Slovenia’s triumph at EuroBasket 2017 featured starring roles for Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic but, as we saw so often, the supporting cast was crucial to their triumph in Istanbul. Nicolò Origgi looks at one man in particular who had to face huge challenges in the biggest games, Gasper Vidmar
Slovenia’s astonishing Eurobasket title run has progressively brought the spotlight on its two shining backcourt stars deservedly included in the tournament’s ideal starting five at the end of seventeen tense days of competition. With Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic sidelined by two different – yet equally painful both for their body and mind – injuries in two different – yet equally crucial – moments of the second half, Klemen Prepelic and Anthony Randolph stepped up in crunch time by nailing some tough shots that cut an overly complacent Serbia’s throat when fate had seemingly decided to side with Sasha Djordjevic’s troops. As basketball is a game that goes well beyond the mere act of swishing a ball through the hoop, however, a huge human being has played the part of the unsung hero by relentlessly going at any more coveted big fella faced throughout the tournament.
At thirty years old, Gasper Vidmar is already more than a veteran of top-notch European ball. Picked at only twenty by a fine basketball mind such as Bogdan Tanjevic for his then Fenerbahce team, this living redwood has never lacked neither toughness nor team-first mindset but never developed a polished enough offensive game – let alone free-throw shooting – to make a further step in his game. A couple of loans to hometown side Olimpija Ljubljana and Besiktas were meant to improve his chances at the Turkish parent club during a seven-year span, but Zelimir Obradovic’s appointment ultimately saw the Slovenian center fall out of favour at the black-and-yellows. However, Vidmar has gone on calling Turkey home as he has subsequently suited up for another ambitious Istanbul-based team such as Darussafaka before moving to perennial darkhorse Banvit, thus increasing his role within solid teams in a highly talented league despite the lack of Euroleague action.
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His late individual resurgence has been vital for a rebuilding Slovenia that over the past years had gradually said farewell to its – unfortunately, only on paper as far as competitions for national teams are concerned – golden generation that, apart from the lone survivor Goran Dragic, also included the likes of Rasho Nesterovic, Mirza Begic, Erazem Lorbek, Matjaz Smodis, Uros Slokar, Bostjan Nachbar, Sasha Vujacic, Beno Udrih and Jaka Lakovic. Benefitting from early retirements and recurring withdrawals, Vidmar had already carved a small niche in the country’s selection multiple times, always ready to do the dirty work under the boards but, until these days, with no rewards. Entering 2017 Eurobasket as a member of a squad with less expectations but crystal-clear hierarchies that had probably been missing in the past, the rugged big man from Ljubljana immediately took possession of the starting center position – his backup Ziga Dimec having no relevant international experience – and proved to be a perfect defensive anchor thanks to his rock-solid frame and unsuspectably quick feet – the all-time Eurobasket top scorer as well as Serbia’s octopus-like inside monster have been completely shut down by such a combination in spite of their objective length advantage – for a man of his size, great timing as well as positioning and, most importantly, an innate will that cannot be taught. Amid putbacks and timely kickouts, bright moments have come on offence as well through powerful pick-and-roll finishes and deep catches in the paint off the smart passing by the whole Slovenian backcourt benefitting from wall-like screens.
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If one had ever wondered how a player could impact a game with a stat line of two points, five rebounds and three blocks – good for an average of roughly nine points, five boards, a couple assists as well as one and a half block per game in the tournament – in twenty-seven minutes, the answer might simply lie in the tapes of each Slovenia game. If that is not enough, however, even the most skeptical observers will be convinced, ironically, by a number: with Vidmar on court, Slovenia has outscored opponents by 119 points – 17 of which came in the final – in 228 minutes. Facts and figures, folks.
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