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25 August, 2023
10 September
47 Artūrs Kurucs (LAT)
02/09/2023
Long Read
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The five anonymous Latvians who just beat your favorite superstars

JAKARTA (Indonesia) - While each of them have made a name for themselves in their own league or market, Latvia sports a generally unknown cast that just keeps beating nations with All-World rosters.

You definitely know Kristaps Porzingis, approvingly nodding in the stands after another winning play by Latvia. You probably know Davis Bertans, always in motion on offense and sacrificing his body on defense.

Could Andris Biedrins be the next name one goes to when naming Latvian players? That just might be the case for the average viewer who primarily knows the very best stars and tunes in every other year for the FIBA Basketball World Cup or the Olympics.

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After all, Latvia is about to compete in the Quarter-Finals in their very first appearance in the FIBA World Cup.

As for the opinion of their sole NBA player Davis Bertans, their biggest weapon is the fact that different players have gone off in each game.

"We really don't care who is going to be the top scorer and who is going to take the most shots. We're just gonna let the game come to us and whatever the other team gives to us, whether it's Zagars, Grazulis, Smits," says Bertans.

So before they wreck havoc against another World Cup trophy favorite, go through this cheat sheet to know what Arturs Zagars, Andrejs Grazulis, Rolands Smits and others are about.

#55 - Arturs Zagars - Point Guard

Birth date: April 21, 2000 (23 years old)
Height: 190cm / 6'3"
Club: Free Agent

He should not be on this list, especially given the way he's played. However, World Cup rookies tend to carry the burden of having to prove themselves.

Zagars knows about that burden quite well. He was slated to be the face of the next great Latvia backcourt after earning All-Tournament honors in the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018. It was his 35-point and 7-assist effort in the Semi-Final against Russia that granted the hosts a place in the Final, where they succumbed to Serbia.


His pro career got off to a rocky start, but here he is, all grown up and performing exactly like Latvia had hoped ever since 2018.

Zagars' main gift is a clever and mischievous feel for how to get past any defender who stands in his way. By now, big men should know that it feels mighty lonely to be alone on an island with Zagars. Same applies for clubs who still might need a point guard for next season.

#00 - Rodions Kurucs - Forward

Birth date: February 5, 1998 (25 years old)
Height: 206cm / 6'9"
Club: UCAM Murcia (ESP)‎

Also an author of a breakout World Cup, as well as a former All-Tournament star of the FIBA U16 European Championship 2014.

Some might remember him from his time as a rookie with the Brooklyn Nets and wonder what Kurucs has been up to ever since. Well, for one, he might have found his coach in Luca Banchi who last season also recruited the elder Kurucs brother for his Basketball Champions League side SIG Strasbourg.


He was good with Strasbourg, but he's been playing at an All-Defense level for Latvia. Can he take on the key matchup? Evan Fournier, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Juancho Hernangomez make up the list. Does the position matter? He's been toggled through assignments and switching through screens to defend everyone from point guards to centers.

Look past the points and notice that he's averaged 31.3 minutes per game in Latvia's bouts against France, Canada and Spain. A testament to his stamina and importance for Latvia.

#11 - Rolands Smits - Power Forward

Birth date: June 25, 1995 (28 years old)
Height: 207cm / 6'9"
Club: BC Zalgiris (LTU)‎

It's the first major event that long-time Barcelona and now BC Zalgiris power forward Rolands Smits has had to take on notable scoring responsibilities for Latvia. Sure, he was integral to their FIBA EuroBasket 2017 run, yet it was moreso about him fitting around Kristaps Porzingis, Davis Bertans and others in the frontcourt.

It certainly doesn't seem like the transition from energy big to offensive leader has taken anything away from his best qualities. Smits is still flying around for rebounds, stopping bigger centers with Latvia playing small ball and finding the time for his usual highlight dunks.

Even though his averages are a bit down after a hot start to the tournament, he's still been Latvia's top scorer with 14.3 points per game. Furthermore, folks around the team have had all the reason to joke that Rolands is yet to miss this summer.

Just check the receipts. He's an incredible 86.4% from two-point range, despite often having to take tricky finishes of the floater and runner variety.

#24 - Andrejs Grazulis - Power Forward

Birth date: July 21, 1993 (30 years old)
Height: 202cm / 6'8"
Club: Aquila Basket Trento (ITA)‎

Together with Smits, Andrejs Grazulis is one of the reasons why Latvia have pretty much decided to play without a real center.

Grazulis might have the perfect background for it. A former track-and-field athlete with long arms that cover the width of the paint, Grazulis seriously took up basketball only after his 15th birthday. Thus his road towards a career in the sport has always gone through rebounding, defense and all-around effort.

 
There's also plenty of grace to his skillset. He doesn't mind popping out for the 3-pointer or showing off his signature push shot, which makes you envy how someone so strong can have such a soft touch.

Most importantly, there's nothing like ending up against Grazulis when running any offensive play. That's where his primary value lies. And he'll gladly join Rodions in switching one through five. 

#66 - Kristers Zoriks - Guard

Birth date: May 25, 1998 (25 years old)
Height: 193cm / 6'4"
Club: Aliaga Petkim (TUR)‎

A running mate for Zagars in the backcourt and a running mate for Kurucs on the All-Tournament Team in the aforementioned U16's.

Zoriks plays with a veteran-like demeanor that has been there since his youth. He's always been mature for his age and exhibited a sense of calmness which fits a ball handler seamlessly. Have you ever seen someone hit a three-pointer to clinch the playoffs and just shrug it off!?

The native of Jaunpils (population of 777) is perfectly capable of hitting three-pointers at a 40% clip, which makes it an easy job for the coaching staff to create lineups around him. One moment he'll be playing as shooting guard, making up for the loss of injured captain Dairis Bertans. The next minute he'll give Zagars a breather to run the offense.

That's exactly how he scored 9 crucial points in the last six minutes in Latvia's win against Spain.

Davis was right. Now, you try telling us, which one of them will step up next.

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