SIROKI BRIJEG (EuroBasket/FIBA Basketball World Cup) – Croatia’s Darko Planinic hails from a land of basketball greats and has been playing like one himself the last few months.
A 2.10m center who only turned 22 a few weeks ago, Planinic has been setting the Balkans alight with his performances for HHH Siroki in the Adriatic League.
Week after week, Planinic has poured in the points and yanked down the rebounds, yet he seems to be coming out of nowhere.
As recently as the 2010 U20 European Championship, he played for Croatia and averaged just 2.8 points and 2.4 rebounds per game.
A name that resonates more with European fans is Dario Saric, an 18-year-old power forward who played for Jasmin Repesa this past summer and turned it on big time, averaging 9.8 points and 6.3 boards.
In the Adriatic League, though, Planinic has been downright nasty, shooting 63.5% from the floor and averaging 16.5 points and 6.25 rebounds.
Twice he has been named MVP of the Week.
Despite an 83-80 home defeat to Union Olimpija in the latest round, Planinic fouled out but still had 20 points and seven rebounds in just 21 minutes.
With the Ljubljana outfit having one of the hottest players in Europe on their side, Aron Baynes, a 2.08m Australia international center who scored 12 points and corralled seven boards in 25 minutes, it's easy to see why Croatian national team fans – and those devoted supporters of Siroki – are positively giddy about Planinic.
A player who is coming into his own under Siroki coach Ivan Velic, Planinic is keeping his feet firmly on the ground.
"I am still far from what I should become as a player," he said.
"I have to improve in almost all parts of the game, the shooting and other technical-tactical elements.
"I have to speed up my plays, reactions.
"I have to improve my quickness. I have to get myself to a level where I will finish the game with six to seven rebounds and with 15 points per game.
"This is what may be called the real efficiency a center has achieved.
"But what is even more important than my stats is the team’s result.
"We are not a team which is working for individual stats.
"We are a working team, which can surprise any opponent if we are concentrated all 40 minutes.
"We are aware that if we relax too much, we can pay a big price for this."
All of Planinic's words would be music to the ears of any coach, and any club.
The national team
Planinic has yet to star in the Euroleague like Baynes, which is another reason why he’s not as well known.
But in Croatia, the basketball experts do know about him.
Planinic was a late addition to the national team that went 8-0 this past summer in the Qualification Round for EuroBasket 2013.
"I was not on his (Repesa's) first list but when Stanko Barac got hurt, I was called in,” he said.
"I definitely responded in a positive way.
"It is what every sportsman dreams of.
"This was an unexpected opportunity to play for Croatia.
"I didn’t play a lot but I was overjoyed that I contributed at least something to the qualifying for the European Championship."
He averaged 4.6 points and 0.6 rebounds for the national team.
"I will try to earn another call-up in the future," he said.
Basketball fans in America may want to remember Planinic's name because the NBA could be in his future.
"It is true that during the summer I was in China with the Croatia B team and afterwards I went to the Adidas camp in Treviso (Italy), where I played six games," he said.
"I was named to the starting five of the tournament, which was a big honor for me.
"After Italy, I moved to the USA and participated in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
"I was playing for the New Orleans Hornets against the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers.
"This was a new and unknown world for me. Everything is different there.
"My teammate was Austin Rivers, who was picked 10th at the NBA draft.
"In other words, this was a spectacle. It was worth being part of it, although for only a short period of time."
Planinic says a lot of coaches have helped with his development, but the man he feels most indebted to is Siroki’s physical trainer, Mate Brekalo.
Speaking on the Adriatic League website, Planinic said: “He forced me to run and work in the gym every single day.
“It looked foolish at first but now, when I see where I was and what have I done, I really appreciate his effort and all he has done for me.”
As for the players that have had a big impact on his development, Planinic told the Adriatic League website that former teammates Sime Spralja, Ivan Grgat and Coleman Collins have helped him immensely.
Collins, he said, taught him something that is invaluable.
“He enjoyed dunking,” Planinic said.
“He was always telling me: ‘When you have a chance to dunk, do it because this gives you self-confidence and fans love to see it, too.’”
Planinic will contend for a spot in the Croatia squad that plays at EuroBasket 2013 and attempts to qualify for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.