What Awaits Croatia’s NBA Stars this Season?

Daniela Rogulj

A new NBA season begins, where Croatia will once again have six representatives – though each of them faces new challenges this time around. 

Ahead of Croatia’s best basketball players is a lot of work in the new season. Some have a secured their spot in the starting five, some are still fighting for a minute from the bench, while others battle for their next contract. However, for some, this will be a crucial season, which could determine the future of their careers, reports Gol.hr on October 16, 2018. 

Bogdanović and a much stronger Pacers side 

Bojan Bogdanović is beginning the final year of a two-year contract with the Indiana Pacers, a team he played an important role for last season. Last season was also his best in the NBA, with a shooting average of 47.4 percent per game and a three-pointer average of 40.2 percent. Indiana, however, has decided to boost their competition by bringing in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott, two players who will surely take minutes, but not necessarily ruin Babo’s performance.

Indiana was one of the most enjoyable surprises in the league last season, but now ambitions have risen and they are expected to make an even greater leap forward. Bogdanović has his position guaranteed at the moment, and in the potential five with Evans and Oladipo, he could have even more opportunities on the court. 

Before last season, Bogdanović was considered a very weak defensive player, though he’s raised that level of play today. However, he had the benefit of having had both Oladipo and Young in the playoffs – and in the East, apart from James, there are better players in that position then there was before. Toronto added Leonard, Hayward returned to Boston, Detroit brought in Griffin, and the Bucks have Middleton and Antetokounmpo.

It’s crucial that Bogdanović has guaranteed minutes and no injuries this season. In the last four seasons, he played 78, 79, 81 and 80 games. He even played when he was not 100 percent ready, which is also the case in the Croatia national team. But in the NBA, things work a bit differently, and there is a potential threat in McDermott, who Indiana has signed for three years for less money. That is why it is imperative for Bogdanović to at least repeat his figures from last season.

Can Šarić still grow?

Šarić is entering his third season as a sure starter on the Sixers. As Philadelphia is trying to do better than last season, Šarić’s role will require several things. This time, he shouldn’t have a sub-par start to the season and be insecure about his position as he was a year ago. In 78 games last season, Šarić averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists and played for about 30 minutes per game – and after he was given a spot in the starting five, these figures only grew as the season progressed.

In fact, in a series of 54 games which started on November 29, 2017, he averaged 16.8 points and 7.2 rebounds – and even had a shooting average of 47.6 percent per game and 42 percent average on three-pointers. Šarić confirmed that the style and tempo of the Sixers suit him – and the club did not hesitate to take advantage of his skills. But best of all, Šarić managed to strengthen his performance by achieving almost the same number of shots he had in the rookie season.

In his first year in the league, Šarić shot 31 percent of three-pointers (with 4.2 attempts per game), while in the second year he rose to 39 percent (with 5.1 attempts per game) and ended the year with a great playoff. However, to step up, Šarić will need more consistency. Good for Philadelphia but bad for Šarić is that he’s still on a rookie contract that could be extended until 2020. Great for the Sixers as they have a good starter for little money, but not so great for Croatian basketball player who is fighting for his place in the best league in the world. 

Given his improvement from the first to the second year, it will be interesting to see how Dario will look in his third season. His name has already been mentioned in some trade rumors which is an indication that despite his secure position, he can easily be replaced if the Sixers see a good enough offer. Although he proved to compliment the young stars of the club, Šarić would need to improve his footwork and better defend the smaller and quicker players in an attack. As for his attacking game, more one-on-one play would help him, as we could see in the series against Boston.

Liberation of Hezonja?

Hezonja has finally received a much-needed change of scenery, and the Knicks should be the club to serve him well. His arrival in New York has also been linked with new coach David Fizdale, which was one of his primary reasons for deciding on the move. However, Hezonja has a contract for only one year ($6.5 million), which means that this season he is playing for his next contract, but before that, he must play for his new teammates.

Hezonja joins the Knicks during a complete overhaul and without the injured Porziņģis, which should open enough chances for the former Orlando player. He did, however, have a rather quiet season and did not find himself in the starting five. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kevin Knox are sure to be in front of him, while in the preparatory period, Lance Thomas was also a favorite. However, Fizdale will not hesitate to make changes if Hezonja convinces him he should.

Unlike Bender, Hezonja managed to catch a good second part of the season in the chaos of Orlando and showed that he can be counted on when he gets a serious minute. Hezonja has not been able to catch his rhythm in the Knicks yet and is still trying to find out how to fit in and contribute to the team. For starters, he will enter from the bench and share the court mostly with Ntilikina and the surprisingly Mitchell Robinson, but they will all have an opportunity to increase their playing time. 

This season, Hezonja will need to improve defending players without the ball and be more efficient for three-pointers. In his career, he averages only 33 percent, while in the pre-season he kept a disappointing 25 percent. Additionaly, Hezonja needs to be smarter about opening space on the court and stay consistent. If he raised his level of play and has his first real senior season, he could have a long-term contract in New York and a much brighter future. 

Bender’s moment of truth

If you only looked at the opportunity offered, then Bender is a player who used the worst of his chances. The problem is that he worked too little for a lot of time on the court. Moreover, he became a spot-up shooter rather than the all-around player he was supposed to be when the Suns chose him as the fourth pick in the draft. This was accompanied by a very bad edition in the Summer League, where he had poor 6.2 points (with 37 percent of shots in play) and 5.2 rebounds on the court in 22 minutes.

As a player with two NBA seasons under his belt and one in which he started 37 times, these figures are too small for the 20-year-old who should be hungry and self-confident. Unfortunately, his skills have not been materialized, and in the end, there are still too many questions. The problem is that the Suns must move forward, and last season with Bender in the starting five was the worst offensive team in the league (102.4 rating). For example, when he was off the court, that rating was 105.9, which was enough for 25th place.

The pre-season did not offer any better signs. In five preliminary games, Bender played 17 minutes on average and averaged 4.4 shots per game. This statistic would be even worse if he did not get the most minutes (36) of all Phoenix players in the last game. Bender still has the potential to become a great player, but much of this suggests he is not developing in the right direction.

Namely, Bender currently has no guaranteed contract after this season. The Suns have a team option of 5.9 million for next year, but if something does not change, he might be looking for a new club. To make things even more complicated, Phoenix has strengthened his position with veterans, who can play small ball. One is a more dangerous shooter than Bender, and the other a better shooter and better defensive player. This could result in a rotation, especially if he is not a threat to anyone. 

Zubac in the last year of his contract 

Ivica Zubac found himself on the team with the best player in the world, which can be good and bad for his season. After a promising rookie season with 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, his numbers and minutes dropped in the second year. Not all was based on his merit because Walton often chose a lineup that included Randle, though a faster temper and low play will be the case this year.

Zubac encountered even more difficulties at the beginning of the training camp after he returned sick from Croatia and could not normally follow the Lakers rhythm. But because Zubac has proven to be quite useful, the Lakers should not give up on him just yet. True, he is no McGee, so he will not be a starter, but he’s still young enough to wait for his chance. 

If Zubac could respond to the fast pace of the Lakers, then he would gain minutes. Otherwise, in the future, a rookie like Moritz Wagner could take his place. The Lakers have also been testing Kuzma and Beasley in the pre-season, which could be used in the new season.

Zubac is in the final year of a $1.5 million contract, which means that where he will continue his career is dependent on this season. If there was ever a year where he could jump into the Lakers, then this is it. After that, there may no longer be any opportunities. 

Žižić ready for more minutes

By the end of last season, Ante Žižić remained the only player on Cleveland’s roster that was part of Kyrie Irving’s trade. During the first season he spent time between the G-League and the first team of the Cavs, and when he was in the squad, it was often at the end of the bench. And it continued like that until March, when he first began getting more minutes.

His playing time was sporadic, however, because Love was moved into the starting five and Thompson moved to the bench, relying less on the role of a traditional center. This season Žižić should be in a better position, though there are three players in front of him in the rotation. 

However, Žižić’s performances suggest he is ready for more minutes. The two pre-season games where he received 20 or more minutes had a very good effect on the team. He scored a total of 31 points and had an impressive 11/12 in play. Žižić can have a good influence on the team as a jumper and is a player that can easily block. And though he’s improved his footwork, he is still not the defensive player of Thompson.

Žižić’s lack of versatility and the ability to spin from the outside prevents him from achieving more competitive minutes. Cleveland has to see what they have in Žižić and whether he is in the long-term plans of the club. 


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