Atar ready to use past lessons to take next step with Galatasaray
To encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
ISTANBUL (Turkey) - Some of life's best lessons are learned away from home, both through highs of success and opportunities for self-reflection. And it's examples of both of these that has Raqip Atar re-focused upon his return to his native Turkey and ready to take the next step with Galatasaray .
Atar may have only turned 21 in July, but he has already earned Basketball Champions League appearances in his third season. The center prospect collected nine points in 18 minutes in Galatasaray's Gameday 1 loss at Dinamo Sassari.
Atar and the club had already played four games in the Turkish Basketball Super League but the 6ft 11in (2.11m) big man was very excited about getting back onto the court in international play.
"We have been away from basketball for a long time due to the pandemic. I'm excited to be able to play basketball again," said Atar, who has averaged 5.3 points and 2.0 rebounds in the Turkish BSL thus far.
It was also Atar's first BCL game since the Round of 16 of the 2018-19 season, his second campaign with Bandirma in which he was given playing time in the pan-European competition. Atar played in all 16 of Bandirma's BCL games in 2018-19, but his BCL debut came the previous season when he picked up 2 points and 1 rebound in 2 minutes in the second Round of 16 against Nanterre.
"It was my first year with the senior team. I was excited when I entered the game. It was one of the special moments during my time in Bandirma. And it enabled me to improve my basketball more and learn higher levels," he said.
Exposure to future NBA level
That was hardly the first time Atar had been exposed to levels higher than his own. One of the most defining moments in his still-young career came in the summer of 2016 when Atar was playing for Turkey at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2016. The Turks traveled to Zaragoza after having collected third place at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2015. And it was in Spain where Atar got a chance to experience the elite talent level of the United States, who had never lost - and still haven't - a game in the competition.
Turkey faced the United States in the group stage and lost 84-66, with Atar clearly over-matched in fouling out in 19 minutes with only 2 points and 1 rebound.
"We really played very well in the first game, even the American coach said: We'll see you in the Final," remembered Atar.
USA coach Don Showalter was prophetic as his Americans met up with Turkey in the title game, though the game was a blowout from the beginning, a 96-56 victory.
"We started very well in the Final but could not continue," said Atar, who stepped up his game in the second encounter against the Americans with 13 points and 8 rebounds in 28 minutes. "The thing I remember most was their constant trash talk."
That United States team included a number of players who have already reached the NBA, including Jaren Jackson, Collin Sexton, Kevin Knox and Wendell Carter.
"When I played with them I realized I had to work harder. But I also realized that I could play with them. It impressed me in every way," said Atar, who averaged 11.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in the tournament.
He also described the team's taking second place in Zaragoza as the best moment in his career to date.
But Atar's favorite memory of that FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup came earlier in the tournament when he and Turkey knocked off Canada in the Quarter-Finals.
"Everyone thought we were going to lose for sure and we surprised everyone by winning - even ourselves," said Atar, who collected 28 points and 15 rebounds in the 80-74 win over Canada, a team which included superstar RJ Barrett as well as future FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2017 winners Danilo Djuricic, Noah Kirkwood and Grant Shepard as well as NBA player Ignas Brazdeikis. "When we watched the Canada team before the game we didn't actually think that we could win. But we made it anyway."
"It wasn't just winning a medal but it was the team and tournament I enjoyed playing the most," said Atar, who has played for Turkey's youth national teams seven summers at four different age levels.
Basketball was not Atar's first sports love. That belongs to football, which he played for about six or seven years. Atar was 10 years old when he was introduced to basketball by a physical education teacher in the Izmir district of Konak. A growth spurt eventually led to him outgrowing football and he focused solely on basketball.
Looking back, Atar said he never really had a sports role model growing up. But there were two stars who he really enjoyed watching.
"The two players I love very much are LeBron James and Lionel Messi. They are the only athletes I have followed and watched continuously since my childhood," he said.
Atar was playing locally and improving but his family agreed that it would be best for his basketball career to move from the port city of Izmir to Bandirma and join the club there, which had already established itself as a leader in youth development.
"It was one of the best places for me to develop and play. Since we couldn't play that many games, we were practicing all the time. I think all the training we did was a big factor in everyone's development," he said.
And the club's track record has been on exhibit with Turkey's youth national teams. Turkey's team at FIBA U18 European Championship 2017 for example included Atar as well as Bandirma teammates Sehmus Hazer, Eray Akyuz, Erkin Senel and Alperen Demir.
Anime and lawyers
Basketball is not the only thing on Atar's mind. He admits he “loves” watching anime - Japanese cartoon films - and says he's very good at computer and PlayStation games.
Off the court, he thinks teammates would describe him as a fun guy, and on the hardwood Atar believes he would be called talented and intelligent. The son of an engineer, Atar says he wouldn’t be in sports if he wasn't a basketball player.
"I would like to be a lawyer or a psychologist. That's something I've been thinking about since high school," he said.
A move abroad
The 2018-19 season saw Atar gain a lot of experience in his development, averaging 3.9 points and 2.6 rebounds in the BCL and highlighted by games of 10 points with 5 rebounds against Le Mans and 17 points and 5 rebounds against Avellino - both of those games at only 19 years old.
"I had time in every game that year. It was a very good experience for me as a young center," he said.
The 2019-20 season definitely took Atar on a different path. After playing two games in the Turkish league to start the season, he never played again that season for Bandirma - not appearing in a single BCL game. In January 2020, he made the choice to look for another club and ended up in North Macedonia and playing for MZT Skopje.
"I had already missed most of the season, and after that I had to go somewhere where I could practice well and play basketball. I decided to play there."
He ended up playing five games in the ABA Adriatic League, averaging 1.8 points and 1.2 rebounds in 6.2 minutes as well as two contests in the North Macedonian Prva Liga and picking up 2 points, 1 rebound and 1 block in a combined 11 minutes.
"I realized that I have to play harder because at higher levels I have to be at the same level or better than my opponents," he said.
The move away from Turkey and to another country where he wasn't considered a high-level talent who had played years for the youth national teams but just as a foreign-born player helped Atar from an emotional standpoint as well.
"It was a good experience for me. I noticed a lot of things when I was there alone. I realized I had to change some things," he said. "I needed to change my bad sides and make them the best, if not perfect. And I learned to look at everything from the positive side."
Back home during the pandemic, signing with Galatasaray
The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic brought Atar back home to Turkey in March 2020.
"I returned to Turkey directly. I was usually at home or we were going to the beach with my friends, to places where other people were not," he said.
Atar eventually started working out with the basketball again and taking stock of what he wanted to change upon his return to the court in his home country. The first change was a new club as he signed with Galatasaray in mid-July.
"Galatasaray is one of the biggest clubs in Europe. Playing here was my dream as well as for everyone else. The club has great fans and a great organization," he said. "Galatasaray is one of Europe's biggest clubs. That's why the pressure here is much more (than at Bandirma)."
Galatasaray making their Basketball Champions League debut also meant Atar was back in the competition - albeit for a club with different expectations and with a different role among his teammates.
"As one of the youngest players on the team, the most important thing asked from me is to fight for the team," he said. "Of course I will do my best at both ends of the court."
Galatasaray are drawn into the difficult Group A along with Sassari, 2017 BCL champion Iberostar Tenerife and a Bakken Bears team looking to shake up the group in their debut campaign in the competition's Regular Season.
"I think we are in one of the hardest groups in the Basketball Champions League. But if we pass this group, things will be easier for us."
The goal for the club is clear - to hoist the trophy when it's all said and done.
"The goal for Galatasaray is always the championship. Of course, for this, we will all have to play as a team, especially on defense, and cover each other's gaps and play each game like it's our last game" he said.
Having seen his path take him to places like Zaragoza and Skopje and learn the life lessons he was taught there will definitely help Atar give Galatasaray a boost in their fight.