Over the last three games, Rolands Smits of Montakit Fuenlabrada has been simply unstoppable. The 21-year-old forward has averaged 16.7 points on 9-of-12 three-point shooting against three very good teams: ALBA Berlin, Khimki Moscow Region and RETAbet Bilbao Basket. His recent performance has made Smits one of the front runners to win the 7DAYS EuroCup Rising Star award. Smits leads all Rising Star-eligible players in scoring with 10.4 points per game. His team, however, needs a win against Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius this week in order to qualify to the Top 16, which is what matters most right now. One of many young Latvian players doing well these days, Smits is a versatile forward who joined Fuenlabrada at age 16 and has grown up in the club's very efficient youth categories. Smits is shooting very well for the season: 15 for 24 on two-pointers (62.5%) and 12 of 22 from beyond the arc (54.5%). Smits has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the EuroCup this season, and his room for improvement suggests he could be one of the best European forwards in the near future.
Born in Valmiera, Latvia, Smits got interested in basketball by watching his hometown team, BK Valmiera, as a kid. Basketball was one of the most popular sports in Latvia and Smits quickly got into it. "I started playing when I was really young. My dad took me you watch basketball games in Valmiera. I started to watch my hometown team and really liked it a lot. I was already tall as a kid and my dad asked me if I wanted to try to play basketball. I went to my first practice with Valmiera, did some things right and liked it a lot. From that day on, I kept practicing - until now," said. Despite getting his start with Valmiera's youth teams, Smits never made it to the first team roster, because he moved to Fuenlabrada at age 16. "I remember I had some practices with the first team, but didn't get to play with them."
Smits was chosen to represent Latvia at the 2011 U16 European Championships played in the Czech Republic. Despite being virtually unknown, Smits led Latvia to a sixth-place finish with team highs of 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds. Despite leading 52-59 after 30 minutes in the do-or-die quarterfinals, Latvia ended up suffering a 68-66 loss, which prevented the team from fighting for one of the medals. His efforts did not go unnoticed, however, as Smits joined Fuenlabrada's youth teams structure in 2011.
"That summer, my agent told me I had an offer from Fuenlabrada, a good team that works well with young players. I didn't know anything about Spanish basketball, because I was in Latvia. I don't know if I had more offers, I don't remember, but knew Fuenlabrada really wanted me to play for them," Smits said. "My mom didn't want to let me go, but my dad, who knows basketball, told me that if I had a chance like this, I should go for it. This is why I came; Fuenlabrada is a good team that works well with young players."
Fuenlabrada lived up to its own reputation, giving Smits a lot of playing time in the lower categories before bringing him to its first team. Smits played for Fuenlabrada's team in the EBA League - Spanish fourth division - and also played two seasons in the third division (LEB Plata), first on loan to El Bulevar Avila and then for Fuenlabrada's second team, Fundación Baloncesto Fuenlabrada, in the 2013-14 season. "I believe that it helped me a lot, they made me go step by step, first in the EBA League, then to LEB Plata two years, seeing some minutes with the first team little by little," Smits recalled. It was really good for me."
Of course, Smits kept playing for the Latvian national team. He was a member of the Latvian national team that reached the semifinals at the 2013 U18 European Championships, playing alongside former 7DAYS EuroCup Rising Star Kristaps Porzingis and current Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas center Anzejs Pasecniks, among others. Smits did well and averaged 8.4 points per game, but two narrow losses, 68-72 against Croatia and 56-57 against Spain – on a late three-point shot by Juancho Hernangomez – prevented Latvia from getting back home with a medal.
"It was really tough - Latvian basketball does not get medals on regular basis like Spain does and we were so close! Losing in the last shot was very difficult, the game was almost ours!" Smits reflected. "We had a great team, full of great players and great friends, but we have to move on."
Indeed, these three players - Porzingis, Pasecniks and Smits - are pillars of the current Latvian national team that also features the Bertans brothers, Davis and Dairis, Zenit St. Petersburg forward Janis Timma and playmaker Janis Strelnieks, among others. The future may well belong to Latvia, with so many young and talented players. "I believe that we have a very good national team, with very good players. We will see how we do in the near future. Not only that, we talk a lot and get along very well," Smits said.
In 2015, the Latvian Basketball Association chose Smits as the best young player in the country, following in the footsteps of previous winners Porzingis and Rodions Kurucs. Smits was already a member of Fuenlabrada's first team and had shined at the 2015 U20 European Championships with 14.6 points and 9.1 rebounds to lead Latvia to a fifth-place finish. "It was something really nice. It is an award that you have to work really hard to get it, and not everyone is able to win such an award," Smits said. "It was an honor to receive to be considered the best young player in Latvia, it shows I am working in the right direction."
Last season, Smits averaged 4.6 points in Spanish League action; he scored 11 against Rio Natura Monbus Obradoiro and a season-high 15 against Joventut Badalona. At age 20, Smits helped Fuenlabrada reach the Spanish League playoffs for the first time since 2011. "I have been here for many years and helping the team reach the playoffs was great," Smits said. "I was fully focused on doing well with our first team and we reached the playoffs at the very last second. It was a great experience and a great thing for the team, going back to the playoffs after a few years."
Even though Smits played power forward growing up, he is seeing more and more playing time at the small forward position. Smits has hit 11 of his last 15 three-point shots in EuroCup action and shown a lot of progress, too. "Truth to the told, I don't see a lot of differences between playing small forward or power forward. I am very comfortable playing at either position, '3' or '4'. I can play in the low post when playing small forward or open the floor at the power forward spot, so it is not very different," he said.
Of course, at age 21, Smits has a lot of room for improvement and he is very aware of that. "First and foremost, I have to play with more consistency, do well in each and every game. I have to improve my rebounding skills and also my three-point shooting. I am hitting shots now in the EuroCup, but not that many in the Spanish League," he said. "I have to improve my free throw shooting and go to the foul line more often, but I am working on it. A free throw has no defense and you have to hit them all."
His recent run in the EuroCup has allowed fans to start seeing the kind of player Smits can become – aggressive and able to score in many ways. Of course, playing against teams from different countries and many different playing styles has helped Smits get better as a player in his first season in the competition. "I believe the EuroCup is helping me get better, yes," Smits said. "You play two games per week and the more games you play, the more things you learn. If you don't play well one day, you have another game coming up in which you can do much better. You always have game rhythm."
So far, Fuenlabrada remains cautious, but after his recent performances - and so many years with the club, Smits hopes to play a bigger role as the season goes on. As every big player, he has dreams and is aware he needs to keep working hard in order to achieve them. "I would like to be a very good player in European basketball. First of all, my goal is to do well here in Fuenlabrada, and become a good player at the European level."
And the way he is playing now, Smits is well on his way to meeting – and even surpassing – those goals.