BASKETBALL IN EUROPE
By Dimitris Kontos
Two young European players made their debut in the Spanish Liga Endesa on Sunday and were among the big protagonists on the opening day of this league laden with huge stars from around the world.
Denmark's Rasmus Larsen, who turns 19 next month, claimed Week 1 MVP honours as he collected 21 points, 13 rebounds and one block in 26 minutes on the floor in the 90-78 victory of his team, La Bruixa Dâ´Or Manresa, over local rivals Fiatc Joventut Badalona.
|Rasmus Larsen was the main protagonist on the opening day of the new Liga Endesa season|
The 2.12m Larsen registered an efficiency rating of 37, the highest ever in the ACB by a player younger than 19 years of age.
The previous record, 34, was held by Ricky Rubio since November 2007.
At the same time on Sunday and approximately a thousand kilometres to the south, Domantas Sabonis was entering the court with 3:24 left in the first quarter in Unicaja Malaga's encounter with Estudiantes.
At 17 years, five months and 10 days of age, the youngster of the Sabonis saga was converted at that moment in the youngest ever player to feature in an official game with the Andalucian Euroleague club.
The 6,200-strong crowd in the Martin Carpena Arena cheered on the young Lithuanian international in almost every action - he was impressively solid on defence against senior players and finished with six points and three rebounds in 15 minutes as Malaga cruised to a 97-78 victory.
The debut day on the big stage of the two talented youngsters coincided although they have followed diametrically different trajectories until now.
Larsen actually arrived in Manresa a year ago, but an injury and the inevitable adaptation process for someone who had only competed previously in the Danish league postponed his first official appearance.
He arrived in Spain before even finishing school back home, and spent most of his first season playing on loan for third division club CE Sant Nicolau.
The big man, who was nicknamed 'the Danish Dirk Nowitzki' almost since his first appearance with the U16 national team, persevered however as he had clear in his mind that what he wanted was to become a professional basketball player and play with the best.
"I am the first one to be surprised as today I played above the expectations I had," he said modestly on Sunday.
"But the most important, is that we won the game.
"From the beginning I was very well received by the team.
"Many players are young and the atmosphere here is extraordinary."
|Domantas Sabonis became the youngest ever player to suit up for Malaga in Liga Endesa|
Domantas Sabonis on the other hand, as the son of the legendary Arvydas, was perhaps always destined to play the game.
He was born in the USA during his father's spell at the Portland Trail Blazers and grew up in Malaga together with his two brothers and sister upon the family's return to Europe.
"What I expect from him is just to grow alongside the adult players alongside him," Unicaja coach Joan Plaza told fibaeurope.com after the Sunday game.
"I think everybody knows that he is capable of playing at a really good level.
"But he needs to have someone by his side, like me in this case, that has the tendency to be brave with young guys and to know that we are not going to win or lose because of his contribution.
"Most of all he needs to take it step by step and enjoy the game."
Legend has it that the late Alexander Gomelsky, who coached the national team of the former Soviet Union for almost three decades, had once said that 'there cannot be two great figures in history by the same surname, and in the Gomelsky family the great one is me."
There are hardly any figures in European basketball history bigger than Arvydas Sabonis, who incidentally, played under Gomelsky until Lithuania's independence.
"There is a lot of pressure on him [Domantas] because of his name," Plaza conceded.
"But the most important is that he feels he is really helping is, he is not just sitting on the bench because of the name or because he is young.
"There might be coaches that use [a young player] as a piece of furniture, but it's not my case.
"That's because I think and I know he can help us already right now but in the future, he can be absolutely fundamental for us."
Domantas Sabonis is just one of talented European players that have been courted by American universities, but has chosen to stay and compete against senior players instead, at the most demanding level.
"For me, it's not possible a comparison between Europe and the NCAA," Plaza said.
"Here we are working for at least 10 months a year.
"Over there, for sure they have really good coaches, although not better than European coaches, but they can work only for a short amount of time [during the season].
"I think it would be great for him, or for any young player, to stay here in Europe and work, especially in this way where they take responsibilities and the coach is using you.
"There are a lot of good young players like [Domantas] that if they are smart, they are going to stay here in Europe, absolutely."