|It took Luka Zoric of Unicaja four years to get back to the Euroleague after his last appearance with Cibona. Before the start of this season, hs previous Euroleague experience amounted to just 34 minutes in which he scored just 6 points. Over the last four years, however, Zoric made himself into one of the best big men outside the Euroleague and returned this season determined to again test himself against the best. So far, Zoric is passing that test with flying colors. Last Thursday, in his first Top 16 game ever, Zoric scored 32 points and pulled 10 rebounds against Real Madrid in a game Unicaja lost on the final buzzer. His scoring total against Madrid was the eighth-highest in Top 16 history. Overall, Zoric is averaging 13 points and 6.5 rebounds, leads the Euroleague in offensive boards (2.8 orpg.) and ranks fifth in performance index rating among players in the Top 16. He has also become a fan favorite in Malaga due to his hustle, intensity and energy. For Zoric, the Euroleague itself has been his inspiration, first to work his way back to it, and now to give his all in each game, as he says in this Euroleague.net interview. "I will work hard to try to become one of the best players in Europe," Zoric told Euroleague.net. "I hope I can be considered one of the best players in the Euroleague. I would also love to win this competition one day and will work hard to try to do it."
Hello, Luka. In your first full season for Unicaja, how does it feel to be an important part of one of the best teams in Europe?
"It feels great, of course. I knew that I would play an important role when I decided to join Unicaja. Our coach Chus Mateo prepared me for that and my teammates have helped me a lot. I tried to prepare to have an important role in this team and have been trying to my best every day - in every practice and in every game."
When you played briefly in some Euroleague games for Cibona and Union Olimpija a few years ago, what did you learn?
"I learned that every team and every year in the Euroleague is great. This is the best competition in Europe, no question about it. If you don't do your best in every second for all 40 minutes, it is very difficult to win games. You have to be ready to do your best and help your team at all times."
Was it a big goal of yours to come back to this competition?
"Yes, of course. I think that every player in Europe that is not in the Euroleague has that goal, to play in this competition. Every player wants to have the chance to play in the Euroleague or to get back to the league."
Last week against Real Madrid, you exploded for 32 points, one of the top 10 scoring performances in Top 16 history. What was on your mind before and during that game?
"Well, Madrid is one of the best teams in the Euroleague, so it is easy to be play hard against them. I prepared for this game like I do before every game - getting ready to do my best and to help my team win. We had some injured players, Joel Freeland and Tremmell Darden, and I tried to step up and play as hard as I could. I played well and the whole team had a good game, but we couldn't beat Madrid in the end and lost in the last second. So, I cannot say I was so happy after the game. Scoring 32 points is great, but I would trade that for scoring less and winning the game."
Losing two home games this season in close finishes to favorites like Panathinaikos and Madrid had to be tough. But do those games show that Unicaja is on the right track?
"I think we have been trying to play better and better in every game. We had a lot of new players at the start of the season and didn't know how good we could be as a team, how well we could play together. I think we have improved every week since, which shows in our two games against Panathinaikos. We lost the first one by 20 points, but were about to beat them in Malaga and lost in the final second. We have to keep getting better and I am sure that when Darden and Freeland rejoin the team, we will be able to fight for big goals."
Do you wonder how high this team could go without so many injuries until now?
"I am sure we would have done much better. We are playing in two very strong competitions, the Spanish League and the Euroleague. I believe that the Spanish League is the best domestic competition in Europe and like I said before, the Euroleague is the tougher competition. For instance, we played against Madrid on Thursday and a Spanish League game on the road on Saturday. It is very hard, not only physically, but also to prepare well for the games. With so many tough games, injuries happen."
What mindset does Unicaja need going on the road this week to play Gescrap BB in Bilbao? Is it do-or-die yet?
"Well, we have to go out there and play our best basketball. If we lose, of course, our chances to get to the playoffs will not be the same. If we win, however, we are back in the playoff race, so we must try to get that win in Bilbao. It is very difficult to beat Bilbao in its court. They have very good fans and it is a strong court to visit, Still, I hope we can get that win and improve our chances to advance."
You play alongside very different power forwards in Jorge Garbajosa and Joel Freeland. How is it playing with each of them?
"Well, they are very different but I am very comfortable playing with either of them. Jorge has a lot of experience in big clubs and is a great shooter at the '4' position. I think that he has already played in one million games! (laughs) He is very smart and playing with him is really easy. Joel is very athletic and since we both can play '4' or '5', we can switch positions and that helps us play really well together."
This is your first season in Spain, too. How do you like living in Malaga and working for Unicaja?
"Malaga is great, of course, and I love working for Unicaja and especially for Chus Mateo, who is maybe the best coach I had in my life. He gives me confidence, works with me every day, speaks to me and it is very easy to play in a big team like Unicaja with a coach like that. The city is great and our fans are amazing. Unicaja is one of the best clubs in Europe and the weather in Malaga is great. I hope I can play for Unicaja until the end of my career."
At age 27, you still have many years ahead of you in your career. What can we expect from Luka Zoric in the near future?
"I expect to become a better player every day, and I will work hard to try to become one of the best players in Europe. I hope I can be considered one of the best players in the Euroleague. I would also love to win this competition one day and will work hard to try to do it."