Latvia's young backcourt wants to keep working miracles in Manila

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2023-09-06 06:39

Following Dairis Bertans' injury, Latvia had a big gap to fill in their backcourt, as the remaining players didn't seem to have enough experience to carry the team. However, all of them have managed to make a huge step up and prove doubters wrong.

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

Every successful team boasts a mix of young and experienced players who can guide it through thick and thin, including games against top-level opponents. For a squad that has suffered several setbacks both before and during the 2023 World Cup and doesn't possess significant roster depth, every player is important. 

However, Latvia is a special case. Let's start the rundown.

  • Their coach, Luca Banchi, had never taken over a national team
  • Janis Strelnieks, Rihards Lomazs, Kristaps Porzingis, and Dairis Bertans got injured at different points, both before and during the World Cup
  • One of their main players, Rodions Kurucs, has somehow fallen from grace since returning to Europe from the NBA
  • His brother, combo guard Arturs, spent four seasons with Baskonia's first team but didn't manage to make an impact despite having an interim breakout year with Riga
  • Starting point guard, Arturs Zagars showed last season with Nevezis that he has the makings for a promising career at a higher level than the one he had been used to playing, including a rather uneventful stint with Joventut Badalona
  • Another member of the backcourt lineup, Kristers Zoriks, has spent his entire career in his home country before signing with Petkim Spor in Turkey a few weeks ago.

Credit FIBA

Kristers Zoriks

Kristers  Zoriks
Position: PG
Age: 25
Height: 191 cm
Weight: 88 kg
Birth place: Latvia

To add insult to injury, most players from Latvia's backcourt lineup haven't even turned 26. Zoriks is 25, while Zagars and Kurucs are both 23. None of them had been labeled as a top-level player before the tournament tipped off. Nor had they won any individual accolades or played in a big-time event. 

Lack of quality and shortage of experience, some might say. Well, think again. 

Zagars was one of the absolute showstoppers in Jakarta, where Latvia made history by qualifying for the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever. He's averaged 12.2 points and 5.6 assists per contest while shooting 43% from distance.

Zoriks, who made two big three-point shots in the win over Spain, puts up 10.4 points, 4.2 assists on 43.5% from behind the stripe. And Kurucs produces 5.6 points and 1.2 assists per outing.

Next to them stands Aigars Skele, the only backcourt player one could call a veteran. Skele, 30, has been impressively efficient with 4.4 points and 5.0 dimes per game in only 16 minutes of playing time.

However, his professional credentials indicate that he has mostly played in his home country.

"We were the underdogs, but we played team basketball," Arturs Kurucs told BasketNews after Latvia's win over Brazil (104-84) that sealed the Baltic side's pass to Manila, where the World Cup's final stage will be played. 

"We just tried to play smart basketball. Sometimes, experience isn't the most important thing. Now, opponents expect us to play like a great team. We need to get more ready for them."

Next to him, Kristers Zoriks appeared in the mixed zone with the look of a man who had said everything there was to say on the court.

"We started from the bottom. We never lost or failed. We knew we were a good team," he started. "Before the tournament, people said we don't have point guards or guards at all. We proved them wrong. We're a great team, and we tried to show that."

Arturs Zagars was trying to figure out what had just happened when he appeared before the media. It wasn't the first time he seemed to be in disbelief with what had just happened -- and it might also not be the last.

"Top 8 is huge for this country, which is small but has a big heart. This is a big thing for our country and us players," the point guard -- still a free agent -- said. 

"Kristers and I are a young backcourt. We're having our biggest experience playing at the highest level. It's a great chance to put Latvia's name on the map. Here are some top NBA and EuroLeague athletes. So, it's a great stage to prove that we're not afraid of anybody, but we respect everybody."

Credit FIBA

Regardless of what happens in Manila and how deep Latvia will go in the tourney, Zagars has raised his stock immensely over the course of a few days. Despite his young age, he's been displaying a rather unusual level of maturity on the court. 

The Latvian floor general admitted that he also heard a lot of people saying Latvia was entering the World Cup without a point guard. He wasn't offended by those comments. He just used them as fuel for his performances.

"We just had to step up and prove that we belong here at the highest stage against high-level players," he continued.

Latvia's most experienced player, Davis Bertans, thinks that in tournaments like the World Cup, individual players need to step up -- or display a certain type of charisma they had barely shown in their careers thus far.

"We help each other, we pick each other up, and we don't care who's going to be the best scorer," Bertans argued. "Every single one of them has given everything. We might be tired, but once that game time comes, when you put this jersey on, you forget about all that."

Coach Luca Banchi said he doesn't manage his players but simply trusts them.

"I've been following them since my arrival," he told BasketNews.

"They know it's their opportunity, and I'm happy they're trying to use it to the best of their abilities. They have good people around them -- mentors, coaches, veterans, and experienced players who help them on a daily basis. Kurucs and Aigars Skele have good responsibilities to share the ball between them. I just told them to control their emotions."

It seems that Banchi's advice hasn't fallen on deaf ears. Rodions Kurucs, who will play with Murcia next season, gave the Italian tactician credit for helping players find their game and showcase their strengths.

"We signed a really good coach and a big shoutout to him," he said. "We beat Spain, France, and Brazil. We have nothing to lose, just go for the medals. Other teams should watch out for Latvia." 

Germany, their opponent in the quarter-finals, has definitely taken notice of Latvia's achievements in the two group stages. Latvia finished second, mainly because of their blowout loss to Canada, but their overall 4-1 record speaks volumes about what they're capable of.

Rodion Kurucs and Zagars stressed that the feedback they're getting from the at least 2,000 Latvian fans who flew over to Jakarta to support the NT has surpassed expectations in the same way Banchi's players have done. 

"I haven't had the time to check in and respond to all the fans, but my phone's gone crazy," Zagars said. "From the stands, I hear a lot of people cheering 'Latvia, Latvia,' and we also hear some Latvian music play after the games as well," he pointed out with sheer excitement. 

Kurucs described the feeling as "unbelievable" and added that many Latvian fans have booked their tickets to Manila.

"So, we had no option but to get ourselves a ticket as well," he noted.

In fact, Luca Banchi was also carrying one after the game against Brazil.

Credit FIBA

"It's crazy. We feel like we've reached the sky," Kurucs uttered.

There might be better teams than Latvia in the basketball universe that will take over Manila for the World Cup's final stage. But another walk in the clouds is an experience every member of that team is looking forward to enjoying until its very end.


We want to hear from you. Be the first to comment!

Add comment

  Subscribe   Total comments: 0

We have the right to remove comments which are offensive, contains abusive language, or violates other rules of the website