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How an Icelandic sheep farmer blossomed into the NBA draft's most unusual prospect

Tryggvi Hlinason first played competitive basketball four years ago. Now the son of Icelandic sheep farmers is on the NBA’s radar entering Thursday’s draft. (photo via FIBA)

At the border between Iceland’s rugged north and its uninhabitable interior, at the end of a twisting mountain road that only 4-wheel drive enthusiasts dare traverse, there’s a sprawling patch of land that belongs to a family of sheep farmers.

This is where one of Europe’s top basketball prospects calls home.

Whereas other members of the 2018 NBA draft class began perfecting their jump shots and crossover dribbles in grade school, Tryggvi Hlinason did not play competitive basketball for the first time until he was 16 years old. Hlinason instead had the blue-collar childhood of a farmer’s son, helping his parents run their homestead by scrubbing stables, herding sheep, maintaining fences, gathering hay and shoveling manure.

The closest neighbors to the Hlinason family live nine kilometers away. The nearest grocery store is more than an hour’s drive north. When too deep a layer of snow blankets the road to the farm, the only way in or out for days at a time is via snowmobile.

“Even Icelandic people would say I grew up in the middle of nowhere,” Hlinason said. “There was always work to do on the farm, but the freedom you have is insane. It’s so far to the next house that you can do whatever you like and nobody really cares.”

For years, Hlinason was content to spend his whole adult life on the family farm just like his parents and grandparents did. He even went away to school in Iceland’s second largest city to learn to be an electrician in September 2013 because that’s how he thought he could help the farm the most.

Everything changed a few months later when Hlinason decided to give basketball a try as a way to stay in shape. At the time, there was no way the tall, gangly teenager could have known that would be the start of an unfathomably rapid ascent that has catapulted him to the highest level of European basketball, landed him on the NBA’s radar and forced him to leave sheep farming far behind.

In  2014, Tryggvi Hlinason poses with coach Ágúst Guðmundsson soon after playing competitive basketball for the first time. (photo via Bjarki Ármann Oddsson)

Hlinason’s rocky beginnings

The tryout that launched Hlinason’s basketball career did not get off to an encouraging start. Hlinason got so hopelessly lost trying to find the gym where Icelandic club Þór Akureyri’s under-17 team was practicing that coach Bjarki Ármann Oddsson had to come pick him up at a nearby gas station.

When Oddson finally located Hlinason, the newcomer’s appearance caught him by surprise. Hlinason was already close to 7 feet tall at that time, something he had naively failed to mention when he called Oddson to ask permission to show up at a practice. The sheep farmers’ son also wasn’t exactly wearing traditional basketball attire.

“There probably wasn’t a basketball shoe big enough to fit him in Iceland at that time, so he just had regular sports shoes on,” Oddson said. “He also wasn’t wearing a basketball jersey. He just wore a regular T-shirt.”

Intrigued by Hlinason’s size yet skeptical of his skill and coordination, Oddson asked if he could dunk. Hlinason answered that question by assaulting the nearest rim with a series of soaring jams.

“He did it like 10 times in a row, each better than the last,” Oddson said. “I was amazed because the second tallest player on our team was like 6-3 and nobody could dunk.”

Unlocking Hlinason’s potential was a painstaking process because the young big man was a basketball beginner in almost every way. He had never even watched a 5-on-5 basketball game at that time, let alone played in one.

Hlinason had a loose grasp on how to shoot, dribble and pass from messing around with his friends growing up, but the vocabulary and intricacies of the sport were entirely unfamiliar to him. He didn’t know he needed to vacate the paint to avoid a 3-second violation, nor did he realize he couldn’t vie for a rebound on a free throw attempt until the ball had left the shooter’s hands. When Oddson first mentioned the 24-second shot clock to him, Hlinason asked his coach what that was.

But as Hlinason’s understanding of the game improved, his athletic gifts grew more unmistakable. He ran the floor on fast breaks with the speed of a guard. He snatched lob passes out of the air in traffic and finished above the rim. And he used his long arms and leaping ability to attack the glass at both ends and defend the rim.

“From the get go, I thought that if he stayed interested in the sport of basketball, then he could be a good Icelandic player in our top division,” Oddson said. “I never imagined what followed.”

Tryggvi Hlinason competes for Iceland at the 2017 FIBA under-20 European Championships. (FIBA)

From farm boy to NBA prospect

What followed, of course, is the stuff of fairytale. The farm boy still learning the rules of basketball climbed from Iceland’s second division to the cusp of the NBA in barely four years.

In 2015, Hlinason helped Þór Akureyri achieve promotion to Iceland’s top-tier league. That same year Hlinason made his debut for Iceland’s U-18 national team. By the following summer, word of Hlinason’s athletic gifts had spread so far that American colleges started showing interest.

Weber State coach Randy Rahe flew to Iceland’s capital city to watch Hlinason work out two summers ago after one of his assistant coaches spotted the 7-footer while scouting at the European U-18 championships. Rahe emerged from that trip awestruck by Hlinason’s physical tools and convinced he was recruiting a future NBA player.

“He was a puppy and he had no idea how good he could be, but he was just oozing with potential,” Rahe said. “The thing that stood out to me besides his adonis body was that he runs really well and he had great hands. All he was missing was a feel for the game and some experience.”

Weber State’s pursuit of Hlinason ended the following summer when the Icelandic center evolved from hidden gem to top-tier prospect. He averaged 16.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in seven games at the 2017 FIBA U-20 European Championships in Greece, earning all-tournament team honors and leading his tiny country of 330,000 people to a historic quarterfinal appearance.

“At the end of that tournament, I said to my assistant, ‘I’ll be shocked if we can get him now,” Rahe said. “We needed him to run around and fall down a few times to still have a shot.”

Hlinason further validated himself later in the summer when he joined Iceland’s senior national team in the buildup to the 2017 European Championships and tallied 19 points and 7 rebounds against Lithuania in a head-to-head matchup with Toronto Raptors standout Jonas Valanciunas. Asked about Hlinason after that game, Valanciunas heaped praise on the 19-year-old, telling reporters, “He’s really good. He’s still young, but he has great size and a lot of potential.”

The buzz from Hlinason’s breakout summer opened new possibilities for him. No longer was he merely sifting through scholarship offers from far-flung American colleges. Now top-tier European clubs were circling and NBA scouts were starting to pay attention.

“I would lie awake at night sometimes back then because I was too excited to fall asleep,” Hlinason said. “That was really when I decided basketball was going to be my life.”

Tryggvi Hlinason hopes an NBA team drafts him in the second round on Thursday and stashes him in Spain to give him another year or two to develop. (photo via FIBA)

Hlinason: ‘I’m a diamond in the rough’

Whether to enter the NBA draft this spring or wait until next year was a difficult decision for Hlinason and his advisers.

On one hand, he received limited playing time in his debut season at the highest level of European basketball after signing a four-year contract with Spanish power Valencia last summer. On the other hand, NBA teams remain intrigued with the 20-year-old because he performed so well last summer and is still so new to basketball, suggesting the potential for further improvement.

When Valencia was eliminated from the Spanish playoffs unexpectedly early on June 1, that made the decision to stay in this year’s NBA draft easier for Hlinason. It gave him time to come to the United States and work out for NBA teams in hopes of persuading someone to use a second-round pick on him and then stash him at Valencia for another year in order to let him further develop.

“That’s the base idea we’re playing with right now, but, of course, it depends on the team that drafts me and what they think about it,” Hlinason said.

“What I’m advertising is that I’m a diamond in the rough. I’m such an unfinished product that there is a lot of room for growth. The feedback has been mostly positive so far.”

Hlinason has worked out for four NBA teams so far — the Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers. The consensus in basketball circles is that Hlinason is not ready to contribute at the NBA level yet, but he could carve out a role down the road as a shot-blocking,  lob-catching center who contributes on the glass at both ends.

“If you remember Michael Doleac from the University of Utah and in the NBA, he is a clone,” said Fran Fraschilla, ESPN’s expert on international draft prospects. “His style of big man is not in vogue at the moment in the league, but someone will use a mid-to-late second round pick on him if there is nobody else they love.”

If NBA teams can accept that Hlinason is a throwback center who lacks the shooting prowess to space the floor or the mobility to switch ball screens, then he has a chance to be the rare Icelandic player to reach the sport’s highest level. Petur Gudmundsson, a little-known 7-foot-2 center selected at No. 61 in the 1981 draft, is the only Icelandic player ever to play in the NBA.

While the possibility of going from basketball novice to NBA draft pick in four and a half years is still mind-boggling for Hlinason, rest assured that the son of Icelandic sheep farmers hasn’t forgotten his stable-scrubbing, fence-mending roots.

Someday, when his basketball career is over, Hlinason envisions returning to his family’s farm, putting to use his studies to be an electrician and basking in the freedom of living in the farthest corner of one of Iceland’s most remote valleys.

“I could definitely envision going back to live that life because it’s so unique and so different, he said.

Already the world’s only Icelandic sheep farmer turned NBA prospect, Hlinason could also eventually become the rare former NBA player gathering hay and shoveling manure for a living too.

Highlights of Tryggvi Hlinason from the 2017 FIBA Under-20 European Championships:

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!