Alen Omic, Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas

Feb 26, 2016 by Frankie Sachs and Rok Bizjak, Print
Alen Omic, Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas

No team has won more games in the Eurocup this season than Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas and one of the biggest reasons, both literally and figuratively, has been Alen Omic. The 2.17-meter center only arrived to the club over the summer and immediately emerged as a force. Through the first games in the Eurocup Eighthfinals, Omic is second on his team in scoring (13.4 ppg.) and seventh in the Eurocup in both performance index rating (18.4 PIR per game) and rebounding (8.1 rpg.). He does his best rebounding work on the offensive end, where his 3 offensive rebounds per game are fifth-best in the competition. What’s more, Omic is fourth in the competition in terms of per-minute production (30.7 PIR prorated over 40 minutes) and none of the three ahead of him have played as many games.

Omic’s rise to become a Eurocup star is not the classic story. A late bloomer, Omic did not play organized basketball in his early teens, partly due to a lack of options in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was the goalkeeper for his school’s football team, where he used his 1.95-meter height to his advantage as an eighth grader. Being so tall at such a young agent, Omic was convinced to try basketball and at age 14, he went to Crnomlju in southeast Slovenia to begin training. In his one year there, Omic shot up 12 centimeters. Then he joined the youth system at Zlatorog Lasko, which was well known for developing young talents, including another Bosnian-born big man, former Eurocup champ Hasan Rizvic, whom Omic looked up to.

The time spent in Lasko turned Omic into a serious prospect. He already played a bit for the club’s senior squad at age 17 and was soon offered the opportunity to apply for Slovenian citizenship and to play for the country’s national team. Omic accepted and debuted for Slovenia at the Under-18 European Championship in 2010 in Lithuania. Although Slovenia did not fare particularly well at the event (3-5, tenth place), Omic led the team in scoring (14.3 ppg.) and was second in rebounds (7.9 rpg.) to show the rest of Europe that he was ready for the continental stage.

By the 2010-11 season, Omic was already a regular in Lasko’s rotation, so when he suited for Slovenia the next summer at the U20 European Championships in Spain, he was more than ready. Omic ranked sixth at the event in scoring (16.3 ppg.) and ninth in rebounding (6.9 rpg.). Perhaps most amazing was that Omic was a year underage at the event. In 2012, the same tournament was held in Slovenia and Omic was again among its stars. He ranked in the top 10 in scoring (15.1 ppg., eighth), rebounding (7.7 rpg., third) and blocks (1 bpg., eighth) as Slovenia went 6-0 en route to the quarterfinals, where its dream came to an abrupt end at the hands of Leo Westermann, Rudy Gobert and France.

Even before his strong summer for Slovenia, Omic knew it was time for a change. “I played four years in Lasko and then Olimpija started to show interest they wanted to sign me,” Omic said last week. “I thought hard about their offer and decided to sign with the team, because my wish was to wear the Olimpija jersey.”

Among the many reasons he was eager to play for Olimpija was to compete at the top level in Europe. “This was a higher step in my career, I was happy that I would get a chance to play in Euroleague for the first time in my career, which was my wish. Back then I was happy and couldn’t wait for the season to begin, so I could start proving myself.”

Omic’s playing time in the 2012-13 Euroleague was limited in part due to a fantastic season by starting center Aron Baynes, but he put up very strong numbers considering his age, including a 13-point, 13-rebound showing on the road at Fenerbahce Istanbul. Omic averaged 5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game and ranked second in the league in offensive rebounding on a per-minute basis (6.24 per 40 minutes). Despite his best efforts, Olimpija was unable to reach the Euroleague Top 16 and Omic has not had a chance to compete at that level again since. However his individual improvements were apparent over the next two seasons in the Eurocup and Adriatic League.

In 2014, Slovenian national team head coach Jure Zdovc called Omic into the senior national team for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. Though he was among the younger players on the squad, Omic earned minutes in the rotation and led the team in rebounding (5.4 rpg.). He posted a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds) against Korea in just his third game as Slovenia coasted into the quarterfinals before running into Team USA and falling 76-119.

After three seasons in Ljubljana, Omic was ready for a new challenge and decided to sign a multi-year deal with Gran Canaria. But first came another campaign with the national team. Omic was handed a central role for EuroBasket 2015 and helped Slovenia start with three wins from five games before a clash with Latvia for a berth in the quarterfinals. “I can say we were satisfied with the result, but it could have been better,” Omic said. “We didn’t expect to lose to Latvia in France, we were ready for more, but what happened, happened. We still had some success in the tournament and we are already thinking forward.”

Immediately after the tournament, Omic started a new chapter in his career when he arrived at Gran Canaria and started to train with legendary coach Aito Garcia Reneses. “I have only the best things to say about my coach,” Omic said. “He has helped me in many ways and believes in me. He respects me and believes in me and I try to follow his lead. We found ‘common ground’, which is very important and I have only good things to say about him as he is the professor of basketball.”

From the start, Omic has produced strong numbers for Gran Canaria, but he stressed that continuing improvement is more than just about Aito. “When I came here I had a goal to work hard and play well, in order to prove myself,” Omic said. “The team believes in me and the whole team has helped me a lot, especially “Taph” Savane who is always with me, always helping me out with his experience of playing in Spain his whole career. I have asked him for advice and if you have a player like him beside you, everything is much easier. I feel good here and it has been nice.”

In 16 Eurocup games so far this season, Omic has scored in double figures 13 times – and never had fewer than 8 points. He’s also posted three double doubles. And in the Spanish League, Omic has been even better! He is fourth in the league in performance index rating (17.6 per game) and second in rebounds (7.5 rpg.) alongside 12.4 points per game. His dominance in the paint helped Gran Canaria reach the Copa del Rey championship game just last week before losing to reigning Turkish Airlines Euroleague champion Real Madrid in an exciting final.

Omic twice won the Slovenian Cup in his time with Olimpija, but his trophy case has a lot more room in it and he is not shy when it comes to stating his goals for the rest of this season: “I know that Gran Canaria played the finals of the Eurocup last season,” Omic said. “We are trying to match that this year and working on winning the finals this time around and winning the cup. I know that this team is capable of winning it, I believed in my teammates from the first day I came here. We are fighting step by step, training hard and playing as a team, which is important. We will fight to the end and we will see what happens.”