One of the most dominant European centers of the 20th century, Croatian center Stojko Vrankovic, had a tough time along his ragged path to the eventual regular starting job in the NBA.
Vrankovic, perhaps the most dominant inside defensive force of the 1980s and 1990s international basketball, who’s most know asset was the spectacular shot-blocking ability, came across the Atlantic to prove his basketball worth in the NBA on two occasions.
It was the Boston Celtics who first got a nice look of Stojko’s skills in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1988 McDonald’s Open Championship, thus sealing the deal with Vrankovic in the summer of 1990.
The leading shot blocker of the 1988 Seoul Olympics with an incredible 3.5 bpg average, served as a back-up center for the aging Celtics star Robert Parish between 1990 and 1992.
But, the silver medal winner from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics who scored 11 points, grabbed 8 boards and rejected 4 shots in the group stage battle vs. the Dream Team, rarely saw playing time with the Cs.
So, in 1992 Vrankovic came back to Europe, where he regained his confidence and composure, becoming a major inside force for the eventual 1996 European club champion, Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos. After proving himself again in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Vrankovic received his second NBA call up.
This time around it was his Celtics teammate of Croatian origins Kevin McHale who had just taken over the position of the Minnesota Timberwolves GM. The young nucleus of the team in rebuilding featured the rookie point guard Stephon Marbury, and forwards Kevin Garnett and Tom Gugliotta.
Although Vrankovic game highlights from that particular season are still pretty rare, the recently published Youtube highlights from the encounter between the Timberwolves and Hawks (January 14th, 1997), present the clear evidence of the Vrankovic’s actual capabilities and capacities.
On that particular night in Atlanta’s OMNI Vrankovic caused a huge headache for the Hawks starting center, perennial All-Star Dikembe Mutombo, who led the NBA in blocked shots previous three seasons.
Not only that Vrankovic outplayed the highly praised Mutombo by scoring 9 points on 4-4 shooting, grabbing 4 boards and rejecting 1 shot, but he got 7’2’’ Congolese born center in the early foul trouble. Moreover, he distracted numerous Hawks plays from the execution, deflecting and alternating a huge number of shots, causing the nightmare for the Atlanta’s Hall-of-Fame head coach – Lenny Wilkens.
However, the visiting Timberwolves eventually slipped the chance to end the Hawks 12-game winning streak by losing this close game in Atlanta by 95-93. But, Vrankovic certainly provided the hard evidence of why he belongs to the NBA while proving his overall worth at the starting center position.