Nemanja Popovic went through something generations of U18 Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade talents have not - a home loss at the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament Belgrade. Now the talented big man is hoping to give a "correct" impression of the Serbian power at the ANGT Finals.
Zvezda lost to local rival U18 Mega Bemax Belgrade 73-63 in the ANGT Belgrade first-place game to snap Zvezda's 38-game winning streak in the tournament, which dated back to the 2010-11 season.
"We were so disappointed, especially when you know the previous eight generations of our club won this tournament," said Popovic, who tallied 9 points, 5 rebounds and 1 assist in the game. "But quickly after that, we put our heads up and started to train very, very hard so we can move forward with our goals."
Popovic and Zvezda's big goal for the season is winning the ANGT Championship Game on May 19 in Vitoria-Gasteiz, where the team will play in Group B with U18 Valencia Basket, U18 Real Madrid and U18 Rytas Vilnius. And that is only possible thanks to Zvezda receiving a wild card, something which really pleased the 2.03-meter forward.
"I am so happy with all my teammates that we made it to the final eight in Vitoria-Gasteiz. In Spain, we will have another chance to show what we know, and to correct the impression from the qualification tournament in Belgrade," said Popovic, who averaged 13.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 blocks and was named to the All-Tournament Team. "We need to approach the tournament as another opportunity differently: to be relaxed, to train and prepare very hard and to listen to our coach, and the wins will come."
Zvezda is hunting for its second ANGT title following the 2014 crown. The club, which will be playing in the ANGT Finals for the ninth straight season, also reached the ANGT Championship Game in 2015 and 2016 and lost to U18 Real Madrid and U18 FC Barcelona Lassa, respectively.
This is Popovic's second ANGT season. He was worth 4.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists at ANGT Belgrade last year and 10.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists at the ANGT Finals in Belgrade.
His journey with basketball started in 2009 with the small club Knjaz in Arandjelovac near Belgrade.
"My father had a great wish and he told me: 'try basketball.' After my first training it was love at first sight," said Popovic, who was born in Arandjelovac but lived in nearby Topola.
Popovic arrived at Zvezda two years ago from Vizura. That move that fulfilled a dream.
"When I was a small boy, my dream was to play for Crvena Zvezda. This is the best club in our country and also the best system for the development of young players," he said. "If you have the talent and desire to become a good player, in Serbia this is the best system and environment to succeed."
One of the things that helped Popovic stand out was his long hair and headband. When asked about the history behind that look, he said: "I am used to it, I have had long hair since I was younger and started to wear the headband because of my long hair. Nothing special, but people notice it, obviously."
They also notice the talent, which is good enough to have earned him spots on Serbia's youth national teams. He helped Serbia take third place at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2017.
"That was very nice, a great experience for me. It was a big honor to play and represent your home country. But the biggest lesson was: Every time when you are on the court you give everything you have, 100 percent for your country and your team," said Popovic.
Last summer at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018, Popovic collected 5.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists but Serbia lost to Turkey in the Round of 16 and finished 10th. "We were so disappointed after losing the game versus Turkey because I knew that we were the better team. But you must learn important lessons after losses like these," he said.
Popovic learned his lesson from that U17 World Cup game and now hopes the lessons from the defeat to Mega in the ANGT Belgrade first-place game will help Zvezda capture a second U18 continental title.