Sweden does not have a long history of star basketball players, but the Scandinavian country has seen a couple of its top young talents make an impact in Spain and U18 Real Madrid’s Melwin Pantzar is the latest. Despite being just 16 years old at the time of the tournament, Pantzar played a major role in Madrid winning the EUROLEAGUE BASKETBALL ADIDAS NEXT GENERATION TOURNAMENT Qualifying Tournament Coin.
Madrid, which had won the ANGT Qualifying Tournament L’Hospitalet the last two seasons, came to Coin as the heavy favorite. And Pantzar, who averaged 7.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 steals per game, helped the 2015 continental champion live up to the pressure.
"We felt a lot of pressure because we are Real Madrid. We are supposed to win all kinds of tournaments. So we felt a lot of pressure, but it didn’t affect us that much. We just played our game," said Pantzar, who had 8 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal in the championship game against U18 Unicaja Malaga.
Plying his trade in Spain and for Madrid in particular is a big deal for the Valsta native, who turned 17 years old in April. "It's crazy," Pantzar said about what it means to be playing for the club. "It's one of the biggest things you can do in life."
The 1.90-meter guard’s road to Madrid started in February 2016 when he played a tournament on tryout with Italian club Stellazzurra Basketball Academy Rome in Hungary and faced Madrid. The Spanish giants snatched Pantzar up from AIK Basket Solna in the summer and brought him into the youth system.
Pantzar joined a growing line of Swedes who have moved to Spain early in their career. Markus Eriksson went to Manresa in 2010 as a 16-year-old, signed with FC Barcelona Lassa the next season and still plays with the club. Ludde Hakanson went to Barcelona from Sweden at 15 years of age and still plays in Spain with Montakit Fuenlabrada. Vilgot Larsson was 17 years old when he went to Joventut Badalona in 2015. And last year Barcelona also picked up 15-year-old Swedish center Erik Kall.
"There aren't too many of us Swedes over here, but I’m glad to be one of them," Pantzar said. "For Swedish basketball it means a lot because Sweden is not a big basketball country. So it means a lot."
Pantzar already made his debut with the Swedish youth national teams; he competed at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016 and averaged 7.6 points, 5.1 assists and 2.1 steals, not to mention 12.0 rebounds – as a point guard.
Pantzar also learned plenty from the tournament in Coin. The victory meant a lot to the team, but there is still work to do. "Coin was very important for us, but now we have Istanbul and we are looking forward to it," Pantzar said. "We are going there to win. That's our only focus."
Madrid has been drawn into Group B with host U18 Fenerbahce Istanbul, U18 Mega Bemax Belgrade and U18 Zalgiris Kaunas. If Madrid can grab the title, Pantzar will actually have done one better than a Swedish compatriot. Hakanson went to the ANGT Championship Game in 2013 with Barcelona, but lost to U18 Divina Seguros Joventut Badalona.
A Real Madrid win in 2017 would give Sweden a European youth club champion among its ranks. Not bad for a country still on the rise.