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Q&A With Giorgi Bezhanishvili: Illinois Career, Overcoming Hardships, NBA Future, Why His Mother Is His Hero

Throughout his life, Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili has faced a ton of adversity. While he could’ve given up at any point in his basketball career, the mentality his mother instilled in him wouldn’t allow him to.

Bezhanishvili’s mother left Rustavi, Georgia shortly after he was born due to economic hardships. She decided to work multiple jobs in Austria just so her own children would have enough money to live a better life. The sacrifices she’s made over the past two decades have inspired Giorgi, both on and off the court.

Giorgi spent most of his life in Europe before eventually making his way over to the United States. He spent a year in Hillside, New Jersey just so he can play high school basketball. Illinois head coach Brad Underwood offered Bezhanishvili a scholarship after watching him dominate against a player who the school was initially targeting. It’s truly a Hollywood story for the Georgia native.

Of course, Bezhanishvili’s journey has been incredible, but let’s not forget that he’s got game. In his first season with the Fighting Illini, he averaged 12.5 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. His skillset was on full display on Feb. 9, 2019 when he set the Illinois’ freshman scoring record with 35 points.

Bezhanishvili played at Illinois for two more seasons, improving his touch from beyond the arc and ability to set up his teammates for quality looks. After the 2020-21 season came to an end, the athletic forward announced that he’s declaring for the 2021 NBA Draft on his Instagram account.

We sat down with Giorgi Bezhanishvili to discuss his path to the NBA Draft, why his mother is his hero, what basketball fans can expect from him in the future and much more.

The Spun: Why was now the right time for you to declare for the NBA Draft?

Giorgi Bezhanishvili: I’ve been here for three years – three, long years – and I’ve had different experiences during my time here. I really felt like this was the best time for me. I feel like I’m ready and this is the right decision for me. My gut is telling me to go to the pros. I feel like it’s time to make the jump. 

The Spun: During your freshman season you broke Deon Thomas’ freshman scoring record. What was that moment like for you?

GB: That was an amazing, amazing experience. I’ve never experienced anything like that. There were 15,000 people in the gym screaming my name nonstop. The energy in that gym carried over to my game. I told Deon Thomas that he was holding onto the record for a good time. It just so happened that he was at the game when I broke the record. I thought if someone breaks my record, I’d be like ‘Damn.’ I’d obviously be very happy for the person, but it was just a really funny moment. I told him that I’m sorry I knocked him out of the history books for that record. I was just being who I am when I apologized to him. He has many other records though. It was a moment I’ll truly never forget. 

The Spun: You talked about how your mother was your hero growing up. Can you explain why and what she’s meant to you during your career?

GB: Chris, my mother means everything to me. My mother has sacrificed her entire life since she had me and my brother so we can have a better life. She was a refugee in Austria and had to leave when I was 2 years old. She literally left with nothing and made that choice so we can have a better future. I could never repay her. I will always be in debt to my mom. I can talk so much about what she went through and did for me and my brother. Anything I do in life is for her. She’s my idol. For seven straight years she was a cleaning lady at three different places. She would send us that money back to Georgia where I was with my grandparents. Just think about how strong of a person you have to be to not see your kids grow up because you’re trying to give them a better future. I can never imagine being able to do that. I’ve been here in Illinois for two years without seeing my family and I’ve gone crazy even though I have basketball and everything. I just couldn’t imagine what my mom went through. For 10 years, she didn’t see us because of all the work she had to do. It’s unbelievable what she’s accomplished. The crazy thing is she hasn’t stopped even to this day. So I really can’t look up to anyone more than her. My mom is amazing and I love her to death. 

The Spun: I heard that you did Instacart to save some extra money for your family. Can you tell me a bit about that?

GB: I’ll give you some inside information on this. When we came back from Indianapolis last year because the NCAA Tournament got canceled, a lot of people lost their jobs. I basically got stuck here and couldn’t go back home – everyone was in lockdown. My mom has been working at a hotel as a receptionist for some years now. At the time when COVID-19 first hit, she lost her job. When she lost her job, there was no source of income for our family. Here at the university, I obviously wasn’t making any money. When this pandemic hit us in the spring, I had a friend working for Instacart. He told me it’s a an app that allows you to drive around and deliver groceries to people. I would make good money from it because people tip very well through this app. Legally, I knew I couldn’t sign myself up for this because of NCAA rules. I have a couple of friends on campus though, so I told one of them to sign us up using their name and I’ll drive the car for us the whole entire time. He would deliver the groceries to the front door this way no one would get in trouble, while I’d take us from house to house. All I asked in return was that we split the income so I can have some money to send back home. We did that for more than three months. I was driving from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. with my friend. Even now, people will be like ‘Giorgi, remember when you delivered groceries to my house.’ I was just trying to make some money for our family. You have to find a way to survive, that’s what I learned. I was able to send money to my mom during that time, so it worked out well. 

The Spun: Just looking back at this whole journey for you, what was it like?

GB: It was hard. At one point when I was back in Europe, I was trying to get citizenship for Austria so I could play on their national team. That was the goal for a lot of European players because you could then show your skills in front of scouts and stuff. I didn’t get my passport in time to play for Austria’s national team, and at that point, I wanted to quit. I thought no one would scout me. And then randomly, I switched teams in Austria and had an American teammate who told me I should try to play college basketball. He helped me get to New Jersey so I could play high school basketball there. It was a very hard experience then because I doubted myself at times there too. But again, my mom helped me and told me that I’ll survive that bump in the road. She told me I can always go back home if I can’t make it, but at the same time, she encouraged me to push through that challenge. I listened to my mom and as a result I landed at Illinois. The coaches were recruiting a player from an opposing team, Kahlil Whitney, but I was playing well during that game and they were interested in me. They noticed me, I went to Illinois for a visit, and then committed right away. My journey has been very unorthodox. 

The Spun: Looking back at your Illinois career, what do you think you showed in terms of your playing ability?

GB: I feel like I’ve shown that I have very good footwork, I have a good feel for the game, and I can take anyone on the block no matter the size. I feel like I haven’t been able to show my full skillset yet. I feel like people really don’t know how skilled I am, how well I can pass, and how well I can dribble the ball. That’s why I tell my agent that all I want is an opportunity to show myself in front of these NBA teams. I want them to see my full skillset. I feel like my strengths are seen in the game, but I still feel like I have way more to offer. Another great strength I have is my presence. My energy is very uplifting. Players can come to practice tired from time to time, but I can change the whole atmosphere inside the gym. That’s another strength of mine that won’t be seen on the stat sheet, but it definitely has an impact on winning. 

The Spun: You mentioned not being able to show all of your skills. Which skills in particular do you want to show to NBA scouts?

GB: Most importantly, I feel like I haven’t been able to show my dribbling skills and my passing. I think I’m a gifted passer, but I haven’t been put in situations to showcase that skill. It happened how it was supposed to happen at Illinois. Our goal was always to win, not just showcase individuals. I think my dribbling skills and passing abilities will surprise people though.

The Spun: Are there any players you like to watch in the NBA?

GB: Most definitely. I’m a student of the game. Since I’ve been little, I try to watch every player as possible. Even though I’m a bigger guy, I’ll still study guards. I like to watch Chris Paul, LeBron James and Domantas Sabonis. We can go down the line and I can list a bunch of players who I like to study. I’ll watch a guy like Draymond Green and say ‘He took a charge there, maybe I can do that.’ I’m always trying to gain knowledge and add some of their pages to my book. 

The Spun: What do you think your reaction would be if you hear your name called during the draft?

GB: Oh my god, I might die from happiness. Just to be able to accomplish that would be amazing. Honestly, I might really be in such shock that I’m stuck and can’t move [laughing.] I can’t describe it. I would be so happy. 

The Spun: What is an NBA team getting in Giorgi Bezhanishvili?

GB: A very high energy guy who always has a smile on his face and will make others smile. I create a good atmosphere in practice, I’m very respectful and like to compete. I’m all about love, happiness and respect. I’ve achieved everything in life through hard work. 

With the draft just two months away, Bezhanishvili is hopeful he’ll get to show what he can do on the hardwood in front of NBA coaches and scouts.

Bezhanishvili has beaten the odds both in high school and college. Something tells us that he’ll do it in the pros as long as he’s given the chance.

You can read more of our interviews with athletes or media stars here.

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