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Cavs news: Ex-Cleveland coach David Blatt already saw potential in a 16-year-old Ante Zizic

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The NBA world is still recovering after being rocked by the news that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics swapped their star point guards Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas in a blockbuster deal. No one expected the Eastern Conference rivals to be dealing with each other as Irving handed in his trade request, but new Cavs general manager Koby Altman shocked the world as he pulled the trigger which saw the former world champions maximize what they could get in exchange for Irving.

A straight swap for Irving and Thomas wouldn’t be a fair trade, and the Cavs made sure the Celtics payed the ultimate price to bring Uncle Drew to Boston. The Cavaliers also received elite wing defender Jae Crowder, as well as promising center Ante Zizic and the 2018 first round pick which originally belonged to the Brooklyn Nets.

Understandably, Cavs fans are extremely excited about the arrival of scoring machine Thomas as well as the addition of Crowder to bolster the defensive stocks, but the European center Zizic comes with a question mark as the NBA community hasn’t seen him in action. He was selected 23rd overall in last season’s NBA Draft, but comes with great expectation as he was excellent during his time in Europe.

One familiar face who does know Zizic well, however, is former Cavaliers head coach David Blatt, who has strong ties with a lot of the European talent making their way to the NBA. Blatt has a superb reputation within European basketball, and was one of the first to see potential in Zizic before many even knew his name. At the time, Ziziic was just 16 years old.

In Rich Levine’s article for Boston.com, an unbelievable true story was reminisced and it’s about the first time David Blatt saw the NBA potential in the Cavs’ newest addition.

“I’m gonna tell you a story,” Blatt says to the packed gym, pacing back in forth.

He goes on to recall a day two and a half years earlier, when he was coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv. This was Blatt’s last year with the team. They’d eventually win the EuroLeague championship. But this was early in the season — preseason — a handful of guys were off playing with the Israeli national team. Blatt needed extra bodies for practice, so the GM brought in two kids from Croatia, both only 16 years old. He remembers organizing a scrimmage and watching one of the Croatian kids, a big prospect, struggle with the competition.

“It was obviously hard on him,” Blatt says. “He was 16 years old. He was playing against grown men.”

To this point, Blatt’s tone is relatively subdued. He’s pacing himself. Then he starts talking about the other Croatian kid — and the words and emotions start to build.

“This other kid,” Blatt says. “A big man. He was matched up against Sofoklis Schortsanitis.” Blatt laughs. “Do you guys know who Sofo is? Either way I can tell you he is one of the biggest, strongest human beings I have ever seen.”

“We called him Baby Shaq,” Blatt says. “He was a tremendously strong guy. Agile. Athletic. This kid from Croatia is matched up with Sofo, and guys, what I’m going to tell you right now is the truth.”

Blatt pauses for the effect. He’s good at this.

“This kid was flying all around the room. He was bouncing off the walls. Bouncing off the floors. He’s getting hit every which way possible. And you know what stuck out most? He kept getting up.”

Blatt really sells this. He really believes it.

“This kid reminded me of Ali on the ropes,” he says. “Just sitting there yelling ‘Punch me! Punch me! Punch me!’ until the guy’s tired, and then he KNOCKED George Foreman’s ass out.”

Blatt throws an upper cut into thin air.

“That’s what this kid was doing. He just kept coming, and coming, and coming. And old Sofo finally just said the ‘The hell with it, I’m going home.’ He walked off the court, and this kid was left standing.”

One more pause.

“That was two and a half years ago,” Blatt says. “And I remember I said to myself that day: This kid’s gonna be a player. This kid’s going to the NBA.”

As of right now, Zizic is the least talked-about new arrival in Northeast Ohio which includes former league MVP Derrick Rose. This may come as a good thing for the youngster, who can play freely and let his game and attributes do all the talking come game time. The Cavs front office must have known the raw talent he possesses, as they were adamant to get some young prospects as part of the deal for Irving. Zizic could fill a big hole in rim and paint protection the Cavs have craved since the departure of fellow European Timofey Mozgov.

Cavs fans can only hope that his name won’t remain unknown for too long, and the big man makes a huge impact for the Wine and Gold moving forward.

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