Gators rising sophomore forward Aleks Szymczyk watched videos of Gainesville on a one-way flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Florida. The opportunity to play Division I college basketball for UF was too big to miss out on.
“It took one phone call from coach [Todd] Golden, and I was on a flight,” Szymczyk said.
The 20-year-old German talent arrived in Gainesville with a solid resume, but a huge challenge awaited him. Szymczyk then began the journey all international players in the states go through: learning U.S. college ball — fast-paced, uptempo, no-time-to-think basketball where skilled players devour those that can only use their size and strength to operate on the court.
Szymczyk felt this difference the moment he stepped into his first practice on campus.
“You gotta make way faster decisions,” Szymczyk said. “In Germany, when you play against older players … you can just blow by them. But here you actually have athletes that can block your shots.”
No Ceilings draft analyst and former international coach Tyler Rucker took multiple part-time jobs in the NBA before working overseas as an assistant coach in Prague’s Get Better Academy from 2017 to 2018.
“In a weird way it’s great [playing] overseas for those players to zero in on fundamentals, but at some point when you get to college basketball — in that type of grind — the speed is gonna be a different world,” Rucker said.
Szymczyk is no stranger to change.
Growing up in a suburb outside of Frankfurt, Szymczyk spent most of his days on the soccer pitch. Until his neighbor, a coach for a local basketball team, convinced the teenage soccer player to switch to basketball and try out for his team.
Szymczyk ‘killed’ his tryout, he said.
“The rest is history,” Szymczyk said.
The Frankfurt prodigy became dedicated to his work and continued developing his game at the International Basketball Academy in Munich.
His hometown coach loaned him to play for TVS Oberhaching in the ProB league, a third-tier professional league in Germany, in 2020.
The ProB league introduced Szymczyk to professional basketball. The European professional rookie played against a wide variety of talent, from former Division I athletes to 35-year-old veteran players with multiple years of experience playing in leagues across Europe.
Szymczyk, who was 18 years old at the time, said the physicality of playing against the professionals in the league was undeniable, despite the slow pace of the game.
“They were really good, and I could feel the physicality,” Szymczyk said. “Those guys were throwing around elbows, playing kind of dirty because they’re old veterans, more experienced.”
The German prospect made significant strides in his game in the ProB league and went on to graduate from Gymnasium Munchen-Nord while he still competed in the IBAM.
Szymczyk gained a liking from a few mid-major programs late in his 2022 recruitment. It wasn’t until an agent made a quick phone call across the Atlantic to UF head coach Todd Golden that Florida set its sights on Szymczyk.
The agent knew Golden from back when he was a director of basketball operations at Columbia University, Szymczyk said.
Golden has always been vocal about the importance of recruiting international players like Szymczyk. It’s something that is very important to him, he said.
“I think there’s great opportunities to find guys over there — it’s economics: supply and demand,” Golden said. “If you go internationally, you can find guys that are really high-level players that might not have the same recruitment or shine on them that players do here [in the U.S].”
Szymczyk received his scholarship offer at UF’s practice facility with his parents in attendance. It was a proud moment for the family, Szymczyk said.
International players such as former Gators forward Christian Drejer and former Tennessee forward Yves Pons have flocked to the Southeastern Conference more in recent years.
It’s a trend that is growing in one of the friendliest conferences for international players transitioning to the next level of basketball in the U.S., Rucker said.
“The conference is outstanding and it continues to grow,” Rucker said. “I think global international prospects are seeing that. That’s why it's becoming a desire to go over to college, especially the SEC.”
Szymczyk described opponents in the SEC as faster and better at using their athletic capabilities to their advantage than their European counterparts.
“I would even say that people are more skilled over here,” Szymczyk said. “They just know how to use their athleticism; they are more efficient with their moves, more efficient with their steps.”
Szymczyk stayed in Gainesville throughout the summer while others went home to rest. He’s the type of player that is willing to put in hours of extra work if he’s not satisfied after a day's training, Szymczyk said.
It's something he’ll never change because it’s what got a kid from Frankfurt the opportunity, he said.
“I will not switch up my habits because that’s what brought me here,” Szymczyk said. “I will not settle for less.”
Szymczyk begins his sophomore season with the Gators this fall. He is one of six returning Florida players from last season.
Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.