With 7 seconds remaining and the game on the line, Jaleen Smith (190-SG-1994, college: UNH) was standing at the FT line focused and ready to sink 2 free throws. But there was a huge difference. He wasn’t in his home Mercedes arena in Berlin battling top Danish team Bakken Bears with little people watching, but in Milan in the breathtaking Forum di Assago. It wasn’t a meaningless pre season game that Alba Berlin was playing with a few spectators, but a critical group game with Croatia against Estonia with 10,000 plus fans at the Forum di Assago in Milan. He also showed NBA legend Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Cuban who had flown in to take in the action his basketball skills. In the end, he held his nerves under control made both free throws helping Croatia to a massive and tough 73-70 win putting them at 2-1 with 2 games remaining. He had a solid game with 13 points and 7 dimes and made his home town of Freeport Texas proud. The Texas native who only a few years ago was playing in the German pro A is one of the few Americans that has gotten the opportunity to not only play the game he loves, but also play for another country. The experience has been one that he wouldn’t trade the world for. Even if English is the universal language, the language barrier hasn’t always been easy. ‘They have treated me as if I was another Croatian. They know why I’m here. I want to help them win games. They talk Croatian in the locker room and I have a translator that tells me the summary of what was said. It has really been different playing for Croatia. I take a lot of pride being able to play for Croatia. I treat it as if I was playing for the United States. I’m cool with everyone. I’m really happy I did this’, stressed Jaleen Smith.
After a tough loss to Greece and the Greek freak and a big and easy win over Great Britan, team Croatia had the next difficult task playing against Estonia this afternoon. Croatia definitely had their hands full early as they trailed 10-3 and could never shake off the pesky team coached by Jukka Toijala. ‘We had a very bad start. You can see that they take the game serious and are out to prove themselves. They are a young team that played with no fear’, stated Jaleen Smith. It was a battle until the end as Croatia could never led big. ‘They had a lot of fans at the game. I feel like that helped them feed off the support and they were always able to turn up their intensity and get us out of our sets. We couldn’t run the way we wanted to and they did a good job finding different ways to score from many guys while having to make tough shots’, stressed Jaleen Smith. Alone the trio of Siim-Sander, Kotsar and Kullame who all have had a connection to the German easyCredit BBL in some way combined for 49 of the 70 Estonian points. Croatia just couldn’t find a way to keep these guys better in check. ‘We could of done a better job on them on the defensive end. Kullame hadn’t had a break out game yet. We fell asleep on Siim-Sander who killed us from outside and Kotsar did a good job finishing strong inside. We have to do a better job on individual scouting’, warned Jaleen Smith. Croatia obviously has more talent than Estonia especially with their NBA guys of Saric, Bogdanovic, Zubac and Hezonja, so it’s only normal that you have to try to slow them down more. Estonia did do that keeping the two big guns of Zubac and Bogdanovic to 12 points combined. ‘Estonia did a good job taking them out. I have to do a better job of getting them more involved. We have to get them more touches. They are a big part of our game’, commented Jaleen Smith.
The game was still as tight as if you had a VW full of Shaq’s as with 1,22 to go Croatia was up 68-67. Then came a huge play as 2022 New Orleans Pelicans draft pick Karlo Matkovic made a key offensive rebound and put back silencing the Estonian fans giving Croatia the 70-67 advantage. Without a doubt that play and bucket gave Croatia the needed energy at that moment to squeeze out the dub. ‘That and the Simon offensive rebound were the 2 biggest plays of the game’, remembered Jaleen Smith Matkovic had the game of his life with 17 points in 19 minutes as he was an amazing 8/8 from the field. But his NBA debut may still have to wait a season. ‘He is definitely athletic enough to paly in the NBA. He has a real nice spot up shot that he always shows in practice, but hasn’t used much yet in the games. I think that Eurocup experience this season will get him ready for that NBA opportunity next season’, warned Jaleen Smith. The ex UNH great then dropped 2 key free throws in the last seconds to secure the win. In the last few years in Ludwigsburg and Berlin, he has had countless moments like these, so he has been used to delivering under pressure. But this moment in a crucial Euro 2022 game was different again, but he solved the solution with ease. ‘The free throws really just felt like practice shots. I am able to shut out the fans. All I do is focus on the free throws thinking they are just practice shots’, added Jaleen Smith. Croatia is on course to advance to the round of 16, but will still have to be ready for Italy and the Ukraine in the next days. ‘We just have to keep playing the way we have been playing and building on what we have done. We have been playing better as a team and finding the open man better. I feel like our defense will keep improving. We just have to continue to play together’, warned Jaleen Smith.
The ex MLP Academics Heidelberg guard has had a very solid 2022 European championships averaging 13/2/5/2 and shooting 46% from outside. He has needed no adjustment period playing for a new system, coach with Damir Mulaomerovic and teammates. With Alba Berlin he has played more the 2 while with Croatia is playing more the point again. Even if he is playing for Croatia the system isn’t so much different than what Alba Berlin does. He had more the green light under John Patrick in Ludwigsburg and has it with Croatia again. ‘We have guys here that can post up from the position 2-5. Even I could if I had to. We play a lot of down screens and post up’s for the NBA guys and like to to run. Coach has given me the green light so I can do whatever I want. I’m running the show. I can run and also get my teammates into good position, but when it’s time to step up, I can call my own number’, warned Jaleen Smith. He has demonstrated his facilitating skills in every game and sparkled, but his shooting has been down in the last 2 games as he has struggled at 4/15. He knows that he will keep getting the opportunities and just needs to drop shots. ‘We have a lot of post up’s and opponents wings can’t match up with us. I’m always ready. My teammates just need to keep finding me. I have been taking a lot of practice reps in spots I like to be in when I’m open’, expressed Jaleen Smith. He didn’t waste any time showing his best in the first game against Greece when he went head to head with NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo scoring 23 points as the Greek freak exploded for 27 points. He will never forget playing against a player like that who had his game face on for the total 40 minutes as he was so locked in that there was absolutely no small talk even after the game. ‘For me he is probably 1 or 2 in the NBA now. You see how fast he is on TV, but he is even faster in person. He has so many spins that he is already at the rim before he finishes. The gaps are so narrow in Europe, but he finds way to get through. It’s crazy. It was definitely a great experience being able to play against him’, said Jaleen Smith.
It will be interesting to see where the journey of Croatia and Jaleen Smith will go in the next week. The 2022 euro has been a great one so far with so many incredible games and lesser nations upsetting better teams. The American has cherished every moment of the 2022 Euro knowing exactly what has made it so memorable. ‘I think that the level of competition has made the Euro so great. There are so many NBA guys playing. Today you saw a country like Estonia show their whole worth. I think we will see them continue to do well in the upcoming years. The Germany-Lithuania game was so exciting and the best game of the Euro so far. Being able to play here has been better practice for me then being in pre season with Alba Berlin’, stated Jaleen Smith. It is no surprise that he also has been following Germany very closely as they have been one of the big delights of the tournament. After a brutal showing at the 2019 World Championships, they are back with new life and new inspiration as new head coach Gordon Herbert has understood to mesh the overwhelming talent with the right chemistry. ‘Germany is in a very tough group and have been playing great. Imagine how they would be playing in other groups? They would be winning by 20 points. They are definitely a team to watch. But anything can happen. You could go undefeated in group play and then lose the first game and be out. It is all about the match ups after group play’, warned Jaleen Smith. You never know what can happen, but perhaps very late in the competition with a few upsets Germany and Croatia could meet. That would be a real easyCredit reunion for him. It would be interesting to know if he would have a friendly wager with Maodo Lo about the outcome of the game? ‘I don’t know. Maodo, Johannes Thiemann and Weiler-Babb are my guys. If the game does happen, you will have to get back to me’, laughed Jaleen Smith. For now all Jaleen Smith is worried about is taking care of business against Italy and the Ukraine.