By Paul Nilsen
For many young and emerging players in Europe it is often the summer months rather than the other three seasons of the year spent playing with their respective clubs that moulds and shapes their career. One such player who faces something of a make or break off-season is Maltese star Samuel Deguara.
Once touted as one of the best prospects in Europe and with all of the top European clubs clamouring for his signature, the 2.23m tall center is fighting back from a serious knee injury and must now try to catapult himself from the junior ranks at Benetton Treviso into Lega A - and make the transition from youth level to the pro-game.
Having signed a 9 year contract in 2007, Deguara had high hopes of being thrust into the pro-ranks and had been continuing to develop under the watchful eye of the coaching staff but has endured a frustrating season with lengthy periods spent kicking his heels in frustration but is now almost close to a return.
"The rehabilitation is going so-so. I did something like 2 months with the crutches and then I started walking. At the moment I am managing the pain with the sessions of training but the doctors are happy with me because I am improving with each week."
"I have also started doing individual training with the ball with the assistants of Repreca under the basket and I am still seeing improvement in the movement of my right leg because now I can jump more than before."
"I hope that I'll finally be ready by the middle of this month but if the circumstances aren't fine it will take more and so I hope I'll be ready to play for the Under 19 finals in Bologna because they need me to grab some more rebounds and to get some more easy points."
Ask Deguara about how he has coped with a major hurdle in his quest to realise his potential and he is philosophical about the situation. The exuberance of youth has been replaced by a more pragmatic approach to his predicament.
"No I'm not really that nightmare person when injured but I do need to be more relaxed than ever before because if l stay too active like l did previously when I was playing l'll never recover and that I have now accepted. So, I am doing the things that the coaches and the physio tell me. I'm accepting the situation of having a serious injury and accepting mentally that it takes an even longer time because of my height and weight."
In fact it has been a bitter-sweet year all round for the center who was crowned MVP of the U18 European Championship Division C after leading Malta to the trophy with five double-doubles and averaging a staggering 27 points, 24 rebounds and five blocks per game. However that joy was tempered by the injury that prevented him from lining up in the showcase U18 All Star game at the Spodek Arena in Katowice during Eurobasket 2009.
"Let's just say that until the under 19 finals, my knee was absolutely fine. When I got back to Malta I did the first 3 games and played really well but during the semi-final and the final I wasn't able to run and get up and down the court as effectively as I wanted. It was a nice experience and the other teams there where afraid of us."
"Yes it was very disappointing for me missing the All Star game, but it doesn't matter too much since I think with a new and more powerful knee it can make me into a new basketball player so you can imagine what opportunities I am hoping I can receive in the future."
Deguara has certainly packed in more than most during his time in the youth ranks although he almost found himself not playing at all after originally picking up a football before a basketball when growing up in Malta.
"I always liked to exercise and when I was 8, I was doing athletics for two years then I started playing football and was a goalkeeper with Naxxar City for three years then to a certain point I stopped being a goalkeeper."
"My dad went to look for a basketball team and he was been recommended a club that sadly no longer exists "Hamrun'' and I played there for 2 seasons."
Once he decided to stick with basketball, it wasn't long before interest soared with the Maltese Federation quickly drafting him into their ranks and the telephone red-hot with offers.
"After the first year I played basketball, I was immediately called up for the Maltese national team. From then on I have played some international tournaments with Malta and while with them I was looked at by some of the strongest clubs in Europe."
"We saw the various cities and from there on, we decided to see some contracts but in the end, both me and my parents decided to sign with Benetton. It was not easy to decide so quickly and then to sign but we had the help of coach Bruno who has made us understand what it takes and what it means to be playing at the highest levels."
To reach the highest level, Deguara is acutely aware that his physical stature alone does not guarantee any kind of successful transition into Lega A and he is now keen to repay the faith shown in him by Treviso.
He was also quick to point out his appetite to learn and thirst for basketball knowledge has not diminished because of injury.
"I think when I finally have the perfect fitness in the next year I can really improve my technical part of my game even more on the court."
"I have learned a lot about understanding the game more, watching more of what is happening around me, athleticism, discipline, my shooting and pretty much everything else."
"I think this summer would be not easy for me, but I am going to work with the coaches to be prepared for the next season and I'm looking forward for next year."
"I'm a student of the game and this will hopefully help me to be pro-player this summer. I have looked over the movements of those who have more experience than myself like greats such as Yao and Shaq. However on the court itself, I have had senior players helping me such as Sandro Nicevic."
It isn't only the player himself who is desperate to step-up and prove he has what it takes. Back home in Malta, Deguara is already high-profile and if he makes it into the Italian league then his status will continue to soar and it is likely he will be the biggest sports star from the island.
However even with his contribution in the future, it is always going to be difficult for Malta to compete above the C Division and it is likely that he will be destined for a career in a Maltese vest that will never be aired at a major Championships.
Nevertheless, Deguara remains fiercely proud of his heritage and the support he gets from home.
"In Malta I think they all love me and they have encouraged me all my life. I believe in myself and what I'm living to do. I look forward to the future but first I have to heal."
"I can help them as much as I can and I could give my maximum for the National team but I'm afraid that the team isn't at the type of levels we need yet but some of the players are now rising like Nigel Sultana."
"God has helped me all my life and after that, I represent my country."
For now, Deguara simply needs to get back to full fitness and focus on continuing his development from raw potential to refining the mechanics of his game, his skill-set and continuing to work through his basketball education.