Record Number of Croats in NBA this Season: What Can We Expect?

Daniela Rogulj

October 19, 2019 – Croatia has never boasted more representatives in the world’s strongest basketball league than they have this season. However, the season ahead will also be decisive for the careers of our Croats in the NBA.

At first glance, one would think that Croatian basketball is a superpower, and that’s no surprise – in the upcoming season, they will have a record seven players in the NBA. This number is even higher than the world champions of Spain. But apart from Bojan Bogdanovic and Dario Saric, who else should be on our radar? and Vid Horvat take a closer look at Croats in the NBA for the 2019/20 season.

Bojan Bogdanovic
(30 years old, 6 seasons, 19/20 contract worth $17 million)

Bojan Bogdanovic has been awarded the contract of a lifetime ($73 million over four years) and will have the opportunity to play an important role in a very serious Western Conference team, something he has never encountered thus far in his career. Bogdanovic should automatically enter the starting lineup as the small forward, where he can play alongside Jeff Green or Royce O’Neal, but he can also be used as a low four.

Why is this an excellent acquisition for Utah? Coach Quin Snyder has had issues with outside shooters in recent seasons and with virtually no one other than Ingles and Jae Crowder to shoot from outside the wing. Bojan was Indiana’s biggest offensive threat last season after an injury to Victor Oladipo. He shot an incredible 42.5 percent for three-pointers and had a record average of 18 points per game.

Bogdanovic is an expressive shooter who can play without the ball in his hands, and Utah needs that. But his repertoire doesn’t just stop at a three-point shot. Last year, he showed that he could be an effective mid-range shooter and is aggressive in counters. He even improved his pick and roll play, but still worked on it this summer. For the past three seasons, Bogdanovic has been part of a playoff team, but has never been surrounded by such good teammates.

Playing with Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell with the possibility of adding a third ball-handler in the starting five offers plenty of options. Bogdanovic will be able to contribute to the team in many ways, but the most significant contribution is expected in the shooting department. 

Dario Saric
(26 years old, 4 seasons, 19/20 contract worth $3.5 million)

It is perhaps a pivotal NBA season for Saric, who is in the final year of his rookie contract. After Philadelphia, he was no longer part of a system he could take advantage of. Unlike the Wolves, Saric should be in a better position with the Phoenix Suns, though it will all depend on him. Unless he makes good use of the minutes given, he will quickly find himself in the rotation behind either Frank Kaminsky or Cameron Johnson.

Like in previous NBA seasons, Saric can fill the four position, where he is currently ahead of Kaminsky and Johnson. However, Saric did not do well with the Wolves and their offensive system, which favored pick and roll and had more critical players than him involved in the attack. But he finished the season with a percentage of 45.4 of shots in play and a three-pointer percentage of 38.3.

These numbers are welcome in Phoenix, but he needs continuity and to avoid slow entry, which has been the case in recent years. Why is this important? The threat to Saric’s position is not only the high post, but also Kelly Oubre Jr., who played the best games in the Suns’ jersey in the four position. This is one of the variants we can also expect. In that case, Mikal Bridges would fill the other wing.

The Suns finally have a playmaker, and that’s the best news ahead of the new season. Ricky Rubio should make it easy for everyone, including Dario. Saric’s virtues are imagination and low-post play, and if there is more of a team game than individual play, it should suit him. Because of his future contract, this season must be above average for Saric.

Ivica Zubac
(22 years old, 4 seasons, 19/20 contract worth $6.5 million)

No other Croatian basketball player profited from a trade like Ivica Zubac. He left the turbulent Lakers without having to change cities and eventually ended up in an elite squad who is a serious contender for the title, where the thinnest rotation is in his position. Specifically, Zubac should be the Clippers’ starting center who won’t be needed much on offense, and at the same time, be able to progress by playing alongside some of the best players in the league like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Given that Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams function brilliantly in the other starting five, Doc Rivers will not break the bench. This means that if he decides to go with the small-ball five, JaMychal Green will start instead of Zubac, who has a better three-point shot and more mobility than the Croatian center.

The good news is that Zubac has an enormous desire to thrive and work. He wanted to work with the Gasol brothers this summer, as he would like to one day play like Marc for the Toronto Raptors, primarily paying attention to rebounds, communication on defense, and expanding the court. Unfortunately, their schedules did not align. However, Zubac is already working on his three-point shot and has specific characteristics that can be exploited.

Among the 50 centers that defended at least 50 possessions last season, Zubac allowed the second-fewest points per possession and the second-lowest shot percentage. He is also offensively good at finishing around the hoop and can shoot from a distance. Still, as the Clippers enter the season as one of the biggest favorites for the title, the primary goal will not be player development, but finding the ideal starting five and rotations.

Mario Hezonja
(24 years old, 5 seasons, 19/20 contract worth $1.74 million)

It will be a fresh start for Hezonja, who is still young enough to fulfill his potential. But in Portland, things work a bit differently than with his former teams. For one, Hezonja has not been part of a playoff squad so far and has not played with such dominant players that build the offensive attacks. Hezonja will be part of the second lineup in which he will have enough minutes to become a standard part of the rotation and will not have two or three more players competing for his place.

However, he will need to hit more than the desperate three-pointer percentage of 27.6 and the modest 41 percent for shots in play he recorded with the Knicks. Both are among his worst statistics since he arrived in the NBA. Plus, he could have more than 1.5 assists per game, as he has shown he knows how to set up plays. Hezonja will not be the playmaker as he was for New York, but as a secondary playmaker from the wing positions.

In his first four NBA seasons, Hezonja played for two weak teams. This will be his first time to be among a better quality group of players, which means that constant changes in the rotation and inconsistency in minutes will be a thing of the past. Portland has a clear game system, which will undergo some adjustments, but the hierarchy is basically known.

Dragan Bender
(21 years old, 4 seasons, 19/20 contract worth $1.68 million)

Recall, Dragan Bender was close to the Euroleague and signed for CSKA, but found a spot at the Bucks in the final moments. The first reactions were not pleasant, and if he gets minutes, he’ll only be waiting for an open three-pointer shot. However, Bender is much more than that, and his talent should not be limited to a spot-up shooter or position player.

However, contrary to expectations, he made good use of the minutes gained in the preseason. Milwaukee has not made radical changes and has retained much of last year’s lineup. But Bender is at the turning point of his career and must prove himself on a contract that is only partially guaranteed this season and not guaranteed next year.

The former fourth pick of the 2016 draft is currently consistent with the opportunities he has been receiving. He scored double-digits in his first four preseason games. He averaged 13 points with shots in play percentage of 60.7 and an astounding 53.8 three-pointer percentage in just over 18 minutes on the court. When we add six more rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, we get his best career numbers. But these are just preseason games.

Bender has a few players ahead of him in the four and five positions and is unlikely to get more minutes than Ersan Ilyas, who is among Budenholzer’s favorites. However, the Bucks’ system suits Bender so far, and he can get his chance. 

Ante Zižic
(22 years old, 3 seasons, 19/20 contract worth $2.28 million)

During his final interview with general manager Koby Altman after the season, Ante Zizic was given a summer plan that presented a path that would eventually break Cleveland’s deep rotation in high positions, more specifically at the center. Because despite their weak roster, the Cavs have by far the most players who can cover the starting lineup, like Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, Larry Nance Jr. and John Henson.

Considering that Love will be the starting four, there are again four players who need to split 48 minutes in the center. It will be important for Zizic not to look deep into the rotation, but to focus on himself. He will have to be ready to step up to any situation. According to recent information, he has worked hard this summer to get physically fit.

Last season, Zizic was at one point one of Cleveland’s most productive players, but that was primarily due to injuries and the space that opened up. As soon as the Cavs were complete, Zizic lost his role. It’s not going to be easy this year either, because there aren’t many advantages over Thompson and Nance Jr.

Luka Samanic
(19 years old, rookie season, 19/20 contract worth $2.69 million)

Samanic is a gifted player who has arrived in the best possible environment to thrive. The San Antonio Spurs are known for their program with young players and recognizing talented Europeans, while during the Summer League, Samanic showed he has the potential to work with and meet modern requirements. Admittedly, Samanic has made a significant transition in his career. He went from the ABA league to the strongest league in the world and is expected to be gradually introduced into the process.

The former Barcelona and Olimpija player will need time to develop, and will begin in the G-League with the Austin Spurs. However, it is not impossible to see him on the first-team bench for the first time. His style of play is similar to Lauri Markkanen’s, a great example of how modern wing center should look. Both are light on their feet, have proper shooting mechanics, and can expand the court. 

Samanic has already shown the prospect of one day becoming an outstanding shooter, but there are more elements to work on. To fulfill his potential, he will need to be able to put up solid blocks, be dangerous with the ball, and hit open shots for three-pointers. In addition, he showed aggression in his dribbling and is quick in catch-and-shoot situations. For starters, it will be important to gain mass and transition as painlessly as possible.

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