With the new NBA season well underway, we thought we’d take a look at the Croatian players who are plying their trade in the USA. This year, there’s a record number of Croatian players in the NBA with seven making the grade. And just in case you were wondering, yes, there’s a player from Dubrovnik.
So let’s see who they are and how they’re doing stateside.
Bojan hails from Mostar and played with Real Madrid in the early stages of his career. No, not that Real Madrid – the basketball team. Bojan is also something of a veteran of the NBA having played for four teams during his time in the US.
In 2014, he signed a deal worth $10million with the Brooklyn Nets and scored 28 points in one game against the Orlando Magic. He spent almost three years with the Nets before moving to the Washington Wizards in a trade. There he played a few games before signing with the Indiana Pacers. He stayed with the Pacers for two seasons before joining Utah Jazz.
Incredibly his contract with his current team is worth a staggering $73million which makes him the all-time highest earning Croatian athlete. Wow.
Dario signed with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016 and enjoyed a relatively successful spell winning the rookie of the month award on two occasions. His 29-point tally in a game vs. the Lakers would be the standout point in his stint. Saric then moved to the Minnesota Timberwolves before signing for the Phoenix Suns in 2019.
Saric has been the unsung hero at the Suns and has earned himself the nickname Super Dario. His 23 points against the Atlanta Hawks back in November helped get the Suns back on track. Although the odds favored a Suns win, it was by no means a foregone conclusion.
Super Dario put in a stunning performance and has since played an integral role in the Suns starting line-up. Unfortunately, despite his own good form, the Suns have reverted to mean and are on a losing streak that may just see them miss out on the playoffs. Regardless, it has still been a great season for Saric.
And so we come to our Dubrovnik-born NBA star. Mario Hezonja is just 24 but has already played for three teams in the NBA. In 2015 he signed his rookie contract with Orlando Magic. In his first season, he made 79 appearances which are quite impressive for the then 20-year-old.
Unfortunately, a change in coaching staff resulted in less playing time the following season. His form suffered as a result and both his second and third seasons were quite poor by his own standards.
Looking for a change in scenery, he was then signed to the New York Knicks for a season earning a massive $6.5million in the process. Mario enjoyed his time with the Knicks and wanted to stay for another season but it wasn’t to be. This season he signed for the Portland Trailblazers and the fans have really warmed to him. Hopefully, this is where we’ll see him fulfilling his potential.
The Phoenix Suns have a thing for Croatian players and quite rightly so. Dragan Bender spent his first two seasons in the NBA with the Suns. He was drafted in 2016 and touted as the best international prospect for that year. As the 4th overall pick in the draft, he’s the highest-selected Croatian in the NBA draft.
He spent the next three seasons at the Suns scoring a career-high 23 points in a loss to the Denver Nuggets. By summer 2019 his time in Phoenix was up and Bender moved to the Milwaukee Bucks where he signed a two-year deal.
Zubac started his NBA career with the mighty LA Lakers playing alongside the greats of the game. He signed as a rookie in 2016 and went on to spend close to three eventful seasons with the Lakers. He spent time with the first team and with the D-Fenders who play in the D-League.
In his second season, he spent a good deal of time with the South Bay Lakers who play in the NBA G League. In his final season with the Lakers, he saw some more action on the court and scored a career-high of 26 points against the Oklahoma Thunder.
He then switched to the LA Clippers in February 2019 and made it to the playoffs for the first time in his career. Since then he has become an integral squad member and seems to be enjoying his basketball a lot more.
Ante’s NBA origin story is a strange one. In 2016, he was the 23rd overall pick in the NBA draft. The Boston Celtics snapped him up and things looked good for the 22-year old from Split. But before he played a game for the Celtics, he was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Ante spent a lot of time playing for the Cavaliers-owned Canton Charge in the NBA G League. He has since played for the Cavaliers but has yet to make a significant impact on the court. We’re hopeful though that this could be his breakout season.
The newest addition to the list is 19-year-old Luka from Zagreb. After spending time at FC Barcelona and then Olimpija in the Slovenian League, Luka is now a player for the San Antonio Spurs.
In June of 2019 he was the 19th pick of the NBA draft and officially signed with the Spurs. Although he has yet to turn out for the Spurs, he has been assigned to their affiliate team, the Austin Spurs in the NBA G League. We have high hopes for Luka and hopefully, he’ll make the grade in the coming months.
So there you have it, a record seven Croatians who are now fully-fledged players with NBA teams. Could we see another few join the list in the 2020 draft? Could Croatia win the next FIBA World Cup? Anything is possible, after all, we did make it to another World Cup Final not so long ago, right?