Oostende's Bratanovic hopeful to finally stay healthy and show promise
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 the 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.
OOSTENDE (Belgium) - Haris Bratanovic just cannot seem to get a break in the last couple of years. The center's early career with Filou Oostende has been one stop-and-go with injuries and illness, and the Belgian international is hoping he can finally stay healthy to show what he can do.
The 20-year-old already possesses a skillset that many people believe can make him a successful low post player for many years. If he can just stay on the court.
Bratanovic's status for Oostende's second game of the Basketball Champions League Play-Ins for January 18 is somewhat in question after he tested positive for Covid-19 in the aftermath of Game 1 of the series at Igokea m:tel.
"You can add this to the list of unlucky things that have happened to me in the past two years," Bratanovic said. "It is what it is."
It is downright unfortunate is what it is.
Bratanovic collected 8 points and 9 rebounds in the game in Bosnia, which was the first game for Oostende since the final BCL Regular Season game against SIG Strasbourg. That game on December 21 was the return to the court for the 6 ft 10 in (2.08m) big man, who had missed the previous two weeks with an ankle injury - and an unlucky one at that.
Bratanovic had been with the Belgian national team for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 European Qualifiers ahead of the game against Serbia in late November. Belgium head coach Dario Gjergja - also the Oostende playcaller - told Bratanovic that he would be needed against the Serbs to help deal with all their big men.
The night before the game, Bratanovic was working out individually doing some post-ups and wound up suffering a sprained ankle, which would keep him out of the Serbia game as well as Oostende's BCL game with Tofas Bursa and their domestic contest with Brussels.
It was the same left ankle that Bratanovic had sprained in September in training camp as he landed on teammate Servaas Buysschaert's foot, forcing him to miss the BCL opener against Tofas Bursa.
When he has been on the court this season, Bratanovic has produced. He had 11 points and 4 rebounds in Oostende's second BCL game against Strasbourg and had 15 points and 5 rebounds versus Kalev/Cramo. And he averaged 10.4 points in the last five Belgian league games before the national team window.
All of that was part of his good frame of mind coming into the season.
"I was very positive because I thought I was finally in shape and could finally do my thing with the club now. I thought this would be my breakout season," he said. "The ankle injuries were not as planned, but it's already much better than last season."
Season to forget
The 2020-21 season was definitely one Bratanovic wants to forget. It was a campaign of one problem after the next. It started in the preseason with a minor tear in his knee, which kept him out two weeks. In late August he suffered a major tear in his hip flexor. He missed about two months and after he returned the hip continued to be an issue.
Bratanovic did not play his first game of the season until early December against Brussels in the domestic league. A couple of days later was his Basketball Champions League debut against Happy Casa Brindisi on December 9. Two days after he picked up 9 points and 3 rebounds against the Italian team, Bratanovic says he woke with unusual and major headaches.
"I told myself I had Covid 100 percent for sure. I never had that kind of headache before," said Bratanovic, who ended up testing positive. "That was 20 days at home. I couldn't move the first five-six days, I couldn't smell anything. I was physically done. I couldn't move."
That meant starting back with zero conditioning in trying to get back to the team.
"Covid made everything worse for me. If you have that, it's very difficult to work yourself back into the team and really hard mentally."
Bratanovic was able to get back onto the court for three Belgian league games in January and the BCL game against Darüssafaka Tekfen.
But the hip pain returned as well and forced him to miss all of February, March and April. In the end, doctors determined he had a problem in his adductors and they resolved that issue. April, however, was also the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and Bratanovic fasted during the day, which also slowed his return.
Bratanovic ended up playing all of May and June in the playoffs and averaged 5.6 points and 2.8 rebounds in nearly 12 minutes in 13 games - three times scoring 11 points.
Those three games with 11 points - including back-to-back playoff games against Charleroi - confirmed the potential that Bratanovic had inside and what the Belgian federation had long believed in.
Early potential for Belgium
Bratanovic is the son of parents from Bosnia and Herzegovina who fled the country in the mid-1990s and ended up finding a home in Belgium. Haris was born in 2001 in the Belgian city of Ghent but was raised in a Bosnian household: speaking Bosnian, eating Bosnian food and experiencing a Bosnian way of life.
"I grew up as a Bosnian at home, so the Bosnian culture is a big part of me," he said.
The Belgian federation took note of Bratanovic early on and he played for Belgium for the first time in 2017 at the FIBA U16 European Championship Division B, where he averaged a double-double but lost in the Quarter-Finals.
The next summer was a major disappointment for Bratanovic. He guided Belgium to third place at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 Division B, but Belgium were not allowed promotion to Division A because Greece had been announced ahead of time as the designated hosts of the FIBA U18 European Championship 2019.
Bratanovic added another youth medal in 2019 and this time got Belgium back to Division A as he helped the country to third place at the FIBA U20 European Championship Division B.
First taste of Belgian senior team, move to Barcelona
The 2018 calendar year was a big one for Bratanovic. Even before the disappointment at the U18 continental tournament, the big man was brought into the mix for Belgium's senior national team. Then head coach Eddy Casteels invited Bratanovic as one of 14 players to the team for February 2018 window of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers - with games in Bosnia and Herzegovina and France.
"The game in Bosnia was crazy. It was amazing," said Bratanovic, who did not play in either of the games.
But the invitation on its own was unexpected.
"It really surprised me. I was in the third division in Belgium. It meant a lot for me because that was the moment I knew that they wanted to work with me and considered me as a talent for Belgium and wanted to make a future for me," he said.
Sam Van Rossom
"It was great to experience players like Sam Van Rossom, Kevin Tumba and Quentin Seeron - all the big players who are now getting a little older. I'm glad I was with one of the best generations of Belgian basketball."
Then came the news in late June 2018 when Bratanovic signed a multi-year deal with Spanish powerhouse Barcelona. He considered his first season in Spain a success, averaging 2.5 points and nearly 4 rebounds in 13 games in Spain's second division LEB Gold.
"For the first season I was really happy. The first four months I was with the U18 team and played big tournaments like the ANGT and put up some good stats. From January on I was only in the second team. At the end of the season I was playing 10-15 minutes and I was very happy. I thought my second season would be amazing."
That was because Barcelona's team was relegated to the third division LEB Silver for the 2019-20 campaign. Bratanovic however struggled to get playing time as he had Nikola Zizic and Ibou Dianko Badji ahead of him at the center position.
The Belgian managed to average 9.6 minutes in his first eight games of the season - four times playing double figure minutes and scoring 12 points with 6 rebounds against Albacete in late September.
But after mid-November, he topped 10 minutes just one time and averaged just 6.9 minutes while also suffering an ankle sprain that caused him to miss nearly a month of action early in 2020. Eventually Barcelona had seen enough.
"They said Haris: You can stay at Barcelona, but we're not going to use you any more this year," he said. "I was really devastated by that. I didn't think that would happen."
After leaving Barcelona, Bratanovic was looking for other teams and he saw that players like Keye van der Vuurst and Servaas Buysschaert were playing minutes at Oostende.
"I thought that was the best option for me because of Coach Dario. Everybody knows how well Coach Dario works. And with their new talent factory and letting their young players play and let them have a big role in the team I felt it was the move for me," said Bratanovic, who signed a five-year deal with the Belgian club.
Summer with Gjergja in Japan
Fast forward to the end of the 2020-21 season and Bratanovic finally back on the court contributing. After the end of the campaign, Gjergja thought the best way for his big man was to develop was to bring him back into the mix again with the Belgian national team.
The young big man traveled with the Belgians to Japan to prepare for this past summer's Olympic Games - 17 days in which he worked with Gjergja both on and off the court.
"That really helped me mentally because he really took care of me - my diet, my practices, everything," said Bratanovic, who did not play at the Olympics but participated in the training camp and exhibition games. "During those days with the coaches watching and advising I learned a lot of things. I am in better shape than last year. I changed my eating ways, which were really bad before.."
🇧🇪 #14 Haris Bratanović 14 pts, 8 reb, 3 ast, 1 stl, 4 to and 16 EFF in 35 minutes.— Dainius Rumša🇱🇹 (@imLuckyD) July 19, 2021
Liked his patience in a low post, absorbs contact very well, made a couple 3s and fights for his position under basket with seals which I appreciate at this level.#U20Challenger pic.twitter.com/gTOqQBlnwH
Bratanovic did however play for Belgium at the FIBA U20 European Challengers 2021 and dominated the competition, averaging 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Add all that together and one can see why Bratanovic could not wait for the 2021-22 season to tip off. Now, all he wants to do is stay healthy so he can show what he can do - something he hasn't been able to do for the last couple of years.