|Despite still only being 21, Nika Baric is entering arguably the most important phase of her career |
By Paul Nilsen
Having long since shed the wonder-kid label when she waved goodbye to her teens, the time has arrived for Nika Baric to establish herself as a bona-fide premier European guard.
Due to turn 22 later this year, these past couple of seasons in particular have been pivotal in providing the necessary springboard for the Slovenian ace to take her game to the next level and show why people have been talking about her talent for almost a decade.
She now has three successive EuroLeague Women Final Eight tournaments on her resume.
She also has a full campaign as the primary playmaker at Sparta&K M.R Vidnoje behind her, having taken up the slack in the wake of last summer's departure by the likes of Elisa Aguilar and Rebekka Hammon.
It could therefore be argued that Baric has reached a watershed moment in her career.
That may seem a little dramatic or harsh and not least because she is still only 21 and running the point - heralded as the toughest position on any basketball court for a rising star.
But reality bites, especially when the waning excuse of age and inexperience fades away into the background whenever a big play down the stretch is not executed.
"I like having the responsibility on the court," Baric is quick to underline.
"I have learned a lot from some great players at Sparta&K and it is an exciting place to play.
"Firstly because it is like one big family and also because they give young players a chance and so it is always fun."
For the most part, Baric certainly enjoyed the Final Eight last month, producing a terrific display with 16 points and four assists, to shoot down Kayseri Kaski spor.
One of the biggest talking points in Ekaterinburg was how both she and team-mate Ksenia Tikhonenko, had come of age.
|Baric is confident of leading Slovenia to their first-ever EuroBasket Women Final Round this summer|
Baric almost masterminded a memorable victory over eventual runners-up Fenerbahce too, but her gutsy team were beaten by a solitary point.
She turned down the chance to take a game-winning shot which opened up one of the biggest challenges she now faces, as she approaches this decidedly tricky fork in the road.
Is she ready mentally to forget labelling herself as a playmaker and merely focusing on creating for others? Can she now go back to the future and be the kind of game-changer and game-winner she was in her teens?
She certainly has the talent to do so - this is beyond question. Additionally, the club's management will probably be looking to her more and more to start making the clutch shots in 2014-15.
Baric is perhaps more accustomed to being the leader in her national team colours, having worn a Slovenian vest with distinction for an extraordinary length of time.
Becoming a top level player means ideally competing at major tournaments with your country and testing your skills against the very best on the international stage too.
"I really hope that we can qualify this time," she said as the team begins thinking about the road to EuroBasket Women 2015.
Last time around, Slovenia were denied a historic first-ever place at the EuroBasket Women Final Round when a string of serious injuries cut them down, just when their qualification campaign in the summer of 2012 had got off to a flying start.
"It is true that last time we had a lot of injuries which prevented us from taking advantage of the good position we got ourselves into," bemoaned Baric.
"However, I think we have a lot of talent and if everyone is playing to their best level then I think we have a good possibility ahead of us."
Slovenia will match-up against Poland, Luxembourg and Slovak Republic in Group A and it is inevitable that Baric will hold the key.
Having outgrown the ‘teenage sensation' headlines and having completed her post-teenage apprenticeship behind some great players in Vidnoje, she's surely ready to burst through the door to the next level.
And, if Baric does manage to fling it open for good, it would make a lot of people very happy - for there are few friendlier players within the women's basketball family than the amiable Trbovlje native.