This article was originally published on the Vertical on February 23th. Find it here in it's original format.
Jonathan Givony went on an 11-day trip through seven countries to evaluate most of the top NBA draft prospects in Europe. On the last day of the trip, he visited Zagreb, Croatia, to watch Ante Zizic and Cibona take on Mega Leks.
More European Dispatches:
European Dispatch: Getting to Know Timothe Luwawu (+Full Interview)
European Dispatch: Getting to Know Isaia Cordinier (+Full Interview)
Getting to Know: Furkan Korkmaz
Getting to Know: Paul Zipser
Getting to Know: Dragan Bender
Getting to Know: Blaz Mesicek
Paul Zipser Video Interview
Furkan Korkmaz Video Interview
Dragan Bender Video Interview
19-year old Ante Zizic has been considered a major prospect in European basketball since a very early age, already seeing his first pro minutes in the Croatian league at the age of 16. He is a member of the golden generation of 1997-born Croatian prospects which includes the likes of Dragan Bender, Ivica Zubac and Nik Slavica, who are all considered NBA prospects.
Zizic was an easy player to identify, not just due to his size and mature frame, but mainly because his brother Andrija, who is 17 years older than him, was an important player in Europe in his own right. He played over 100 Euroleague games with the likes of Barcelona, Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and Maccabi Tel Aviv, and participated in many tournaments with the Croatian National Team at both the junior and senior level. Today the Zizic brothers are reunited back in Croatia playing for historic club Cibona Zagreb, where Andrija has played over 200 games dating back to 2003. He primarily comes off the bench now backing up his little brother now, who is dominating the Adriatic League in a way few players his age have since its inception in 2001.
Ante's 25.7 PER in the Adriatic League is the second highest in league history since 2001 for a player under the age of 21. He is leading the league in rebounding, and scoring over 20 points per-40 minutes on tremendous efficiency (68% true shooting percentage). While the Adriatic League is not considered the strongest competition in Europe, it has produced over 50 NBA draft picks throughout the years, so it is obviously a league the NBA takes seriously.
In His Own Words:
I started to play basketball because of my older brother Andrija. He is 17 years older than me. When I was a kid he started his professional career. I watched all his games, sometimes live, sometimes on TV. After a few years I started to play at a local club, but basketball wasn't my first choice. At first I started with soccer, because that's what my friends played. But because I was pretty tall I started to play basketball. It was a logical choice.
For me playing with my brother was part of my dream. He was the main reason I started to play basketball. One day I hoped to be able to play on the same team. This year comes and we are together. He is helping me a lot. He teaches me a lot on and off the court.
Now, I am going step by step. Working a lot, working hard, and waiting for my opportunity. When coach gives me a chance I show what I can do, so for me this season is normal. It's what I expected.
Zizic fits the profile of a modern day center, both in terms of his size as well as the role he looks capable of playing. He has ample size at 6'11, with a 7'3 wingspan and a 254 pound frame, and is a strong athlete as well, running the floor with purpose and showing strong leaping ability as well.
He gets quite a bit of his offense rolling and cutting to the basket, where he has excellent timing, hands and touch and will often finish plays above the rim emphatically, which he seems to enjoy doing. His effort on the court might be the best thing he offers, as he is incredibly physical, runs the court with reckless abandon, and is constantly crashing the glass on both ends to come up with loose balls (over 12 rebounds per-40). He gets to the free throw line at a very high rate for that same reason, nearly 9 times per-40 minutes, and converts 74% of his attempts once there.
Zizic's skill-level is not particularly polished at this stage, but he occasionally shows small glimpses of being able to step out for mid-range jumpers or put the ball on the floor in a straight line.
He's also a willing and competitive defender, being more than happy to put a body on opposing centers and working hard to contest shots around the rim and on the perimeter. His length and mobility offers some hope that he can continue to improve his versatility in this area, particularly when it comes to stepping outside of the paint and guarding quicker big men.
In His Own Words:
I am a type of modern center. I run the floor very well. I can finish with strong dunks. In defense I can close down the paint. I have the ability to block shots, collect rebounds. Effort is something you must have. It's like other basketball skills. It is something natural. I was born with it.
Zizic's production comes mostly off his energy and intensity-level, but that might not be enough to get the job done in better leagues where the centers are much bigger, stronger and more athletic and skilled than the ones in the Adriatic League. He needs to continue to improve his offensive polish, particularly in terms of his footwork, awareness and ability to use countermoves when his initial attempts are cut off. Continuing to improve on his shooting range and ball-handling skills will also help.
Along those same lines, Zizic is a below average passer, dishing out just 15 assists on the season, compared with 66 turnovers. The fact that he almost never gets in the passing lanes (6 steals in 756 minutes) lends credence to the belief that he does not possess particularly strong court awareness and is mostly relying on his physical tools and hustle to get the job done.
Considering that he's only 19, this is obviously not a major surprise, especially since most of the big men he's going up against are 5-15 years older than him, and possess significantly more experience.
In His Own Words:
I am 19-years old, so I am still a young player. I can work on everything and can improve every part of my game. For some things I need time, and for some things I need a lot of practice. I practice very hard and I try to watch older and more experienced players. I think I am going on the right way.
Zizic has burst onto the NBA radar relatively quickly, already putting up outstanding numbers in his first year of being draft-eligible. His productivity and physical tools make it very easy to project him playing a backup/energy role in the NBA, but that might be limiting his ceiling somewhat considering he's only 19. The success that other highly productive Adriatic League big men, such as Nikola Pekovic, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, are having in the NBA right now should help his draft stock, as he's been similarly productive to those three at the same age. It's still not known whether he will enter this year's draft or not, and he does not have a buyout in his contract with Cibona this summer, but regardless, he could be a very interesting draft and stash candidate for NBA teams to consider in the bottom of half of the first round should he decide to make himself eligible.
In His Own Words:
My dream is playing in the NBA. I still have a contract with Cibona, and I will see. I don't know yet (if he will enter the draft). I think I am ready for the NBA, but I must work a lot. I need more experience to play on a higher level, like the NBA.