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How a 7-foot farmer became Iceland’s rare NBA prospect

HERAKLION, Crete — Tryggvi Hlinason used to spend his days herding sheep, gathering hay, driving snowmobiles and doing whatever it took to keep the Svartarkot, Iceland homestead running smoothly.

“Man, it never stops,” Hlinason said. “It’s a forever job. You’re always working.”

The 7-footer was raised on an 11-person farm atop an Icelandic town of about 900 people called Þingeyjarsveit, 400 meters above sea level with no grocery stores inside a one-hour radius. Basketball is a religion in places such as Serbia and Lithuania, but jump hooks, rim runs and lobs were foreign to the Hlinason family. While athletic and active from manual labor and motor sports, Hlinason wasn’t mimicking Michael Jordan buzzer-beaters or LeBron James tomahawk slams growing up.

Not even four years removed from farm life, Hlinason is now the future of Icelandic basketball.

“It’s a situation you can’t explain to a person that doesn’t live in Iceland or that part of the country,” said legendary Icelandic guard Jón Stefánsson. “When the weather is harsh, you can’t really get to [the area] or from it, so you’re just stuck up there. It’s a unique story, man.”

Now 19, Hlinason made a huge jump at the Under-20 European championships this past week in Crete, proving himself as a legitimate NBA prospect worth tracking. In front of a host of international NBA scouts, and even some U.S.-based executives, he led Iceland to a historic top-eight finish in the U20 A division, featuring big games against countries with rich basketball history. He posted 16 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and six blocks against France, and 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocks versus Serbia.

The 260-pound center, who recently signed a four-year contract with Spanish club Valencia, averaged 19.7 points, 14.1 rebounds, 3.8 blocks and 2.3 assists per 40 minutes while shooting 58.8 percent from the field in seven games. Only two other 7-footers since 2000 have averaged at least 14.0 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.0 assists per 40 minutes at this tournament: former NBA veteran Andris Biedrins in 2004 and 2017 Sixers draft pick Anzejs Pasecniks in 2014.

“He’s just like a diamond in the rough, man,” Stefansson said of Hlinason. “The sky is the limit for the guy.”

Hlinason is supersized yet fluid, powerful yet agile. His ability to finish above the rim in space, defend the interior with size and length (he sports a reported 7-foot-4 wingspan) and rebound on both ends of the floor made him one of the most intriguing long-term prospects in Heraklion, especially considering his minimal experience.

Although basketball is the second-most popular sport in Iceland, there’s little financial backing and infrastructure. The top league is semi-pro, and the coaching resources and facilities could use a major facelift. Simply put, NBA prospects don’t come out of the tiny country that only about 332,500 people call home. Outside of Stefansson and Petur Gudmundsson, who was taken at No. 61 in the 1981 draft and played 150 games in the NBA as the league’s only Icelandic player ever, the Nordic island country hasn’t produced elite talent. Hlinason has a chance to be the exception.

In 2013, Hlinason’s parents decided to send him to Verkmenntaskólinn á Akureyri, the main high school in Akureyri, a northern town of 18,000. There’s no high school basketball in Iceland, and Hlinason’s priority was to learn as much as he could for four years, specifically in the electric field, and return back to help man the farm, using his newfound knowledge to improve the inner-workings of the operation.

But Hlinason, with some encouragement from his uncle, wanted a way to stay in shape and gave basketball a try. He called Bjarki Ármann Oddsson, the coach of the under-17 team for Icelandic club Þór Akureyri — better known as Thor — without a pair of basketball shoes to his name. Hlinason couldn’t find the gym for his first practice with Oddsson, so the coach left and picked him up at the nearby gas station.

“I could not believe my eyes when I saw him,” Oddsson said. “At the time, he was a bit awkward, but nonetheless very strong. I asked if he could dunk, which he did easily.”

A couple of months after that, Oddsson and Agust Guðmundsson, another Thor youth coach who played a big role in Hlinanson’s development, drove up to Svartarkot to bring their young prospect to an under-18 game. Getting to Skartarkot in the winter is no easy feat, and Guðmundsson had to stop his Jeep six miles short of the farm because of the weather.

“He and his father met us in the storm on a snowmobile,” Guðmundsson said. “It was unbelievable. They were very, very isolated up there. There were times when they couldn’t drive from his farm for two weeks or so at that time because of snow.”

Hlinason and Guðmundsson eventually made it, with a goal to have the Svartarkot native meet Einar Jóhannsson — then the coach of the under-18 national team — and get a taste of the level of play in Iceland. Guðmundsson recalls Hlinason asking him several strange questions during the game. Soon after, Guðmundsson learned that the then-16-year-old had never actually seen live 5-on-5 basketball until that day.

“We’re talking about 40 months ago,” Jóhannsson said. “In 40 months he goes from a kid in a farm who liked sports but never played basketball into being signed by Valencia. Amazing.”

The raw yet athletically gifted Hlinason hoped to work his way onto the U18 national team within the next year and a half, which he accomplished. He and his mentors also spent that time explaining to his parents that basketball could change his life.

Hlinason really started to take off at the 2016 Under-20 European championship in the B division, where Iceland finished 5-2 and moved up to the A division. Later that summer, he joined the men’s national team for the Eurobasket Qualifiers, where he met Stefansson, the team’s top player who has now become a mentor.

“He was even bigger in person,” said Stefansson, who has played more than 450 pro games spanning Germany, Italy and Spain. “He’s got such a good base. Well-put-together. I was shocked because I’ve been around a lot of talented big guys. He’s a really fast learner. I think his background is going to help him. Humble, down to earth, hard worker, on the farm all his life. Makes him a tougher person.”

His ascension continued, though he had an up-and-down year this past season for Thor in the first division, averaging 11.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. In Crete, however, Hlinason’s long-term potential was as clear as it has ever been. His stats per 40 minutes show his striking improvement since 2015.

Hlinason doesn’t fit the modern game perfectly. He’s not going to switch ball screens defensively or space the floor offensively. He’s still very raw. Executing basic dribble-handoffs or knowing when to screen and how to dive can often be a challenge. He doesn’t always sprint the floor, and he at times gets caught sleeping defensively, missing a boxout or losing sight of the ball.

A lot of that will come in time, though, and Hlinason’s physical tools can’t be taught. Only three players in the NBA are at least 7 feet and 260 pounds with a wingspan of 7-4 or more, according to official measurements: Nikola Vucevic, Andre Drummond and Boban Marjanovic.

Hlinason’s game still needs a lot of work, but he has an excellent development plan in place. Stefansson, who played for Valencia in 2015-16, had a major role in the young center’s signing, and also connected him with his agent at BDA. After Hlinason plays for the men’s national team at Eurobasket later this summer, he’ll head to Spain, where he’ll practice with Valencia’s main team and play a big role in LEB Gold, the Spanish ACB’s second division.

With excellent size and length, tree-trunk legs, impressive mobility, budding instincts as a shot-blocker, potential as a rebounder and a solid feel for the game relative to his experience level, Hlinason can impact the game in different ways that translate to the pros. He’s certainly not a unicorn like Kristaps Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns, but there’s a role for rebounding, shot-blocking, lob-catching centers like Hlinason, and he’s made incremental improvements every single year. If his development goes as expected, Hlinason has a chance to eventually become the second Icelandic player of all time to be drafted in the NBA.

“I knew immediately that he could be a good player in Iceland,” Oddsson said, “but that he would be this good this fast is unbelievable.”

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