Alen Smailagic will always greet you, and his many adventures, with a smile. The young Partizan NIS Belgrade power forward earned his nickname “Smiley” during his stint with the Golden State Warriors. Now, he embraces it in his day-to-day life.
“I like that nickname and I’m using it in my life all the time when I introduce myself,” Smailagic says. “It’s kind of funny to me. It makes people next to me comfortable. They’re like, ‘Oh, people are calling him Smiley, so he’s a happy person. We don’t have to think a lot about him.'”
Smailagic, now 21, landed in Partizan this summer after having spent the previous three years overseas. He was the youngest player to ever play in the NBA’s G League, with Santa Cruz Warriors in the 2018-19 season, before being selected in the second round of the 2019 NBA draft by the New Orleans Pelicans.
He soon got traded to the Golden State Warriors and appeared in 29 games over two seasons with the former NBA champions. Although his presence in the franchise wasn’t long, Smailagic picked up an experience for life.
“Basketball-wise, I didn’t learn a lot, but I learned a lot about professionality: how to act, how to talk, how to be with other people,” he says. “So that was helpful, too, in my career. Now I’m learning more basketball-wise with Obradovic, he’s helping me a lot.”
Indeed, this season, Partizan has put up an ambitious project with coach Zeljko Obradovic at the helm, and “Smiley” already feels at home with the club and his new coach.
“Things are looking great. Coach Obradovic is the best coach I ever had. He always explains to me when I’m wrong, when I’m not,” says the young forward. “Honestly, I’ve learned a lot in these three or four months that we’ve been working together. I learned a lot more from him than all of the years I’ve been playing professionally”.
“We follow the same language, he understands his players, players understand him. We know what he wants, he knows what’s best for us, and he’s working on that with us”.
Earlier in October, we ranked all 20 EuroCup teams in the first edition of the Power Rankings, and Partizan was our second-favorite for the title. After a strong display in Round 1 against Hamburg Towers, the anticipation and excitement continues to build for Partizan, but Smailagic is not fazed by the pressure.
“[I don’t feel the pressure] yet. It’s still early to say that. We need to get some time together, to know each other better, and form a better chemistry. We just met each other a few months ago, we need a little more time to get used to each other,” he says.
The Serbian forward puts more weight on improving with Partizan and individually, rather than any predictions.
“I just have to learn a little bit more of the game that Obradovic wants and everything is going to be easier. We’re still a young team, our average age is 23 for the whole team. We don’t have a lot of old guys. Basically, everyone is learning from scratch, because no one had a mentor to teach him like Obradovic is teaching us.”
Having started his pro career with Beko in the lower divisions in Serbia, his three-year journey in the NBA was the longest he’d left his hometown after competing at the 2016 FIBA U16 Tournament in Radom, Poland. At age 17, he traveled to the States to pursue his dream, long before being of age to even drive in Europe.
“I was almost 18 when I left my home, so I didn’t know a lot. I was just hearing stuff that it’s going to be hard. I was like, ‘I can take the challenge’, ‘I can do this and that.’ But my first year when I was there, living in a hotel room, just one room with a bathroom… It’s a whole different story when you live that life than when you would imagine it. It’s harder and takes more to think about.”
Even though the transition was tough, Smailagic used it as a life lesson, as he explained. “I’m glad I did that move because for my career, my maturity, thinking ahead, I’m ready for life. I’m ready for the next steps.”
Despite his young age, Smailagic earned the respect of his peers through the maturity he displayed.
“America helped me a lot. It was my first time living alone, first time experiencing this alone, taking care of myself. That’s why I think I matured a little bit faster”, Smailagic tells Eurohoops. “The longest I’ve left my home before that was around two months. It changed my way of thinking, my actions and everything.”
The leap to the U.S. is a big deal for any player, let alone a young adult from a working-class family in post-war Belgrade. Smailagic approached it with bravery and an open mind and heart that he came by from personal experience.
During his pre-teens, he played on an open court squeezed between a civil prison and a mental health asylum in a notorious Belgrade neighborhood. That’s where he started picking up his first fans, the inmates and workers from the facilities who observed the practices and games on the court. They were entertained by the young, tall kid’s talent and even asked Smailagic’s father to let him stay longer on the court.
“They’d say, ‘Let him play, we’ll take him home after he’s finished playing basketball,’ because my dad was working from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.,” he explained. “So, they said, ‘Go rest, and we’ll take him home.'”
Many years later, but in the same setting of Belgrade, Serbia, the Partizan forward continues to enjoy interacting with the fans.
“The first time I had people showing their support to me was with Partizan,” Smailagic recalls. “A young kid came up to me when I scored, I don’t know how many points. He hugged me and he said, ‘Thank you.’ But I was like, ‘No! Thank you, that means a lot.'”
Partizan will play its first homecourt game for the 2021-22 7DAYS EuroCup season this Wednesday, facing Turk Telekom Ankara, and Smailagic is looking forward to seeing fans in the stands.
“We’re going to try to win everything possible for them,” he says. “They’re helping us a lot to win every single game. I really appreciate them because we can feel the love they’re giving us from the stands, from the bench, everywhere.”
Photo: ABA Liga