By Cindy Garcia-Bennett, PA International
Marco Belinelli is oozing with confidence ahead of this month's European Under-18 Championships in Zaragoza, Spain.
And why not, considering his eye-popping performances earlier this year in qualifying which propelled the Azzurri into the showpiece tournament.
Belinelli established himself as one of the continent's rising stars by scoring more than 26 points a contest in Italy's five games in Croatia as they reserved their place in the Championships.
No player in the other 17 squads in the challenge round torched opponents like the hot-shooting Belinelli.
"The most important thing is not how many points I have scored but to be able to guide the team on court," he said. "I believe I am the leader and I am ready for that kind of responsibility."
Belinelli, who lists Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant as his favourite player, says he knew right from the beginning that his future was in basketball.
"I began playing when I was six years old with my brother in our family's backyard," he said.
"I have never played any other sport than basketball because it's the sport that I love."
Belinelli honed his skills at the prestigious Virtus Bologna club and looked set to establish himself in the coming years as one of their key players before financial woes led to the outfit being disbanded by Italy's basketball bosses.
Players under contract at Virtus suddenly found themselves searching for a job.
Fortunately for Belinelli, there was another big-time club in the city.
||During this year, Marco has made a lot of progress, he has matured and has worked hard
|Skipper Bologna Coach Jasmin Repesa|
He joined Skipper Bologna on a five-year contract and cemented his place in the senior squad.
Belinelli insists he will always remain indebted to Virtus, though.
"Virtus showed me everything I know about the game, and that was a very important stage in my life," he said.
"It was not an easy situation, having been accustomed to that club but in the end, it all worked out. I am very happy at Skipper Bologna. It was the team that I wanted to join.
"The transition hasn't been difficult because Skipper is a young squad and the club has treated me very well."
Skipper challenged for titles on both domestic and European fronts last season but finished second in both.
Despite that, Belinelli still managed to make a big impression on Skipper coach Jasmin Repesa, a man not renowned for showering praise on his players in public.
"During this year, Marco has made a lot of progress, he has matured and has worked hard," Repesa said.
"That was important because it's unusual that at his young age he has been able to play so many minutes in a big Skipper Bologna squad. It is unusual in Italy and in Europe."
"He is a great talent and will be a player that Italian basketball can look to in the future."
All in all, it was a very positive year for Belinelli, who is still a high school student.
He has to balance his demands in the classroom with those on the hardwood.
"School isn't going that well because I train four or five hours a day and basketball is my life," Belinelli admitted.
"It has been a fantastic season for me, though."
"I have played in the Lega A play-offs final...I am very satisfied to be part of this team.
|Belinelli (left) with Georgia's Manuchar Markoishvili|
"I want to be an important player in the Italian league and of course for my national team, that is what I want to achieve."
And who knows, his supreme confidence may end up helping him reach another of his targets.
"My aim is to be able to play for Italy in the 2006 World Championships," he said.
For that to happen, he's realistic enough to know that every aspect of his game needs to get better.
"I need to work on my defence," he said. "I need to get better at grabbing rebounds, and also working on my penetration but I'm training four or five hours a day and I will improve my game."
First things, first.
Italy's Group A campaign in the Under-18 Championships includes an opening clash on July 9 against Serbia & Montenegro, and then contests against Georgia, Latvia, Russia and France.
"I am very motivated after my performances in the qualifying stages, and I think we have every chance to do well in this tournament," he said.
"We have to play against Serbia & Montenegro, a squad that we know well, and France whom we have played in the qualifying stages, as well as Greece. I think France and Serbia are our biggest rivals."
Greece are in Group B, with Lithuania, Turkey, Israel, Bulgaria and Spain.
"We have high expectations, we have a solid team that can win this European tournament," he said.
All of the ingredients are there for success in Spain.
"We have a great coach in Antonio Bocchino, who has done very well in his first year in charge," he said.
"He is always available to talk to the players and I really respect him.
"The strength of this team is that we know each other very well, some of us have played in the same club and there is plenty of talent."
And another strength appears to be that the Azzurri have a natural-born leader.
"I want to be an important player in this tournament," he said, "and use this as an experience to improve my game."