Column: Croatia has a year to redeem me

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Los Angeles Clippers center Marcin Gortat, right, reaches for the ball held by Los Angeles Lakers center Ivica Zubac during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Not long after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, I texted my buddy Evan with a prediction that the future of Croatian basketball was bright, and they would pose a threat to Team USA if everyone showed up in Japan in 2020. Admittedly a weird thing to text, but hey, I like pontificating about basketball. At the time it sounded prescient, I was putting together the puzzle pieces others seemed to be ignoring. Yet as the 2018-2019 NBA season progresses, I couldn’t be more wrong and while the Olympics are over a year away, I would advise against placing down any future bets on the Croats.

At the time it all made sense. Mario Hezonja was the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft by the Orlando Magic, the first shooting guard taken (Devin Booker would be second). His rookie year was underwhelming, but he was young, and boasted great athletic potential. In those 2016 Olympics he was solid but unspectacular. A 16 point, eight rebound performance against rival Serbia in a quarterfinal loss showed what he could do. Several years later, he had his option declined by the Magic and can’t even get a featured role on the New York Knicks, one of the worst teams in the NBA, who took a “second draft” flyer on him in free agency. Should he play in Tokyo, he will be a featured piece, but I am not sure that is a good thing.

Hezonja had played in the NBA, but Dario Saric was their best NBA commodity. In 2016 he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting in a dilapidated rookie class, despite being drafted two years prior in the Sam Hinkie process-era. While 76ers fans waited for him to come over, he was the subject of much adulation and was expected to be a part of the 76ers post-process future. And he was. Not a standout, but I would consider Saric a role player supreme. Playing on the same roster as Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, not to mention JJ Redick, makes it hard to be not just a guy, but one of the guys. Still, in his last full year in Philly he was darn good. In the 2016 Olympics he was arguably the guy for Croatia and posted a decent 11.8 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game in 33 minutes per game. His final year in Philly he was putting up 14.6 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game and was shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range on over five attempts a game.

He got off to a weaker start this year, as his production fell off a little across the board and before he was somewhat surprisingly shipped to Minnesota along with Robert Covington for maligned star Jimmy Butler. Things have not gone well in the Twin Cities, where he is playing 22.6 minutes a night, the lowest of his career, and putting up lower per game numbers despite similar efficiency and per 36 stats. It may just be a misjudgment on the Wolves part, but you would like to see his trajectory going up heading into 2020, not vice versa, especially considering his likely prominent role with Croatia.

Then there were the 2016 draft boys. Stretch four Dragan Bender was the seventh overall pick by the Phoenix Suns and in consideration for as high as third. Ante Zizic, a rebounding machine and former beach umbrella salesman, went 23rd to the Boston Celtics, slightly above projections. Ivica Zubac, a younger fellow center, went higher than projected as well at No. 32 to the Los Angeles Lakers and he convinced them to bring him stateside immediately rather than be stashed. It was not the first time a country has pumped numerous guys into a draft; France did it too that same draft and Canada and Australia have had strong recent runs. But for some reason I was fooled. I bit on these dudes hook, line and sinker. I thought that Bender fit the archetype for the new NBA, that Zizic’s rebounding would translate, and that Zubac would, at worst, be a capable contributor.

So it is not great that in the year 2019, Bender has had his option declined by the Suns because he has been unplayable and unproductive in every season in a Phoenix uniform, including summer league. He now receives relatively little playing time because as a non-contributing, impending free agent, they have no incentive to do so. He has played in 20 games, 12.1 minutes per, and is posting 4.4 points per game. The beginning of the year was even worse. The shooting has been blah at best and the physicality and defense are tough to watch. Someone will take a chance on him next year because of potential (and the anchoring effect of being a high pick), so maybe he can get right for Tokyo. Personally, I don’t see it.

Zizic was part of a trade from Boston to Cleveland because he was an “asset” which helped them land Kyrie Irving. Last year in Cleveland, opportunity was scarce because the Cavs were title contenders and Zizic wasn’t ready. He barely played. Now they are the worst team in the NBA and he was barely playing for some time, which is concerning. Now he is at 15.8 minutes per game where he provides them with 6.8 points and five rebounds per game. His advanced numbers, which looked great last year because of small sample size, now look paltry and he hasn’t really flashed anything substantive. He’s still young, and there is opportunity in Cleveland, but the future is greyer than the sky at the beach where he once labored away.

Zubac has shown the most, and for a second rounder, has provided value relative to expectation this year. He had a great run in December when Javale McGee was out with an injury, including strong performances against several good teams. But his overall numbers are still worse than his rookie year, when he got reps from simply being on a young, abhorrent Lakers squad. The 20.1 PER is pretty good (15 is average) but he doesn’t seem like he will be a consistent starting five for competing NBA teams. I suppose he doesn’t have to be for Croatia to be a dynamic international team, but he seems bound for a Saric like role, as a role player who contributes to the maximum of that role.

So no superstars. No stars. I would call Saric a standout, but his star has dimmed this year. Hezonja and Bender aren’t just disappointments, it would be fair to call them major busts based on where they were picked. Bojan Bogdanovic was not on my mind considering he was late first round pick back in 2011, but he may be the best Croatian in the NBA. Saric probably takes the edge, especially with his upside, but Bogdanovic has been a consistent scoring option. He is a premier shooter and has averaged double digits every year since his rookie year in the NBA. This year with the Pacers he is scoring 16.3 points per game while shooting 42.9 percent from three-point range, career bests. He is also 29, and will be 31 in Tokyo. Maybe he can lead them to glory, maybe he will be too close to over the hill. Either way, what I based my expectation around has veered far, far off course. I can’t wait until RJ Barrett, Lu Dort and Nickeil Alexander-Walker all go in the lottery so I can start pontificating about Canada in 2024.


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.

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