By Cesare Milanti/ email@example.com
At the beginning of 2021, Luca Banchi decided to take a new step in his career by crossing the Atlantic Ocean and experiencing a new path as assistant coach of the Long Island Nets.
Between February 10 and March 6, 18 G-League teams played in a Disney World bubble, just like the one organized by the NBA in Orlando a few months earlier. Luca Banchi, one of the most well-prepared basketball minds weaned by Italy, was there as well.
The franchise affiliated with the Brooklyn Nets, which included valuable players in the European landscape such as Elie Okobo and CJ Massinburg, was left out of the playoff picture and ended earlier its adventure.
After getting the job done, Banchi was back in Europe trying to find a new place. An exciting new chapter. A team in which Coach Banchi would have given all his interest.
The airplane landed in Riga, from where he would take off towards several European countries in the following months: Luca Banchi became the Latvian national team head coach, and he didn’t know a lot of the surroundings in which he would have found himself.
“In most cases, I didn’t have such a thorough knowledge of Latvian basketball. The fact is that I arrived in March from the United States after the end of the Orlando bubble, and I threw myself into this new adventure. I started to study players and teams; I interviewed 8 different coaches to try to build my staff. I tried to get into the experience and fabric of that basketball community because I had to fill that gap of knowledge”, he said in an interview with Eurohoops.
He did know some of the faces, though. “Honestly, I knew its peaks. The Bertans brothers were both my opponents, Davis with Vitoria and Partizan, Dairis (who has now become the captain of the new course, the leader of Latvia, being present in every window, ed) with Milano when I was coaching in Bamberg. I appreciated the quality and obviously, there was the charm of the possibility that it seemed very far to work with a player like Porzingis, who intrigued me. I knew little of the rest”, he added.
Yes, “the rest”. Because a national team like Latvia wouldn’t have found the biggest achievement in its history – we will get to that later – without a supporting cast that included 37 players who were called up by coach Banchi during the 2023 FIBA World Cup European Qualifiers.
“Beyond the familiar and familiar faces, it gave me pleasure to go digging to discover in the various leagues’ players, as in the case of Cavars, Lomazs, or Leimanis, which have become landmarks of this team, when very few were able to predict this role and this impact they would have. I’ve had 37 different players in the national team, and I’ve been fishing players who seemed off the national radar like Stumbris, Laksa, or as in the last rally Janis Timma, who finally managed to combine his plans with those of the national team. Talking about Janis, he showed up with a great attitude. He wanted to play. We shared the joy of the trip to Greece where he was the absolute protagonist. Individually, I think he deserved a moment like this and put him back in Latvian basketball where he belongs. The public gave him a warm welcome in Riga and he responded very well”, coach Banchi said about the large variety of elements he had the opportunity to train.
Let’s make it clear, once and for all. Latvia qualified for next year’s World Cup and a big part of the credit must go first to a new Latvian hero like Luca Banchi itself, but also to a group of guys who are building chemistry without worrying too much about who’s getting more opportunities than others.
LATVIA ARE HEADING TO THE WORLD CUP FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HISTORY.#FIBAWC x #WinForLatvia 🇱🇻 pic.twitter.com/VVlrxr8sCl
— FIBA Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) November 11, 2022
Bianchi’s words prove it. “We have a generation of players who are clearly ready for this event and who have invested a lot of themselves in achieving this goal, at any level. This is the core of players who saw the possibility of participating in the World Cup also an opportunity for redemption after the defeats suffered in the past in such a daring and dramatic way, that had taken away a bit of enthusiasm and desire. We were able to regenerate this sense of belonging and, indeed, make it become a strong desire for redemption and revenge. The attitude was the ideal one, with great concreteness, humility, and determination in reaching a stage that we thought we deserved”. Period.
Latvia shocked the world by defeating some of the best European national teams that are currently taking the spotlight with high-level caliber players such as Greece, Turkey, and Serbia. The motivation came back from the EuroBasket 2017 quarterfinals loss against future champs Slovenia.
From that game to 2023 and 2025, the distance is short. “This generation is ready. They will live it as the most exciting moment of their experience with the national team, along with the fifth place achieved at EuroBasket 2017. I am very proud to have accompanied them and continue to accompany them on this journey. Then a new chapter will open as inevitable, organizing the European Championship of 2025 qualification will be guaranteed”.
In the following games that won’t count anymore for already qualified Latvia, the Italian head coach will try to find more minutes for the upcoming players of this national team. “We will still participate in the qualifying rounds for EuroBasket 2025, and I will do so with a team strongly focused on the enhancement of Generation Z, with a group of guys born in 2000-2001-2002-2003 (Kurucs, Zagars, Steinbergs among the rest, ed) where some individualities stand out: it will be my interest and the federation to value them even more than they have been until now”.
The certain news is that Latvia will be heading for the first time to the World Cup, and those victories mentioned earlier against the three powerhouses certainly mattered. But Luca Banchi thinks differently about the word “watershed” linked to his national team’s qualification path.
“In February 2022, when in back-to-back we beat Belgium. That was the watershed of our path because it gave us an objective advantage over the different competitors. Belgium had made illustrious victims and had players like Van Rossom, Obasohan, and Bako, with a very well-prepared coach who has been there for many years”, he said before underlining the thing he’s the proudest the most about his role with Latvia.
“I like to weigh that during this path I have tried to leverage the need to destroy certain stereotypes. Many have highlighted how this was a team able to earn what it got from a very consistent defense. It was the players themselves who pointed this out as it was never the case in the past that Latvia had managed to win games thanks to the defense. Those two games with Belgium were two very low-scoring matches (66-65 win on the road in Mons and 68-63 victory in Riga, ed) when it was thought that at those scoring levels and at that rate of play, we were doomed. Instead, we were able to adapt to a basketball course not imposed by us. From there, the challenge moved on to other connotations of physical nature, athletics, with them more at ease than us playing that basketball. But we were good, ready. In the wake of this, we then built matches of great consistency and spectacular, with Serbia, Turkey, and Greece”. Talking about progress and adaptation.
Just like Sergio Scariolo and Spain, Luca Banchi is extremely proud of being part of a system in which a different and new style and approach to on the court and off the court basketball is flowing.
“This is an inclusive national team, where players know they can and should deserve the opportunity to come. Once they arrive, they realize that there is a system where they can be very performing. Sometimes, it happens that they are even more so than their path in clubs can recognize them. This is something that gives me great satisfaction: to me, to my collaborators, and of course also to the Federation. This was one of the key points of our mission: to make the project inclusive and to sculpt a style, a recognizable identity”, he said.
To do so, the legendary fellow countryman who has written Spain’s golden history in the XXI century has been an important reference figure. “Sergio Scariolo is my point of reference. When I took charge of the national team, the first one I went to visit was him, as well as Mršić, the head coach of Croatia at the time. I spent half a day at Scariolo in Bologna, and he explained to me how he works, and the vision he has of the role with the Spanish Federation. I stole so many ideas that I tried to transport to Latvia. Sergio, who has an open vision and knows this role, makes the windows without NBA and EuroLeague players, developing his system”, he said about Sergio Scariolo.
An even crazier thing to find out is that Luca Banchi dragged Latvia to an incredible result not only with the NBA and EuroLeague stars but also thanks to guys who play in very low-quality standers in European leagues. “To field 37 players in two years of qualifying, I brought guys like Marcis Vitols, and Robert Stumbris, who has now signed in Trapani. With all the respect for these extraordinary guys, try to imagine them as protagonists of a national team that wants to qualify for the World Cup. Having found the technical leadership of a player like Lomazs, the consistency of Grazulis, Rodi Kurucs, Strelnieks, and Zoriks, the reliability of players from the submerged like Cavars playing in Poland or Leimanis playing in the Spanish second division, or VEF Riga’s own Ate, Zoriks and Miska, who have demonstrated this level of performance, allowed me to give competitiveness to the team. We are the beautiful ones of August with Porzingis and Bertans, but also those who win in winter in Greece when there are no stars”, Banchi said.
Next to those undergrowth players, an essential contribution to achieving the World Cup dream came from the leader of this national team, Kristaps Porzingis. Banchi had nothing but great words for the Washington Wizards superstar, who averaged 25.5 points and 14 rebounds per game in the two-win stretch against Turkey and Great Britain in August.
“When dealing with certain players, you must also try to share their path. They work on their body, contract, and career: the national team must be at a stage in their path, without drawing up rankings to determine what is a priority or not. In the June and July window, Kris should have not been exposed to the risk of injuries and I let him speak, without ceasing to involve him, having individual interviews, and making him participate in the social life of the team while maintaining contact. Our paths then crossed in August, and it was the apotheosis, especially for the attitude he showed. At the previous rally, he saw the matches from the bench in plain clothes, inciting the team as a first fan. Everything then matured until his preparation allowed him to be with us. He has an important goal this year: he wants to try to overcome 80% of games played in the NBA Regular Season: there is great work in preparation and prevention. I am pleased to think that the national team may have been at a stage in its path of approaching one of the most important seasons of his career”, he said about Porzingis.
A few months have passed since the moment in which Luca Banchi was both the head coach of a national team (Latvia) and a club (Pesaro). In the 2021-22 season, the former Siena and Milano head coach took over the red-and-white team hoping to manufacture a small miracle: save it from relegation after a very difficult start of the season under Aza Petrovic. He did it.
Now, here comes a new challenge ahead for the Italian head coach, who has had a fantastic 2022 run so far. Lassi Tuovi, who also brought his national team to the 2023 World Cup, giving Finland a late summer night’s dream, was sacked by SIG Strasbourg after being 1-7 at the start of the 2022-23 French league season and Banchi has replaced him.
The Italian is a fearless head coach, but now he looks like somebody who wants to put himself in a very high-risk position. So why did he accept? He explained it. “I am aware that I inherited an uncomfortable situation, which in some ways has similarities with what I did last year in Pesaro. I think I can have enough time to try to give imprinting- I’m trying to adapt as best and as fast as I can because I don’t want to slow down the team’s growth process. Time has been the discriminator; we have time to overturn”, he said before adding another reason why he decided to move to France.
“The fact that Strasbourg was looking for me also counted, because this place always gave me the idea of being able to value the people who worked there. The fact of being able to work alongside a professional that I have always appreciated for competence, ability, and evaluation as Nicola Alberani is something I wanted to do. I hope that in the end both I and they can be satisfied with the choice”, he commented on his new home.
And if in France, where “everybody wants to see Wembanyama here, in the last French chapter of his career, because it is obvious that he is a predestined superstar, helping to create great interest around”, things are not looking good, things are different in the Basketball Champions League. The team from Bas-Rhin has started the Regular Season on a high note.
A 3-1 in Group A with UCAM Murcia, TOFAS Bursa (beaten 79-75 on Banchi’s European debut with the new team), and Falco Szombathely, the French team has been showing some great stuff outside of its domestic borders. In doing that, Luca Banchi gave his predecessor the credit.
“Lassi Tuovi is one of the main exponents of a technical school, the Finnish one, which is gradually making its way throughout Europe. Many Finnish coaches train abroad, starting from Jukka Toijala with Estonia to Tuomas Iisalo with Bonn. Henrik Dettmann has made a case for this. This also demonstrates their level of credibility in the European market. I think that Lassi, of this generation, represents the new vogue: by age, he is one of the most talented and promising coaches in Europe”, he said about the former SIG Strasbourg head coach.
Also, the Latvian national team coach talked about what he’s inheriting from a technical point of view: “By arriving here I knew I was already inheriting a culture and an important work base, a track and a groove that I wanted to try to follow as a start and then gradually think about transferring my ideas. The differences are substantial in style, work culture, and work methodology. But I don’t want to get into this system too aggressively, because I’ve had previous experiences taking over from other coaches. I believe that in each of my experiences, it has been fundamental to demonstrate the ability to trace at certain times the path traced by my predecessors, and without too much haste to slowly succeed in bringing the team and the system, the structure, in the direction most congenial to my ideas and my vision”.
It surely isn’t an easy task, because “the differences are substantial and I measure myself with an environment calibrated to the needs and ideas of a coach who by culture, by experience, and by age is different from me. I’m trying to take what can be functional and use what I consider my style that can serve as an impetus. I want to implement, not inhibit, or slow down. I want a team ready to perform from the first game, and it happened. This cheers me up. The base exists and I was aware of it, the team is not slowing down and this is satisfaction. We have a good attitude and a good level of energy. Now we must find answers, they are in the exploration phase, and it is not said that the solutions are not found. But there’s a lot of work to be done, and I don’t have a chance to give the final imprint. I also work on the trail left by others. I don’t want to erase everything that has been done to date”.
In the first game on Strasbourg’s bench, Luca Banchi found the win against TOFAS Bursa also thanks to Marcus Keene, who scored 15 points and gave a big contribution in the fourth quarter comeback.
The former Varese player wanted to make sure since day one his new coach had his level of confidence. “Keene wanted to highlight my first day that had just come when we beat him last year: “Coach, last year with Pesaro you won by 20 but I had just arrived. On the way back you were lucky that I was out, otherwise, you would not have won”. He wanted us to emphasize this, as a testimony to his ego”, he said while laughing.
Coming back to the present, the Central Michigan University product can be an offensive killer. “Marcus can be a player who, where he is relieved of responsibility for construction and direction, can be a good finalizer. It’s hard to imagine him valuing his teammates, but when he wears the scorer’s hat, he’s a player that both in the league and the BCL can play an important role. I’m trying to sew him this role and find chemistry and compatibility with the team. Against Bursa we found an efficient quintet in the fourth period, where he played perfectly a role that at that time proved decisive for us”, he said about the 27-year-old offensive guard.
Keene was also part of the group of guys who closed the game in Bursa when Banchi decided to trust his French players: “Against TOFAS, in the decisive moment, I played with four French and only one foreigner. With Mitchell and Lansdowne on the bench, I’ve lined up Keene, Maille, Lacombe, Cavaliere, and Massa. I don’t know if it counts, but we’re solid. We are few, but solid”.
Last but surely not least, Luca Banchi talked about who has been the MVP of SIG Strasbourg so far in the 2022-23 season, especially in the Basketball Champions League. First, some numbers: 22.8 points per game, shooting 62.2% inside the area. 23 years old, second ever European season after college.
The Italian head coach couldn’t spend anything but great words on Matt Mitchell: “He has a good attitude; he likes to compete. I like him, he goes at it. He has a very interesting physique. When he is confident in shooting, he honestly becomes a hard player to guard. Mitchell doesn’t need to be pushed; his explosiveness is unique. He runs, jumps, and has fast reaction times. He has a decent solidity on both half-courts. He is a cheerful and open boy; he reminds me in this sense very much of Tyrique Jones that I had in Pesaro. He has a great desire to do, a good attitude, he is very open with his companions”.
Then, he went on to speak about the phases where he needs to be smarter than his opponents. “He is still in a phase of tactical-technical evolution. I’m trying to use him at the 3, he used to play almost exclusively at the 4. He can actually and realistically cover both roles, and this will give him an important market size in the future. Matt could add a dimension that would make him even more attractive. The season will show him what his level of consistency is because this is a tough championship where his performances make him our tip. TOFAS had started with the single coverage on him, but it immediately became a systematic doubling. This is a condition with which he will have to deal because he is a target identifiable by opponents. Game after game, he will discover that opponents now recognize him with such technical leadership that there will be special treatment. Let us see what consistency and adaptability it demonstrates. I hope he is aware of this and is willing to work because it will take a long time. It’s a bit like you always have to move the target, because otherwise the opponents will frame you and spot you”.
Luca Banchi made the impossible possible with Latvia, bringing the Baltic team to for the first time in history to the World Cup. The mission with Strasbourg could be seen more realistically as a possible success, but the level of the French league and the pitfalls of a growing competition like the Basketball Champions League are behind the corner. He will find a way, in his winning way.
PHOTO CREDIT: FIBA Basketball