Throughout his childhood, the last things on Aron Baynes' mind was basketball.
Baynes, a 260-pound mix of Australian-New Zealand muscle, never idolized players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Michael Jordan. Heck, he didn't even ask for a Allen Iverson 76ers jersey (I did), or a miniature basketball set as gifts.
For 26-year-old Baynes, whose adolescent ambitions were to represent the Aussies in rugby; the greatest present he ever received was a mountain bike, and his sports hero was American motorsports competitor and stunt performer Travis Pastrana.
Yet, fast forward nine years later …
Baynes is playing basketball on Europe's biggest stage for Slovenian powerhouse Olimpija Ljubljana and is currently the only Euroleague baller to post impressive double-double averages of 18.2 points and 10 rebounds per contest. He's also ranked no. 2 in field goals made with 63% en route to becoming an elite threat.
Oddly enough, Baynes only got a true feel for basketball at 17 years of age. The words "tall", "chubby," "slow" and "could barely catch the ball," were immediately thrown his way when attempting to hoop.
The turning point.
Former player and Australian NBL coach Aaron Fearne recognized Baynes' potential and together with Barcelona Regal's Nathan Jawai, the two 6-foot-10 youngsters have developed into top European prospects.
Baynes proved to be a quick learner leading his high school to its first state title in over a decade. He then traveled to the United States to play collegiately for Washington State University where he averaged 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in 33 senior-season appearances.
His European journey began in Lithuania with Rytas Vilnius where he recorded disappointing Euroleague averages of 5.5 points and 3 boards. Baynes would split the following seasons between Germany (EWE Baskets Oldenburg) and Greece (Ikaros Kallitheas) where he earned Eurobasket.com's All-Greek League Center of the Year award, raising his averages to 13.6 points. Baynes was also the top rebounder in Greece with 8.7 per.
"My cooperation with Aron was great. (Aron's) very coachable and always seeks advice on how to better his arsenal," said Greek coach Arik Lykoagiannis, who brought Baynes to Greece last season.
Last summer, with injured NBA superstar Andrew Bogut ruled out of the Olympics, Baynes was selected to make his Olympic debut and was expected to play a key role in the Aussies' 2012 London campaign. Baynes was a hit. He finished as the Boomers' fifth-leading scorer with 7.5 points, adding 3.3 rebounds.
"(Baynes') Olympic experience gave him the confidence boost he needed to perform at the level he's on now," said Daniel Moldovan, Baynes' agent.
In September, Baynes entertained lucrative non-Euroleague offers from Spain and Turkey but it was Ljubljana who had him extremely high on their radar.
Although Ljubljana struggled financially, Baynes wasn’t in it for the money. "Aron declined offers because they were not from Euroleague teams. They were higher paid salaries but Aron was determined to play in the Euroleague and he settled for a lower income in Ljubljana," Moldovan says.
When asked about Baynes meteoric Euroleague success, so it's Baynes' coach Lykoagiannis wasn’t the least surprised. "Aron is a hard working high energy player who improved by practicing in full speed all the time."
"In Greece," Lykoagiannis recalled, "when teams tried to trap him, he met some difficulties at first but that allowed him to improve his passing skills."
According to his agent, Baynes' performances have caught the eyes of several NBA general-managers. "There are two Western Conference teams closely following Aron, and after four rounds of Euroleague, there has been much more serious enquiries and interest shown," Moldovan commented.
Specifying on what exactly attracts NBA teams to Baynes, Moldovan said, "they love the that he's a good free throw shooter (68% in Euroleague), which is rare for bigs in the NBA. Because Aron started playing ball so late, he is only now coming to his peak. Judging by the way he's playing now and the interest I'm getting -- the NBA is his next step -- it's now just a matter of finding the right fit for him," he said.
Moldovan isn't the only one who is convinced Baynes is NBA-ready. "I have no doubt that Aron will continue to climb the basketball ladder and reach the NBA," Lykoagiannis added.
Tonight, 20:30 CET at Stozice Arena in Slovenia, Baynes is Real Madrid's problem.