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Amid lofty expectations, Samanic has high hopes for Croatia
VENTSPILS (FIBA U18 European Championship 2018) - Luka Samanic came to Latvia for the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 with high hopes of wanting to lead Croatia to their fourth title. But the forward also arrived with the mind frame of tempering rising expectations on him as he changes from top talent to leader.
Samanic has wowed observers in Ventspils with his overall game, which has produced 21.5 points to go along with 8.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 blocks as Croatia went through the opening weekend with a 1-1 record.
After an opening day win over Latvia by four points, Croatia dropped the second game in Group A by seven points to Italy - something that the 6ft 10in (2.08m) Samanic was not fond of but happy that it at least took place at a stage where they could afford it.
"It's bad that it happened at all but if it has to happen then at least in the group and not in the knockout phase," Samanic said after the loss to Italy in Ventspils. "We played bad defense and we have to learn from this. The tournament is long."
But that doesn't mean that the Zagreb native has to like losing - especially after Croatia went undefeated en route to winning the FIBA U18 European Championship 2017, Division B title in 2017.
"Last year we won the Division B and I always go into a tournament with the mentality to win. This is my first goal for this team: to play as a team and reach the Final and win it," said Samanic, who was named the 2017 U18 Division B MVP.
For those who watch Samanic and his all-around game and think he was born and raised in the game, they are mistaken.
Samanic grew up playing football and then handball and tennis, admitting that basketball didn't come until after those - actually not until he was 11 years old. When he is not playing basketball, Samanic still reverts to other spots including football and table tennis.
"It gives me coordination and reactions," Samanic says.
The frame and athleticism are definitely there for Samanic. But what about his keen sense of the game and understanding how to play it at a level which has scouts considering him an elite talent?
Enter Marko Samanic, Luka's father who played basketball for 19 years in Belgium, Slovenia and Germany.
"After games and tournaments and before tournaments he gives me advice," Samanic said of his father, who played at the highest level of club competition. "He tells me don't expect too much of yourself. Just play defense and go with 100 percent energy."
Italy sent a lot of double teams at potential lottery pick Luka Samanic (I counted 11) and it worked really well. He mostly passed and his teammates couldn't create/make shots. He had success spinning baseline and attacking. He still had 23 + 9, but Italy won 74-67 #FIBAU18Europe pic.twitter.com/KVtAqF1ATt— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) July 30, 2018
The younger Samanic said he is actually trying to tone down the expectations on him, especially as he moves from someone who loads of talent to someone from whom leadership is expected.
"It's good motivation, but at the same time expectations can also kill you," Samanic said. "Sometimes you cannot expect too much from yourself. You have to hustle and do your normal things - playing defense, getting rebounds and on offense, one game will be better than another."
Samanic said one of the keys to his development has been his play in previous tournaments - in the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016 - where Croatia reached the Semi-Finals but finished fourth after losses to Lithuania and Turkey; and the FIBA U18 European Championship 2017, Division B, where they beat Israel in the Semi-Finals and Great Britain for the title.
“"(HIGH EXPECTATIONS ON YOU) IS GOOD MOTIVATION, BUT AT THE SAM TIME, EXPECTATIONS CAN ALSO KILL YOU."”
"I have experience. I am still young but I played a lot of tough and important games," he said, referring to games with Barcelona's second team in the Spanish LEB Gold besides the games with Croatia. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. When you lose you learn, also when you win."
Samanic's game is probably the best in Latvia at the championship - playing in a manner not that off from his role model Toni Kukoc.
"He passes and he's a big guy who can spread the floor. He can run and play low post. He can shoot and make his team better. That's why he's my role model," Samanic said of the legendary Kukoc, who won the U16 European crown in 1985 as well as the 1986 European junior title and the 1987 junior global crown - all for Yugoslavia - before becoming the superstar as an adult player.
Croatia have never won the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup, finishing second in 2015 and two times third. The country missed out on the 2017 U19 event, and getting back to the U19 global stage is a major priority for Samanic.
"The most important thing is to stay in the Division A. Then a top-five finish would be nice because there are also guys from 2001 who can also play the U19 World Cup with these guys here, and for me also. I hope we will work for this," he said.
While the expectations on him are high, you can count on him giving all he can for his team and playing the best he can - as one of the premier players in Latvia.