Who's the 21-year-old hidden gem that brought Slovenia back to the World Cup?
HAMBURG (Germany) - Ziga Samar knows a thing or two about success, but the young point guard is really proud of helping Slovenia qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 in the latest European Qualifiers window - especially since most people back home didn't expect it.
The 21-year-old playmaker stepped up his game in the absence of 10 players from the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 team and guided Slovenia to two wins in Group J to lock up a return to the World Cup after missing the 2019 showcase.
"It's really important for Slovenia because we missed the World Cup in China. It's really, really good for Slovenia, which I think is a basketball country and has to make these big tournaments," Samar said.
"WE WILL TRY TO WIN SOMETHING IN THIS WORLD CUP."
The Jesenice native collected 13 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals in Slovenia's 75-62 win in Israel and followed that with 14 points, 12 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block in an 81-75 victory at home over Germany to secure the country's fourth appearance in the World Cup.
Samar and captain Edo Muric were the only two players on the Slovenia team who played at the FIBA EuroBasket 2022, where Slovenia disappointingly were eliminated by Poland in the Quarter-Finals. Samar was also one of six players in the window aged 22 and under, which also helped lower the expectations back home.
"At the start of this window we knew that we could do it. But we also knew that we were a young team and nobody in Slovenia expected that we would be able to do it because a lot of older guys were missing," Samar said.
"MURIC IS AN AMAZING GUY. HE'S A TRUE CAPTAIN."
The Hamburg Towers point guard said Muric and his leadership was a major reason why Slovenia were able to get the two wins.
"Muric is an amazing guy. He's a true captain. He just let us to play," Samar said. "He knew that we were young and if you give us too much pressure, it will not be good for us. So he just let us play and enjoy the game on offence. But on defense, he wanted us to be serious and try to press the ball all the time, to try to do our stuff and in the end we succeeded."
Samar this summer was playing in his first big senior national team tournament at EuroBasket. But he had already celebrated success in his past.
He helped Slovenia take second place in the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018, Division B to win promotion back to Division A. And the following summer he guided the country to third place at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2019 - Slovenia's second U18 continental podium finish following second place in 2002. Samar also helped Real Madrid win the U18 ANGT crown in 2019.
The up-and-coming Slovenian used the EuroBasket as the opportunity to learn from the country's biggest leaders Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic.
"Just watching them and talking with them at practice helps you to improve your basketball IQ and improve your basketball vision. Also off the court, Dragic showed me with some videos how to do some stuff and how to have good leadership on the court," Samar said.
Samar and Dragic: Student learning leadership from the master
And Samar's selection for the window was a no-brainer for how well he was playing in Germany since the beginning of the season. He is averaging 9.0 points, 6.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals for Hamburg.
"I also have an important role in Hamburg. I need to be a leader on the court when I play so I converted that from the national team," said Samar, who is with Hamburg on loan after signing a long-term deal this summer with three-time reigning German champions ALBA Berlin.
He has the rest of this season to continue his superb development and then hopefully be selected by Slovenia coach Aleksander Sekulic for the team to go to Asia next summer.
"The World Cup is an amazing competition. I think it's one of the strongest tournaments in the world so it will be big honor to represent my country there. If I will be the squad of 12 guys I'll be really proud of it," said Samar, who will turn 22 in January. "And then we will try to win something in this one, try to get a medal. Because this summer we really didn't do our job how we were expected to do it. So I think this is another chance to do it."
Another chance when Slovenians' expectations are high.