CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Luka Samanic looked absolutely drained Thursday night, standing on a mid-level concourse inside Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena.
Samanic’s is a name basketball fans will get to know over the next few years. The 6-foot-10 Croatian is still just 16 years old, but quickly rising in the European system. He spent this year playing with the high-level FC Barcelona and is the breakout star of the Croatian junior national team.
He’s likely on a path toward becoming a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. You will eventually start to hear Samanic compared to Dirk Nowitzki or perhaps Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen.
But this past week, at the NBA Players Association Top 100 Camp, Samanic made his first trip to the United States and the experience was humbling.
“The opportunity to be part of Top 100 Camp is amazing because I’m getting to know the culture,” Samanic said. “Guys on the court are so physical. In Europe it’s more about tactics. Here it’s one-on-one, physical and because I’m so skinny it’s a problem because these guys are older and more physical than me.”
Not that he was bad, or out of his depth. He averaged nearly eight points a game at the camp, which is loaded with some of the best high school recruits in America. At times his 3-point range was on display. A nasty put-back jam showed off his 32-inch vertical leap.
But the level of exhaustion evident after another day’s worth of drills and games showed he still must develop before he brings his game to the United States full time.
Samanic and other players at the Top 100 event shed light on a simple truth. Even as basketball has become a truly international sport, as NBA and college teams adopt more European styles, there’s a difference in how the most promising young players are developed on the different continents.
Samanic’s experience was similar to his fellow Europeans.
Lithuanian shooting guard Martynas Arlauskas scored four points a game on just 27 percent shooting. Goga Bitadze, a 6-10 center from Georgia, averaged about five points and five rebounds a contest.
The transition isn’t necessarily any easier for young Americans traveling across the Atlantic. Quentin Grimes, a Houston-area product considered one of the top point guards in the Class of 2018, spent the week before the Top 100 Camp in Italy at the Adidas Eurocamp.
The Americans at the event got to play against older Europeans and experience a system that put an emphasis on early skill development.
“That was one of my best experiences so far playing basketball,” Grimes said. “The physicality is much different playing against guys who are five years older. There’s a whole new setting you have to get used to. They have a really good IQ for the game over there.”
For Samanic, it was an eye-opening experience. He’s not sure if he will follow a plan similar to Markkanen and come to the United States to play at a major college, or continue to move up through European clubs.
But he now knows getting stronger and more physical near the basket is key for an NBA future.
“It’s a great experience and I’m finding out I have to learn every day,” Samanic said. “When I come back to Europe it will be another world. It’s amazing.”