|Sharp-shooter Jon Stefansson led Iceland in scoring and assists at the EuroBasket Qualification Round last summer|
By Jeff Taylor
The results for his team did not, which was not surprising for a team that ended up in the toughest of six groups.
When considering that Serbia, one of the powerhouses in the international game, went into their 10th and last qualifying game at home to Israel with a 5-4 record and needing to win to clinch a spot in next year's Final Round in Slovenia, one understands just how unlikely a prospect it was for Iceland to claim a top-three finish in the only six-team group.
Iceland claimed a single victory in their 10 games, yet battled hard in all of them.
Peter Öqvist's team won a goal-differential tie-breaker against the Slovakians and came in fifth.
For Stefansson, a 1.96m guard, the summer served another purpose.
He was able to stay in tip-top shape ahead of his second season with CAI Zaragoza in Spain's Liga Endesa.
"It definitely didn't hurt (to play for Iceland)," Stefansson said to Basketball World News.
The 30-year-old finished as the Qualification Round's seventh best free-throw shooter (86.6%), first in average free-throws made (5.8) and ninth highest scorer at 18.5 points per game.
That scoring average surpassed his 16 points per game in 2009 in the old EuroBasket Division B, which had been his best with the national side.
A SOLID CAREER
Once a member of the Dallas Mavericks (2003-04), Stefansson didn't play a regular season game in the NBA but he has done very well for himself as a professional in Europe, working under some of the best coaches on the continent.
The following year, he captured the Coppa Italia with Napoli under coach Piero Bucchi and then switched to Spain's ACB to play for Valencia Basket.
At Virtus Roma back in Italy, he took his orders from Croatia's Jasmin Repesa.
After two years at CB Granada (2009-11), he joined Zaragoza where his coach is José Abós.
Spain has proved to be a happy hunting ground for Stefansson.
"The Spanish league overall is such a competitive league," he said.
"Like you have seen in the results this year, anybody can beat anybody.
"That's what I like about this league. It's so tough.
|Stefansson is the most 'international' Icelander, having played in three of Europe's top leagues and even spent time in the NBA|
"Teams have a lot of discipline, which is different from Italy, for example.
"It's a much more run-and-gun game (in Italy) and you really have to be a solid player to play in this league, with a lot of concentration."
COMPETING WITH THE GIANTS
When it comes to Spain's top flight, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Caja Laboral, Unicaja Malaga and Valencia are teams that often occupy the top five places by season's end while there are several others that scrap for a spot in the post-season.
Nothing can ever be taken for granted in Spain, though.
Last season, Unicaja, a team that competes in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague year after year, failed to claim a top-eight finish and did not qualify for the Spanish play-offs.
That led the team to hiring Repesa as their coach.
Defending champions Barcelona lost their first two league games this season.
Zaragoza have started well, winning two of their first three games, and appear to be a side that will be in the fight for a post-season spot.
"I like our chemistry," Stefansson said.
"I think number one, the chemistry in the team and the desire to win is nothing fake.
"We want to win. I think everybody's on the same page this year."
FINDING WAYS TO COMPETE
What the established powers in Spain are able to do year after year is spend more money on wages than a club like Zaragoza, and also offer European basketball.
Those facts no doubt led to the departure of Zaragoza's best player from last year, Brazil international Rafael Hettsheimeir, a 2.08m center who had blossomed into one of the best low-post players in the Liga Endesa.
Hettsheimeir, a silver-medal winner with Brazil at the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship, was in his country's preliminary squad for the Olympics but withdrew after being told he needed a knee operation.
There is speculation that he is about to sign a deal with a big club in Spain, possibly Real Madrid.
"I don't think anyone expected him to come back," Stefansson said.
"He had a great last few seasons with Zaragoza and I think everyone expected him to go somewhere else. That's basketball."
However, Zaragoza were able to bring in Netherlands center Henk Norel and American Joe Jones.
"I like those two guys," Stefansson said.
"We're playing well at the moment.
"At the moment, we're not missing him (Hettsheimeir) but we'll see. It's a long season."
Overall, Stefansson is in the country where he wants to play, and on the books of a club that he wants to play for.
"I feel pretty good," he said.
"This is my second year with the club.
"I'm getting to know all things the coach wants, I know my role in the team and it always helps to come back to the same team."