|Kristaps Porzingis entranced Latvian fans last summer when his athleticism was on display in a Latvian jumper for the first time|
By Dimitris Kontos
Champagne and flowers were in shorter supply than they had hoped for, but 2013 was still the summer of young love for the 18-year-old Kristaps Porzingis and Latvian basketball in general.
The U20's lost to Italy in an epic final in Estonia and the U18s came within a whiff of conquering bronze on home soil, only for Spain's Juan Hernangomez drilled a triple 2.6 seconds from the final buzzer to gift Spain an unexpected 57-56 victory in the third-place game.
Porzingis was voted onto the U18 European Championship All-Tournament Team as he averaged a tournament double-double of 11.6 points and 10 rebounds as well as an amazing 4.9 blocked shots per game to propel Latvia's semi-final run.
The medal collection might not have been optimal for Latvia, but the combination of high drama and the emergence of two new generations of talented stars with whom young people in the country can identify, enhanced enormously the love affair between basketball and Latvia, probably for many years to come.
"I think the popularity of basketball in Latvia is growing and that's very positive," Porzingis told fibaeurope.com.
"Now the kids want to play basketball more and more and there are now more courts on the streets than before.
"Young people play streetball all the time, so it's definitely growing."
Before this summer's U18 European Championship, Latvian fans had never seen this sharp-shooting, fast, athletic and versatile 2.12m forward/center play in a national team jersey.
|Domantas Sabonis (left) and Porzingis are both young Baltic centers making names for themselves in Spain|
It was more than worth the wait, on both sides. It was love at first sight.
"It was my first experience of playing with the national team and I absolutely loved it," Porzingis said.
"I loved the coach, loved my teammates, they were great.
"It's just that the way the tournament finished was not how we expected it to end, but it was a great experience overall."
Porzingis was surprised to see that playing in the European Championship with his nation also helped him in his personal development as a player.
"It's a different experience, because Latvian coaches are different from Spanish coaches and you can learn something new, take things from them," he said.
"You can still work later in the season on these things, so there is a lot to learn there [on the national team]."
Porzingis only turns 19 in August. Does he looking forward to repeating this national team experience in the upcoming summer?
"Probably yes [I will play], I am looking forward to it [but], with the U20 [team]," he clarified.
TOUGH LOVE PAYS OFF IN SEVILLE
|Porzingis and Anzejs Pasecniks (right) hold the key to Latvia's inside game in the coming years|
One man who closely followed Porzingis's achievements on the U18 national team last summer and gave him a strong dose of tough love was the coach that knows him better than most, Aito Garcia Reneses.
"He is technically gifted but is he is yet not finishing plays as well as he should," Reneses had said of Porzingis after the tournament in Latvia.
"Others with less skills than him finish better because they make the most of the two good moves they have. He's got eight good moves," the demanding coach added.
The veteran Spanish tactician, renowned for his work with young talent, promoted Porzingis to the senior team of Cajasol Sevilla last season, just as he had done several years ago with the likes of Juan Carlos Navarro and Pau Gasol at FC Barcelona, then Rudy Fernández and Ricky Rubio at Joventut Badalona.
With Reneses at the helm of Cajasol, Porzingis has been getting 13 minutes of playing time per game in the Spanish Liga Endesa this season and averages 5.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, against invariably older and more experienced opponents.
"I feel good here [in Spain]," Porzingis said of his breakout season in one of the toughest leagues in Europe.
"I came when I was 15, I've learned the language and now everything seems to be easier for me.
"I understand the language, I've been working for years with the coaches, so I am pretty content with where I am right now."
Porzingis' still skinny frame gives away his age on the court as he stands next to senior players.
When the young Latvian talks though, he appears mature beyond his 18 years of age and this might be a direct consequence of that major step he took when he was 15.
"I had two options at that moment," Porzingis explained.
"One was to go to VEF Riga and stay with the U18 national team coach and play there.
"The other was to go to Spain.
"I had to decide between the two and in the end I accepted the challenge to go to a foreign country at a young age.
"It's turned out well so far."
So well indeed, that at this point in time it appears that the sky is the limit for this young Latvian.
"I just need to continue working hard, play hard in games and in practice and success will come," Porzingis said.
"My aim is to get drafted and play in the NBA one day, I think that is everybody's aim.
"Of course with Latvia I would love to win any medal first, then if it's gold it would be the greatest, but it's hard, it's a really tough thing."