In the autumn of his career, the Croatian big man is reminding everyone of how he is still the silent threat we used to be awed by and that makes Badalona a threat through the rest of Eurocup following victory over Hapoel Tel Aviv
He was never the modern big man. In all of his seasons in European competition, spanning 333 games, Ante Tomic has attempted 6 three pointers. That works out as one every 55.5 games. He was however a representation of how the role has evolved.
Tomic began as a banger before working his way into a player that was far more IQ than beef. Where most would automatically seek contact, he’d think more about optimal position whether it required to go through, around, or even back from the opponent. Tomic at his peak was like water, shapelessly working his way through tight spots to score.
Frequency and efficiency were his key go to elements but so too was the sheer habit he had of appearing to just being there and then you look at the stat sheet and noticed he had 10 points in 12 minutes. More often, in recent times, it was a different element of his game that you noticed but somehow still missed how quickly he was scoring.
Tomic has always been happy to find the better option but in these, the last years of his career, he has become a creator in the truest sense. It’s not just about being under the bucket but in finding the best pass wherever he is on the floor. Tomic the passer has become like Tomic the shooter only usually with someone explosive at the end of us to let us know exactly what happened.
It’s fine until it’s not
The move to Joventut Badalona was, by any reasonable estimate, a downgrade for Tomic. For over a decade, he’d spent his career with the two biggest clubs in Spain. First with Real Madrid, where he didn’t excel, but then a lengthy spell with FC Barcelona where Tomic looked the dominant 5 in Europe.
There were bigger, stronger, and scarier big men on this continent without question. Plenty comfortably proved more athletic but nobody had his metronomic consistency, that lack of variance in his game. He was always going to give you what was expected on the stat sheet and it was going to put Barcelona in a position to win.
Watching Barcelona during Tomic’s peak was easy. Not just because my then girlfriend, far from a sports fan, routinely told me that “Tomic is hot” so sticking their games on received no argument. That Barca side didn’t win the Euroleague but it was always in the hunt through to late stages of the season, at least for the most part.
As if off a cliff, Tomic’s reliability left him during his final two seasons at Palau Blaugrana. The problem with someone who’s biggest selling point is their reliability is that once they stop being reliable, there’s not a whole lot that can be done with them.
Tomic, who had been linked repeatedly in his pomp with a move to the Utah Jazz in the NBA became a victim of the Barca banter years, a spell where the Blaugrana looked directionless in Euroleague and incapable of looking a threat for any trophy.
When he finally got out, Badalona looked as much a gentle retirement home for Tomic as much as anything else. His flirtations with a possible NBA move saw him become that most ignominious of roles, an asset used to enable a trade to happen.
His rights first moved to the New York Knicks in 2020 to make a change in draft assets work while his name became a footnote in the four team trade that also had Bojan Dublijevic and Dani Diez have their rights move (this time to the Knicks) while Tomic’s nominally went to Portland. For those unaware, this kind of move is reasonably common to ensure there’s something to move somewhere and doesn’t involve the player ever getting actually signed or compensated in any way by the new holder of their rights.
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Time to go to work
Badalona is at the end of a metro line stretching out from Barcelona and they play in an arena familiar to many, the Palu Olimpic that the Dream Team made famous. It’s a proud club and Badalona is a basketball town with a strong history of youth development.
On Wednesday night, Tomic was doing what he does. In just 6 and a half first half minutes he picked up 10 points, grabbed 3 rebounds, and had two assists. His side rocked out to a lead in the high teens (I’m going to say 17 was the highest but honestly I lost track as I didn’t expect what happened next).
Hapoel Tel Aviv, of course, came back. Not because that just happens in basketball but that’s who Badalona have been so many times. Don’t get me wrong, they often get out of such jams but they have to find ways to make life difficult for themselves when it appears too easy.
They had made a meal out of London Lions in the last 16 a week prior and, to quote the commentator, what looked like a walk in the park had turned into a raging battle. This is very Badalona but that’s ok. That’s a life that anyone who wears the green and black accepts when they sign up.
The glass seal was broken and Tomic was brought back in as things got ropey. Everything calmed down for Badalona in a moment. While Hapoel rushed with speed, Tomic simply chose to move first and slower. He had never leaned on what speed he had as a young man and he wasn’t being hindered by it in middle age. The rangy Croat created and cut off space at will with a simply step or two. The ball was secondary, everything was about movement and the ball would, through his team mates, follow his lead.
Finally, when it was needed, all 2 metres and 17 centimetres of him grabbed an offensive board to ensure the pace stayed the way he wanted it. This was not a man of a mood to enable fast breaks. A possession or two later, he got to the line and stretched the lead out to a somewhat calmer 9. Everything was workrate of the brain, the stats and moments felt secondary but they were there. Before the quarter was out, the halftime lead of 11 was briefly restored, thanks to a Tomic lay-up of course.
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A chance for a final flourish
It has been a long time since Badalona were in Euroleague, the 1994 champions last played in it in 2009. The wait hasn’t been as long for Tomic but him possibly returning to it looked just as unlikely. Now, together, they’re two wins away from punching an automatic ticket to participate in Europe’s top flight next season.
In the short-term, and frankly more importantly, it’s a rare real shot at silverware for both. Tomic is without a title of any kind, despite spending most of his career with powerhouses, since the 2019 Copa del Rey whereas Joventut last lifted a cup in 2008. It was this competition’s precursor, the ULEB Cup, in a year where they also lifted the Copa.
There’s just something about an old dude that’s been written off being the key guy for an extremely likeable club that makes you want them to win. They did everything possible to make this quarter final win a nightmare, because of course they allowed Hapoel another comeback in the fourth, and no doubt it will be a stressful night for their fans in Ankara at Turk Telecom in the semi-final next week.
It will be stressful for their fans, their coaches, and probably a lot of their players but it won’t be for Tomic. He’s in his content place and that should make anyone against him terrified.
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