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U19 World Cup an 'amazing opportunity' for Latvia to put name out there, Zagars says
BADALONA (Spain) - Latvia will head to the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019 knowing they have their strengths but star guard Arturs Zagars also sees the tournament as an "amazing opportunity" for the small Baltic country to show the globe what they can do.
Zagars was named to the All-Star Five in leading Latvia to the Final of the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 and helping the country of about 2 million qualify for their third appearance at the U19 global event and first time since hosting it in 2011.
"It is really important because for a small country like us to show the world what we can do is an amazing opportunity for Latvia to put our name out there," said Zagars, who averaged 18.9 points, 6.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.9 steals in helping the Latvians to their best-ever U18 European showing.
"I think the biggest experience from that kind of tournament for us definitely is that you have to stay focused throughout the whole tournament. You can't relax at any point, because one game can change everything."
Zagars cannot wait to get on the world stage in Heraklion. And the 1.90m (6ft 3in) playmaker says Latvia will be thinking about topping the podium.
"I think we should definitely go to Greece with a mindset that we can win it all," he said. "We must put in similar work to what we did before the U18 European Championship to be in good shape and be ready to show the world what we can do."
While Zagars is extremely excited about leading Latvia into the U19 World Cup, he also needs the next few weeks to get himself back into the rhythm and form that allowed him to be a star at the U18 continental championship.
"IT'S REALLY IMPORTANT BECAUSE FOR A SMALL COUNTRY LIKE US TO SHOW THE WORLD WHAT WE CAN DO IS AN AMAZING OPPORTUNITY FOR LATVIA TO PUT OUR NAME OUT THERE."
Zagars, who plays for Spanish club Joventut Badalona and the club's LEB Gold second division side CB Prat, was forced to sit four months from November to early March following ankle surgery due to a torn ligament. The injury stemmed from a sprained ankle he suffered in the first half of the U18 European Championship Semi-Finals.
"I played the Final against Serbia with painkillers and I took it too far so my ankle couldn't handle it," said Zagars, who admitted that sitting out that long was not easy.
"That was my first time being out for that long. It felt like forever, especially the first couple of months when you can’t do anything but the weight room. After that when you start to do something with the basketball it is easier and the time goes by faster."
I've been catching up on Latvian PG Arturs Zagars' games in LEB Oro. These clips are from about 6 weeks ago, his first game back after missing 4 months with an ankle injury. Good to see he's still faking the hell out of defenses. Next-level craftiness, timing & feel for the game pic.twitter.com/TAa89ygEvu— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) April 21, 2019
Zagars returned to the court in early March with Prat and has twice scored in double figures while shooting 38 percent from three-point range.
"Of course I’m really excited about being in the World Cup, but right now I have to think how to come back from the ankle injury, so the World Cup is a long way ahead of us," Zagars said.
Once Latvia do arrive in Greece, they will face a challenge in Group B with Mali, Australia and Canada.
"The group is definitely hard. Each team has their own strength, but we are not different," he said. "We are not the underdogs."
Arturs Zagars and co. had the support of a huge Arena Riga crowd last summer.
Latvia were definitely helped at the U18 European Championship by the home fans in Ventspils and Riga. But Zagars does not think the team will be weaker away from home.
"We're not going to have problems with that because we have a strong team that supports each other well. And we are going to have people watching from back home which is enough for us to be motivated," Zagars said.
And show that Latvia deserve their spot on the basketball map.