Many things have happened to FC Barcelona shooting ace Kyle Kuric since he made his pro debut almost 10 years ago.
After playing college basketball at the University of Louisville, Kuric crossed the pond and made his pro debut in Spain with Estudiantes in Madrid. After two seasons there, he moved to Gran Canaria, where he became a household name in the 7DAYS EuroCup. In his first season there, he helped the team reach the competition finals for the first time.
However, life would have an unpleasant surprise for him. In November 2015 Kuric was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. He underwent surgery in Barcelona and had most of his recovery there. That is why looking back now at everything that happened, Kuric can see the positive side.
"I think it took every bit of every player that we had to get past [Zenit] and to beat them."
"In some ways, it could not have gone better," Kuric said. "Yeah, I did have the tumor, but it really kind of pushed me to get where I wanted to go, which was playing for Barcelona and then become part of a team like the one we have. It's really kind of surprising how quickly it all happened and how quick it all changed."
After his stint in the Canary Islands, Kuric finally left Spain and went to Russia to play for Zenit St Petersburg in 2017-18. He played there for just one season, but as fate would have it, Barca would reach this year's Final Four only after a five-game series precisely against Zenit.
"It was very difficult," Kuric remembered. "I think it was a much more difficult series than both teams really anticipated because they really came out the first game and they played extremely well. I think we were a little, you know, too confident going into the game. They had a very good game plan and it took us out of what we do. It was a very difficult series. I think it took every bit of every player that we had to get past them and to beat them."
The fact that the series even went the distance, was also somewhat surprising for Kuric, who knows the club well.
"Coach told us the first day, the first practice before the series, he said 'This is going to be a five-game series and it's going to take everything we have' and I still think that, you know, we were all like 'Okay, coach is trying to be motivating', but I think he really knew the team well and knew what to expect from them and it was going to be much more difficult than we all thought."
Surviving the series against Zenit has Kuric and Barcelona heading to Cologne for this season's Final Four. It will be Kuric's first time at the big event and the first for Barcelona since 2014.
"I'm happy that we finally made the Final Four," Kuric stated. "I feel like my first year we were one game away. Last year we had a really good opportunity, but because of COVID we could not get the chance, the opportunity to see it through, but you know, happy to be in the Final Four this year. But we want more."
In the last two seasons, Barcelona made significant roster moves and Kuric has witnessed them all. The biggest one may have been the hiring of Sarunas Jasikevicius as coach last summer. When he arrived, Saras set new guidelines from the get-go.
"From the very beginning, kind of emphasized that this is a team thing. So it's not going to be him that wins games. It's not going to be Niko [Mirotic] that wins games, or Nick [Calathes], or Cory [Higgins] or Brandon [Davies] individually."
And Kuric and Jasikevicius seemed to have settled for the role that suits Kuric best. In his third season in Barcelona, Kuric is having historic shooting numbers. He's made 59.5% of his three-pointers, his Points per Possession (1.419) are the best for any player in the competition since 2008 and he is fourth-best in Adjusted Field Goal Percentage since 2007 at 75.8%.
"I think this year I have a much more defined role than I've had in the past two years. It's basically being a shooter. You know, if I have a good shot, then I can take it, if not, then we kind of like I said before, we play as a team, but he kind of expects me to take shots that are good for the team," Kuric explained. "That's not always shooting, sometimes it's, you know, they're pressuring me too much and I can get by them and create a shot for somebody else. But I think I have adapted pretty well to what he's asking in the role that he's put on me."
Now, the next hurdle will be in the semifinal game against AX Armani Exchange Milan, a team that Barca beat twice during the regular season, but Kuric knows better than using that as a reference for this do-or-die game.
"Especially on the offensive end, they are a very, very deep team. They have two really good point guards and they have really good scorers, so they are going to be very difficult for us to stop on defense. I know we've played well against them this year, but I don't think either game they had a full team, so this will be the first time we play them with the full roster."
"I think just this game is going to be like the other games for us - it has to be focused on defense."
For Kuric the key to the game is a return to basics - defense.
"I think just this game is going to be like the other games for us - it has to be focused on defense. You know if they come out and they're hitting shots and playing easy and getting relaxed early on in the game, it can be a very difficult, long game for us."
Even though this will be Kuric's first Final Four, his experience tells him what will it take Barca to win the first game against Milan in semis and then, an eventual championship game against either CSKA Moscow or Anadolu Efes Istanbul.
"I think it's going to take everything we have," Kuric concluded. "It's not going to be one player, it's going to be a team tournament, if you want to say, and it's going to take everything we have to win."