Raptors' fans are hoping Zubcic isn't another Nathan Jawai experiment...
RaptorsHQ. A Skype feed. And Raptors' second-round draft pick Tomislav Zubcic' first Raptors' related interview.
Who knew Vince Carter was going to come up?
You've heard it a million times, basketball is now a global sport.
Nothing drives that point home quite like seeing an animated caricature of Kevin Durant staring back at me from the t-shirt of the 22 year old I'm Skyping with, live from Croatia.
The t-shirt belongs to Tomislav Zubcic, the near seven-foot forward that the Toronto Raptors drafted in the second round of the NBA draft this past June. Durant is Zubcic's favourite player, and while he tells me that he's been told of similarities between his game and other players like Andrei Kirilenko, it's Durant that he strives to play like.
For fans of the Toronto Raptors, they simply hope the 56th pick of the 2012 NBA draft makes it across the pond. Toronto's past drafts are littered with names like Printezis, Hulett, and Van de Hare, players whose names factored far more on the Raptors' financial ledger than they did in terms of helping the club's on-court success.
Tomislav could be different.
One of the top-rated players on NBA Draft website DraftExpress' list of International prospects, Zubcic has had the eye of NBA scouts since a breakthrough performance at the 2009 Nike Hoop Summit. After a strong 2011 season with Cibona Zagreb, a club he's played for for seven years now, last year he was much more inconsistent so knows he needs a good showing this season if he wants to make the leap to the NBA.
In fact, when I asked him when he believes he'll get a shot at cracking the Raptors' line-up, his response is a very candid and enthusiastic, "when I start playing good!"
He goes on to explain that while he hopes to make the jump after next season, he knows he's got work to do, especially in the weight room and on defence.
"All summer I was working on my footwork, defence, contact, you know, get back, getting your man and all that stuff and working every day here at the training camp in Cibona."
"I can shoot well for a big guy, but I need to show more."
All things one would imagine that would bring a smile to the face of the Raptors' defensive-minded bench boss, Dwane Casey.
However as I gaze into the slightly grainy and undulating screen that separates us, my thought process is interrupted not only by Tomislav adjusting his mop-top at random intervals, but also by the realization that Coach Casey and his defensive schemes are probably the furthest thing from Zubcic's mind at the moment. This is a 22-year-old who's not only focussed on the coming season with Zagreb, but who's still feeling the after-effects of realizing his dream; being an NBA draft pick.
I ask him about the experience.
"Did you know the Raptors were going to pick you?"
"No, I didn't know about anything!" exclaims Zubcic. "The day before the draft I was on a plane to my home, I was flying like 15 hours home, I was nervous, I didn't know what had happened."
"5:45 in the morning I found out!" "From 3 till 4 I fell asleep, and I woke up and was watching it (the draft) over the internet and then I got a message from my agent saying I was going (to Toronto)."
"It was the happiest day of my life. I can't get used to it. I dreamed about this forever and now, it's like a dream come true."
Tomislav hasn't spoken to the Raptors himself as of yet, (his agent has) but the franchise is hardly foreign to him. Besides listing off a number of current roster members such as Jose Calderon, Linas Kleiza and Jonas Valanciunas - "Jonas is a very good player, his team beat us easy, by like 20," he tells me - Zubcic explains that Toronto was actually his favourite team growing up thanks to a certain number 15 and his jaw-dropping aerial assaults.
Painful memories perhaps for Raptors' fans, but another sign of just how far David Stern's hardwood manifesto has spread. Carter may no longer be Tomislav's favourite player, but VC helped sow the NBA seeds that now have the Croatian big man one step removed from playing for the team he grew up following.
Indeed as my Skype feed begins to falter, and our conversation winds down, it's that next step that Zubcic stresses.
"I'm ready, nothing else can stop me. This is my year and I've got to show what I can do so I can be ready for the league."
One gets the feeling that even though Zubcic has been playing the sport since he was 10, his basketball journey is just beginning.