By Yarone Arbel
|Nikola Ivanovic carried Montenegro to the U16 European Championship Quarter-Finals in 2010 with 22.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 5.0 apg. One year later he's playing against 20-year-olds, but his numbers are not that far off|
FIBA Europe organizes youth championships for three distinct age groups every summer, which creates a pretty clear gap between generations in each competition.etition.
Fans will rarely see a player playing outside of the 'official' generation for which the specific championship is set up for.
When it does happen, it means one of two things - either his federation wants to expose him to a higher level of competition and a more physical game, or he's special and skilled enough to make up for the age gap.
In the case of Nikola Ivanovic of Montenegro, there's little doubt as to which side he belongs to.
The U20 European Championship in Bilbao, Spain is for players born in 1991 and 1992, yet Nikola is a member of the class of '94, that last year played and shined at the U16 European Championship, where he was voted in the All-Tournament Team.
He has mixed memories from that competition that took place in his home country.
"We had a good performance and there was a great support from the fans who came to every game, filled the arena and created a very good atmosphere, but eventually we had some bad luck and lost in the Quarter-Finals, which was disappointing for us because we could have gone further," he recalls.
If anyone wondered if Ivanovic is just here to learn, came the first game against Slovenia and the youngest player in the competition stepped on the floor already in the starting line up and produced big time.
In all three games so far he reached double-digits and at the end of the Preliminary Round he stands at 14 ppg, 2.7 apg, 2.3 rpg and is shooting in over 50% from all ranges, including six three-pointers in 11 attempts.
"I played during the past season with a senior team back home, so I'm used to play against bigger and older guys," he replies when asked if he feels like a fish out of water playing alonside guys three years older than himself.
Yet his plans aren't to stay with his team back home for a long time.
Ivanovic would like to experience basketball on a higher level already, and went on try-outs at a Spanish club already.
A good mentor and path lighter for him is no other than Spain's Nikola Mirotic - a native of Montenegro who moved to Spain early in his teen years and has been playing for the national team of Spain since last year.
Mirotic signed with Real Madrid and started to play big minutes half-way through this past season, when Real started their journey to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four for the first time in over a decade.
"Yeah, I know Nikola. We actually played pool together in the teams' hotel not long ago, and talked about many things," shares Ivanovic.
"Watching his path and where he reached by his age is surely an inspiration for me. I'd love it if I could be in the same spot he is when I reach 20."
"It'll be funny if we get to play against him here. I'm sure it'll be a strange feeling for him, but it needs to happen at some point and we all know we'll leave it all aside and try to beat each other," says the young prospect.
The memories from the Quarter-Final loss the previous year only motivate Ivanovic for a better performance here in Bilbao, and the 17-year-old knows his team has a good chance to reach the same phase at least once again.
"The coach put a little pressure on us from the start and he told us that we can go very far in this championship and bring a medal, and it got to us.
"Maybe that's why we were nervous in the first half of the championship and were down by 18 points, but once we got the pressure off our back things were much different."
Without that pressure Montenegro came back from minus 18 in one half against Slovenia and on Day 2 crashed Serbia by 25 points.
"We didn't come here just to play. We want to make things happen and fight for it all."
The way Montenegro have been playing so far, don't be surprised if Nikola will be the youngest player not only on the roster lists, but also on the podium next Sunday.