Croatian big man and second-round NBA Draft pick Karlo Matkovic talks to BasketNews about his maiden EuroBasket tournament, his future, and the players who have influenced him the most. 

Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

Karlo Matkovic is having fun at the EuroBasket. It's not that hard to tell.

In less than six minutes of his conversation with BasketNews in the Mediolanum Forum mixed zone, the 21-year-old big man brought up the word 'amazing' multiple times.

It's a token of how a major tournament is viewed by a young and promising player who wants to learn everything on the fly. Coach Damir Mulaomerovic decided that Croatia's campaign wouldn't include Ante Zizic and Dragan Bender, thus paving the way for Matkovic to join veteran forward Dario Saric and 25-year-old Clippers center, Ivica Zubac.

But joining Croatia wasn't exactly what Matkovic would expect while growing up. The Bosnian-born forward-center has been wearing the jersey of the Croatian national team from this year onwards.

Matkovic was a member of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Under-18 team at the 2018 European Championship in Latvia. His team finished the last at the tournament with a 0–7 record.

In November 2021, he expressed his wish to represent Croatia internationally in the senior competitions, and made his debut in February 2022, in the 2023 FIBA World Cup Qualifiers game against Sweden. 

His EuroBasket participation can be regarded as the culmination of a path that went through the Croatian League and Cedevita Zagreb, continued in Belgrade with OOK and Mega Basket, before reaching its first milestone in the 2022 NBA Draft, where Matkovic was selected with the 52th pick by the New Orleans Pelicans.

The NBA franchise has decided that the Croatian big man will be a draft-and-stash player. Matkovic is willing to use the EuroBasket as an opportunity to showcase that he belongs to a higher level than the Adriatic League.

He had 17 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and an assist on a perfect 8/8 shooting night in Milan to lead Croatia to a 73-70 win over Estonia in Game 3 of group play. His tournament has so far amounted to 7.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and an impressive 17/21 (81%) two-point shooting. 

This Sunday, the Croats are taking on Finland in Berlin's O2 Arena (14:45 CEST) for EuroBasket Round of 16, in an effort to reach the quarter-finals for the first time after 2013.

Matkovic tells BasketNews Croatia is "getting better" and "making adjustments" as they get to know each other. He also talks about his plans with the Pelicans, his experience of playing for Bosnia, and the thrill to go up against the 'Holy Trinity' of modern European players - Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo; albeit not necessarily in that order.

How would you rate Croatia's first round?

I think we had some struggles, but we got better. We can take two days off before we play our next game and learn from this group.

How do you like this EuroBasket?

It's amazing. Being a young kid and playing for Croatia is a great feeling. I appreciate the coach for calling me because we also had Ante Zizic. It's my first time on the big stage. 

Going to Berlin, which are your first thoughts?

We'll try to get the most out of it. Of course, we're aiming for the highest place. 

After being selected by the Pelicans in the second round, which are your plans?

Right now, I'm with Cedevita Olimpija. Hopefully, I'll play a healthy season with them. So, after that, I might join the Pelicans. I only played one game in the Summer League before I got injured. It was a nice experience. It felt like family there. 

How can the Adriatic League prepare you for the transition to the NBA? We've seen many players skyrocket their careers after a couple of seasons there. 

It's MegaBasket. We practice a lot, emphasizing on details. We're trying to study and learn from every game as much as possible. We have only one game a week, so we have a lot of time for practice and preparation.

We want to play NBA style of basketball. We learn to play fast, the big men are shooting. It's an all-around game, pretty much.

What's the thing in your game that you'd like to improve on, first and foremost?

I think defense. I want to start with defense always, protect the rim because I'm long and athletic. Then, stretch the floor a little bit with some three-pointers. I have to know the game better, so that things get easier for me. 

Is there any player that you've modeled your game around?

I wouldn't say that. I want to be the best version of myself. I had Dwight Powell from the Dallas Mavericks, whose game is a bit similar to mine. He can stretch the court and shoot the three. So, I've tried to look at some players, but haven't modeled my game around anyone.

How far Croatia can get in this tournament?

I won't say that most people don't believe in this team, but the truth is that we don't have any pressure. We'll try to be the best we can and aim for a medal. 

Credit FIBA

Watching Bosnia and Herzegovina face all these problems in their EuroBasket preparation, do you feel vindicated for your decision to choose Croatia?

Look, I wouldn't say that the first time I played for them wasn't because I had to; but according to the contract I had signed when I transferred from my home city Livno to Zagreb, we had to give something to the Bosnian national team.

So, I signed a contract that I would play for them until I was 21. As soon as it finished, I joined the Croatian teams. My whole family is Croatian. 

But the problems they're facing are not a nice thing to see. You feel a little bit sad for them because they're a team with quality. I don't know how the situation really is over there, but it's sad. 

Did you experience similar problems when you were there?

Not really. The situation was alright and the team was really good. We were having fun, although we got relegated to Europe's second division. 

Credit FIBA

How do you feel about having the chance to perpetuate the tradition of important Croatian bigs? Stojan Vrankovic is leading the federation, while Dario Saric and Ivica Zubac are both NBA players. Are they giving you any advice?

They're telling me where to be on the court and how to use space to my advantage; how to protect the rim and how to finish plays around it. It's a lot of things that can make my game easier when we play five on five. 

It's a tournament populated by NBA megastars, like Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. How do you feel being able to play against them?

I've already played against Giannis and it was amazing to see the beast he can be. I was trying to figure out some things in order to guard him, but he's a player amazing to watch. I'm grateful I had the chance to be on the court with him. I think you can be proud of yourself sharing the court with the NBA MVP. From the place I'm coming from, it's a real accomplishment. 

Credit FIBA

How would you rank them?

Oh my God! As the most complete player, I'd probably choose Jokic right now. He's the back-to-back MVP. Then, it's hard to pick between Giannis and Luka.

If I had to team to build a team around any of those two, it would probably be Giannis. But it's still very close. 

Are you looking forward to facing them again?

Of course. I've played against Slovenia already, but I want to see Jokic to see how special he really is. His style is like he's playing chess. 

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