelashvili.

“Zaza’s my man and my mentor,” Mamukelashvili said. “I looked up to him, (he) kept putting Georgia on the map, so that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m proud of him and how he handled himself on the court.”

Mamukelashvili committed to play at Seton Hall University, where he would gain national attention. In the summer after his sophomore season, Mamukelashvili worked with Pachulia to improve his jump-stop and 3-point shooting. The results of these sessions showed in his senior season at Seton Hall, where Mamukelashvili averaged 17.5 points per game and 7.6 rebounds. He was named co-Big East player of the year, Haggerty Award Winner for best player in the New York metropolitan area, an Associated Press All-American Honorable Mention and finalist for the Karl Malone Award, given to the best collegiate power forward.

In the 2021 NBA draft, Mamukelashvili was selected as the 54th pick by the Indiana Pacers. He was then traded to the Bucks for the draft rights of Greek forward Georgios Kalaitzakis. The Bucks signed Mamukelashvili to a two-way contract, allowing him to play with the Wisconsin Herd.

“It’s amazing (playing for the Bucks),” Mamukelashvili said. “Zaza bought an old Bucks court and now we got it in Georgia. I remember just working out on the court and telling my friends, ‘Damn I hope I play for the Bucks one day’. It’s just crazy how in two or three years everything just came along and I’m a Buck now. Hopefully it will just stay like this for a long time.”

Mamukelashvili has already made an impact with the herd going 5-1 when he is a starter with the team. In four regular season games he averaged 19.5 and 8.5 rebounds a game. Because of injury and COVID-19 problems the Bucks have had, Mamukelashvili has been spending more and more time in Milwaukee. On Oct.19, 2021, Mamukelashvili appeared in his first NBA game and has now played over 29 games with the Bucks, averaging 3.3 points per game and 1.9 rebounds.

Mamukelashvili said he only sometimes feels like a rookie in the NBA with the Bucks.

“I feel like playing with the Bucks is such an opportunity. Sometimes when you feel like you don’t want to mess up, things happen,” Mamukelashvili said. “I feel like I need to free my mind and realize that I’m a rookie and I might mess up and just stay calm and things will build up to success. (I) just have to work hard and shoot some more and work on my game,”

Mamukelashvili is close friends with Bucks forward Jordan Nwora, who has helped the young Georgian grow accustomed to the NBA.

“I knew Jordan before coming to the Bucks,” Mamukelashvili said. “We had a mutual friend, so I talked to him during my draft process, so when I got here, we were already friends. You know, having somebody who’s around your age and already went through it, can teach you something. Jordan is my very close friend; we spend so much time together at the Bucks facility, outside the Bucks facility, so I’m always cheering for him, and I always want him to be great.”

“It’s great playing with him,” Nwora said. “Mamu is such a great guy. He’s my guy, he’s a great guy and down the line he’s going to get better and he’s going to be very good.”

Mamukelashvili said he didn’t know what to expect when he first joined the Bucks but was quickly impressed with the organization.

“They (the Bucks)  just believe in you, they trust you, every time I need to work on something they tell me,” he said. “I work hard so just being around Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and Bobby (Portis). You can learn so much and I feel like that’s why every day I come in and I take it as an opportunity to learn something new and improve. I love Bobby’s game so it’s unbelievable and I’m just looking forward to listening more, learning more and just getting better.”

For the young 6-foot-11-inch man out of Georgia, the future looks bright.

“I feel like that’s the best thing, coming from a little country,” Mamukelashvili said. “You get that heart and focus where ‘I will make it’ and ‘I will do it.’ I got this far from my family, friends and teammates and now I just have to keep working to make myself better.”