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9 Dario Saric (CRO)
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He's done it in his youth, now Saric is ready to lead Croatia at senior level

ZAGREB (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers) - You know how kids get when they have to wait for something. Edgy, impatient, leaning their heads through the doors, just enough for you to hear them whisper: "Look, look - That's Saric! That's Dario Saric!"

They don't get a lot of superstar at an arm's length in Sveti Martin na Muri. A small town all the way in the north of the Croatia, Sveti Martin na Muri has a population of just over 2,600, but a magnificent hotel and a brand new gym nearby have lured Croatian national teams in their preparations for big events and crucial games over the past five years.

Hosting a national team doesn't mean the residents' fitness programs are cancelled. As Saric, the forward for Croatia and the Philadelphia 76ers, was going through his shooting drills to end the team's practice, kids were waiting just off the court for the 8:00pm buzzer to sound, marking both the end of coach Drazen Anzulovic's time of day, and the beginning of their own extracurricular course.

"Wow, he's so big," kids who still count their age in single digits laughed together, seeing the 6ft 10in (2.08m) 24-year-old stand close to them.

The big guy is only getting bigger, not just physically, but also mentally. Dario is trash-talking throughout the entire practice to get the competitive level a bit higher, he's offering high-fives left and right, shouting words of advice, making teammates and the staff laugh with his comments and even swearing at himself when his bullet passes are not on point.

"It's hard for me to comment on my own game, or what I bring to the team," a completely wet Saric said after the practice in Sveti Martin na Muri.

"I have a different status here compared to Philadelphia, where I'm some sort of a third-or-fourth option, while being a primary option here, with Bojan (Bogdanovic). We have to get all the other players involved, and that suits me completely. I hope I'll play a couple of good games for the team now, and that we will find our way to two wins."


Croatia are up against Lithuania and Poland to start the Second Round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers. The first game, at home against Lithuania, is set to be the biggest one of the day, with the red-and-white team hoping to get some leverage before Saric and Bojan Bogdanovic head back to NBA duty.

Lithuania are in a perfect position for the game, at 6-0, three wins clear of Croatia. Hence, they can afford to play without Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis.

"They may be without some key players, but they can hit you with a small-ball lineup and create some problems, especially if they play with a center to stretch out our big guys (Ante) Zizic and (Ivica) Zubac, who aren't the kind of guys to play from the outside," Saric warned. "They are more comfortable in the deep. There could be some problems, but the two of them will be ready, and we'll be here to help."

For Saric, the game against Lithuania will be special as it sees him heading back to Osijek, in Eastern Croatia, where he made his debut for the senior national team at the tender age of 18 in 2012.

"We always said, Osijek - they have a packed house every time, even in soccer or handball, when they played I believe against Montenegro here. You can see that people really love Croatia here, they are supporters, true fans, I hope they will blow the wind into our sails against Lithuania," he said.

Saric's transition from a kid who won it all at U16 and U18 level into a hero who led Croatia to a place at the Rio 2016 Olympics was a success. Croatia were back making headlines at youth levels this summer, with the U16 men taking the title in Novi Sad, and the U20 finishing second to add to Croatian Basketball Federation's silverware collection .

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There's no-one better than Saric to offer some wide words for the new kids on the block.

"A lot of hard work is waiting for them now," he said of the youth generation. "They have to have reliable background in their training, have to surround themselves with good coaches to show them the way. And they need minutes, it's obvious that they are extraordinary players in their age group.

"But I also realized this a bit too late - when you get to the professional level, there are tens of extraordinary players from all over Europe in your team. I hope they will continue working hard, that they will continue to shine for Croatia and be helpful in the first team soon."

Perfect recipe for those who are next in line for Croatia. Maybe some of them will hear more firsthand from Dario in 12 months' time, at the World Cup in China.