Athlete Interview: NAIA Basketball Player Natalie Kalaydjiev Talks International Recruiting

Athlete Interview: NAIA Basketball Player Natalie Kalaydjiev Talks International Recruiting Athlete Interview: NAIA Basketball Player Natalie Kalaydjiev Talks International Recruiting

Natalie Kalaydjiev is an international basketball player from Austria who has just completed her senior playing season. Natalie played for three colleges in three different divisions across her four years and played for the Austrian Under 18s national team. She started at the JUCO level, attending Eastern Wyoming College before moving to Division II Eckerd College for her sophomore year. Finally, she ended up at the University of Rio Grande, where she played NAIA for her junior and senior years. We sat down with Natalie to discuss across the various levels. 

What made you want to come to the US to play collegiate basketball?

I decided I wanted to come to the US during COVID-19, as I had graduated high school a year prior and was in the middle of my gap year, but I didn't know what to do with my life. So, I talked to my family, especially my sister, because she had already been playing in the US for two years. Then, I decided to try and do that as well, as it was the easiest way to combine my studies and play basketball.

What did your international recruiting process look like? Did you reach out to schools yourself or use an agency?

I did both. My sister told me to send emails to various schools, so I sent emails with my highlight videos and a description of myself. I also signed up with an agency and eventually committed to a school the agency found for me.

Would you recommend using an agency for international athletes going through the recruiting process?

I think it is a good idea, especially because you won't have many connections if you've never been to the US before, making it hard to get a response from coaches since they're getting so many emails daily. However, if coaches are being contacted by an agency they trust, there is a far better chance of getting a response.

Did you always plan on attending a junior college? 

I always wanted to go to a Juco since I wasn't 100% sure I would return to the US. I had heard that the level was a little lower because there were only freshmen and sophomores, and I knew that I could make more contacts while I was there. If I liked it, I would have more transfer options than when I was initially recruited.

What were your first impressions of your program and the style of play in the US?

There were only ten players on our roster my freshman year, and eight of us were internationals. This meant that the style of play at this school was pretty similar to what I was used to. We only had a head coach, no assistant or other staff. There was no strength or conditioning program or requirement to lift weights, and we sometimes only practiced for an hour and fifteen minutes daily. This surprised me as I thought we would have an entire routine planned out. 

What are the main differences you have noticed about playing basketball in the US compared to Austria?

Sports are way bigger in the US than in Austria; there are far more teams and colleges than back home. Also, there are far more coaches and staff, such as managers, assistant coaches, and athletic trainers. This is usually limited to the top teams in Austria, but it's nowhere near as common as in the US. The playing style is also different, as in Europe, you only have twenty-four seconds to complete your offense compared to thirty seconds in the US, which naturally makes the playing style slower. I also feel like it is more individual-oriented here; back home, there is more emphasis on team play, and the goal is to get the best shooting opportunity, regardless of who takes it. Here, it seems like people are more concerned with ensuring they are the one who gets the shot.

How was the transfer process from JUCO to NCAA DII? 

After my first season, I decided to transfer from JUCO, so I got released from my school. I think the rules are a little looser at Juco, as I was already talking to some coaches, and one coach reached out to me over Instagram. I reached out to a lot of coaches via email while also being in the transfer portal. I found this process far more straightforward than when I initially came to the US because I already had American statistics and first-hand experience playing .

How did you find the level at DII compared to JUCO?

The level was way higher and faster. It felt as though you had to be almost perfect and perform without making mistakes. My daily routine also got way more intense as there were more off-court commitments, such as team weights. The academic side of things was also more challenging, and I had to study a lot more than I did at Juco.

When transferring from DII to NAIA, did you use the same methods?

It was a bit of a mix. I wasn't sure whether I was even going back to the US. Then, a friend of mine sent me the contacts of a different agency, so I reached out to the agency with my stats and highlight video. Luckily, she facilitated my transfer to the .

Is there anything you would change about your recruitment journey?

I don't think I would have done anything differently in the way I contacted coaches. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have stayed at my junior college for another year, as I know that JUCOs have a lot of connections.

How did you find the difference in the standard of basketball across the divisions?

My junior college was the lowest level due to only having lower classmen. My current NAIA school is a really good team for the level and could definitely keep up with the majority of NCAA DII schools. In general, I would say there are way stronger DII basketball programs than NAIA programs.

What advice would you offer other prospective international basketball players?

Inform yourself as much as possible and talk to as many people as possible. Make sure not to overthink it. This mindset helped me massively in my journey, as I always knew in the back of my mind that I could go home if I didn't like it. Since transferring is so easy nowadays, if you don't like your current school, you can transfer elsewhere if you want to stay in the US.

Image Credit: Eckerd College Athletics

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