From Slovenia to Swinney: Maks Klanjscek travels 5,000 miles to play for the Roos

In the closing seconds of a blowout victory over Toledo in late December, Kansas City guard Maks Klansjcek peered down the Roos’ bench. His teammates, Jashire Hardnett and Brandon Suggs, were at the far-end, handing out high-fives and soft slaps on the back. The 20-year-old Klanjscek eventually joined in on the postgame celebration minutes later. Moments like these are unforgettable and make the bond between college teammates special. 

However, as excited as Klanjscek is to start a new chapter in his basketball career, he can’t truly embrace where he’s going without remembering where he’s been. 

Less than two years ago, Klanjscek lived roughly 5,100 miles and seven time zones away from Kansas City in Ljubljana, Slovenia. For the first 16 years of his life, he called this city home. 

It was in Slovenia where Klanjscek learned basic life skills as a child. He learned how to make friends. He learned English after his parents signed him up for courses in kindergarten. And it was where he learned the sport of basketball at the age of five from his father.

“I have to thank my parents for helping me learn all that; it gave me a head start,” Klanjscek said. 

Klansjeck was fortunate to grow up in a time when learning basketball was accepted for Slovenian children. From the tail-end of World War II, all the way to the 1990s, handball and soccer dominated Slovenia’s sport’s subculture. 

For roughly five decades, Slovenian kids had a difficult time keeping up with the sport because no Slovenian basketball players had gone on to have successful pro careers internationally. It wasn’t until 1997, two years prior to Klanjscek being born, that the first Slovenian-born basketball player made an NBA roster (Marko Milic). Since then, 10 other Slovenians have played in the NBA, including current stars Goran Dragic (Miami Heat) and last year’s Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks). 

Living amid the country’s basketball boom, Klanjscek gravitated towards the sport, watching American college basketball as much as possible. He says watching the games not only helped him understand the game’s intricacies, but the American culture as well. 

“I watched it more than the European league,” Klanjecks said. “I really became a fan of the American style, especially the fast-paced play.” 

The more involved he became with basketball, the more eager he was to start playing it competitively. From ages 10 to 14, Klanjscek competed for Slovan, a European club team. From there, he played on several travel teams, such as Petrol Olimija, and later, participated as a 17-year-old in the 2017 FIBA U18 European Championship. 

The experience he received playing overseas as a teenager led him to his final year of high school at Hoosac School in Hoosick, NY. This private, co-educational boarding school was his first taste of American education, as well as American basketball.  

After a year of high school basketball in the states, Klanjscek received scholarships from Siena College and Kansas City. The Saints were in striking distance to land Klanjscek before a coaching change opened his recruitment to the Roos and Head Coach Billy Donlon.

“[The coaching change] was definitely a surprise and ended up working out in the end,” Donlon said. “I’ve done a lot of recruiting work in the Northeast, the New England area, with prep schools, and that’s really how I found out about Maks.”

During the recruiting process and in pre-season workouts, Klanjscek showed off his skills as a shooter. His quick release and sharp footwork dazzled Donlon and the Roos’ coaching staff from the jump.  

“His catch-and-shooting is his greatest strength,” Donlon aid “The other thing he has going is his high release. A lot of guys when they’re young shoot it from a lower point, but Maks was taught very well in that area. [In addition to shooting threes], he’s a great ball facilitator. He doesn’t let it stick in his hands, so if he doesn’t shoot it he usually gets rid of it.” 

Throughout his transition from Europe to the United States, and then from high school to college, Klanjscek believed he could succeed as a shooter. He says his biggest challenge, though, would be carving out a role defensively. 

“Players are good everywhere you go, in Europe and in the United States,” Klanjscek said. “It’s taken months to adjust to [the college] style. I’m having some problems on defense, but my offense, especially my shooting, is something I’m confident in.”

Donlon agrees with Klanjscek’s sentiment, offering more intel on how the Slovenian guard can evolve during his time in Kansas City. 

“He’s tall for a guard, and I think he’ll grow more,” Donlon said. “He just needs to play catch-up defensively, and that’s every freshman. That’s not exclusive to Maks. Very few freshman walk in the door are great defensively. He has a chance to have a very good career here if he works. Guys in his position over here go to the glass and rebound the ball more than in Europe, so he’s figuring out how to block out here right now.” 

On a team in the infant stages of a rebuild, Klanjscek’s trajectory aligns with the Roos timeline in 2020, 2021 and beyond. Klanjscek knows his time to make a big impact is imminent, even if he’s 5,000 miles away from his homeland. 

“I came here to combine both academics and basketball,” Klanjscek said. “My time in Europe taught me a lot about the game. I’ve enjoyed my first college season so far, but I’m ready to help the team wherever down the road.” 

seapc9@mail.umkc.edu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *