At around 6’9 without shoes, with good athleticism and plus-length, NBA prospect Leo Menalo has been developing his game these last three years with Stella Azzurra in Rome. Originally from Croatia and having previously spent time with Cibona Zagreb, Menalo played real minutes this year for Stella Azzurra in the Italian Serie A2 league. He is a combo forward with an ability to stretch the floor and possesses some requisite ball skills to make plays on the perimeter.
With some time before he is automatically eligible for the draft, he has NBA aspirations and is likely to make the move to a Euroleague-level club in the near future. He has developed his game a great deal with Stella Azzurra through their training and youth program, where he has really expanded his skill set over time. With his ability to score, pass and handle the ball, he is certainly a prospect to watch in high-level basketball circles.
In this interview, Leo Menalo breaks down his roots in Croatia, his time in Rome with Stella Azzurra, what he has worked on in terms of skill development, his hopes for his basketball future, and more.
For the next installment of the Pro Insight Q&A series, we present 2002-born prospect Leo Menalo, from Zagreb, Croatia:
Pro Insight: Tell us about yourself, your family, where you are from, etc.
Leo Menalo: So, I was born in Zagreb, Croatia. That's my hometown. I come from a pretty big family. I have two brothers and two sisters. I have an older brother. And then I have two younger siblings, and the youngest one is 12. Everybody is into sports, except one of my brothers. I actually started to play basketball because of my older brother but he quit when he was still young because of injuries. But my sisters – they're really good! I am so proud of them!
PI: Did your parents play basketball?
LM: No, not really. They played handball, but really only like in high school. But they were sporty and active people.
PI: So you have good genes.
LM: Yeah, I guess. Everybody in my father's family has good size. My dad is like 6-6, maybe 6-7. Close to two meters.
PI: And how tall are you?
LM: I am about six-nine without shoes. I think I have good size (smiles).
PI: So your whole family is back in Zagreb?
LM: Yes. Everybody still lives in Zagreb.
PI: And your parents, what do they do for a living?
LM: My mother used to have a beauty salon but she sold it. And my father is a building engineer. Like, he helps construction and procurement of the materials for the building.
PI: When was the last time you saw your family?
LM: So the last time was actually like a month ago. I went there. For two days, it was my only opportunity during the season. I didn't see them for like six months. And I still didn't see my mother because she was in the hospital at the time. She had a surgery done on her knee.
PI: How did you get recruited by Stella Azzurra? You were at Cibona before?
LM: Yeah, I was in the youth system of Cibona. My father was helping me look for some opportunities elsewhere too, though. My former agents, they actually put me here. And I thought it was a good opportunity. They (Stella Azzurra) play good tournaments and have quality training facilities. Unfortunately, during the second season, coronavirus hit, so we didn't have any more competitive tournaments. But otherwise it has been great here in Rome. I had the opportunity to go to another country in a great city like Rome and a great organization like Stella Azzurra. And I learned another language, too.
PI: You played with Roko Prkacin while with Cibona Zagreb?
LM: Yes, we used to play together when we were very young. We were friends when we were younger but then we kind of grew apart. I remember we basically played the same position and we would guard each other a lot. With Cibona though I felt I kind of got left behind. The coaches didn't play me much and I kind of felt that I wasn’t improving enough in Cibona so I started to consider playing elsewhere.
PI: Your team was hit by coronavirus too during the season?
LM: Yeah in February it was like the whole team. I was okay luckily, like for just one day I had a fever and was feeling weak but then the next day I was already feeling better. But a couple guys I know were sick for a couple of weeks. It was frustrating for me because I felt okay and was ready to play but we couldn’t. I was actually called up to play for the Croatian Senior National Team for the first time in February but unfortunately I was still quarantined due to COVID protocols so I missed out on a great opportunity.
PI: This is your first season playing major minutes (before your injury) and you were playing quite well. You started most of the games this season, too. What has changed from last year to this year?
LM: The first thing I would say is a change on a physical level. I really thought my skills would be enough when I first debuted at the pro level in Italy but instead I struggled a bit adapting to the superior physicality at the pro level. I couldn’t keep up initially and this was eye-opening for me. So over the summer I worked a lot on my body and I got stronger. I still think I will have to get even stronger to play at higher levels of competition but I feel that I am on the right track. I think I already have a pretty good knowledge of basketball, I can recognize what's happening during a game and then like after a game I always re-watch the match so I can see what I did wrong and what I can do better.
PI: Do you consider yourself more of a 3 or a 4? What position do you prefer to play at?
LM: So I don’t really have a position I prefer to play because I would like my coach to use me on all positions as needed. I still think I struggle a little bit on the playmaking if the opposing team is pressing me but if I am faster than the defender, then it's a win-win for me because I can drive past him. I can also body up the smaller wings and post them up or just shoot/pass it over him. I always try to seek an advantage based on who is guarding me at a given moment. My coach puts me at the guard position, sometimes. At the beginning of the season I would sometimes fill in at point guard even (laughs)!”
PI: Besides needing to get stronger, what else do you think you need to improve at?
LM: My shot. I am trying to improve my shot the most. Just a lot of repetitions. But also my defense: I'm trying to improve more so I can guard multiple positions. I would like to get more confident with my defense against smaller guys. If I have to switch onto a smaller guy I want to keep him from being able to get to the rim against me and perhaps even force them to pass the ball. I have been working on improving my balance and lateral movement.
PI: Is there a specific player — anyone — a Croatian player, a youth player, an NBA player, a guy whose game you model yours after?
LM: Well actually I am trying to look at as many different players as I can. I don’t want to be good at just one thing. So whenever I look at another player I always try to take away something from his game. If he does something well, perhaps better than me, I will try to imitate his way of doing it. Sometimes when I see another player do something nice I immediately want to grab a ball and try to do it myself. So I try to take something from many different players. But if I would have to choose a player, I would like to be a mix between Kevin Durant and Giannis. They have both good basketball skills along with physical talent.
PI: So then who is your favorite player?
LM: Damian Lillard!!! Dame is an incredible, incredible player and he's so tough, he has such a big heart. You know, there are other guys that are bigger and may be better, but he doesn't care. He just plays and competes.
PI: And who would be the toughest or best player you have played against?
LM: Well to be honest I have never really felt that any guy I have faced was unstoppable, just a lot of good players.
PI: Do you watch many NBA games?
LM: Yeah, I do watch a lot. I love NBA news but not just the games. I like what they do as a community. I like the NBA community efforts because they build courts and make many charitable events. I like how they treat people. Just like, the joy they bring and share.
PI: Have you been following the EuroLeague a lot this season, also?
LM: No, not really because if there is a EuroLeague game and an NBA game at the same time I prefer to watch the NBA game. I just like it more. It's more flashy and exciting.
PI: Do you still go to school?
LM: No, I finished high school already.
PI: Did you consider ever going to college in the USA? I'm sure some colleges asked about you when you were younger?
LM: Yes, I thought about it. But it never materialized. Deep down though, I just kind of think that Europe was and still is a much better option for me at the moment.
PI: Have you thought much about where you see yourself in 15-20 years? What do you want to do when you grow up? Hopefully after a long basketball career!
LM: I never like thought about it, because then you will just put me off my path. I don’t want to overthink things that I don’t have any control over. But my focus was always on basketball. I know I could suffer a serious injury but I would risk it all just because that's my dream.
PI: What is your ultimate goal, then? Be a good EuroLeague player? Make it in the NBA? Or are you more just taking it step-by-step — first the EuroLeague, then the NBA, too, hopefully?
LM: I would like to make it to the NBA. And I will work as hard as I can work every day, just to be the best I can be. And I think it's all about working hard and improving every day. I want to be the best I can be. I would love it if someday I would even become a role model for kids. There are a lot of superstars in the NBA and so many kids watch them and want to be like them. They are true icons. I hope I can be like one of them and help do good in my community while spreading hope and positivity.
PI: Are you thinking seriously yet about putting your name in the NBA Draft already this year? Or will you wait?
LM: I have had this discussion with my family and my agents but we are in no hurry to make a final decision. We will see what my prospects are at the end of the season.
PI: Say you do get drafted and the team says “listen, you know, you’ll come to us right away, but you're gonna play in the G-League,” or “we want you to stay an extra year in Europe.” Which would you prefer?
LM: So it depends. If a team has a spot for me or has a long-term plan for me, I would not mind having to play in the G-League, first. I need to learn and earn my keep. Obviously if a team drafted me and didn’t have an immediate need for me or a plan to develop me then I guess I may be better off staying in Europe where hopefully they would still follow my progress closely. I know there are a lot of guys who got drafted but stayed in Europe for a couple years before making a successful transition to the NBA, so I would stay positive in any case.
PI: And what would you do if you did not get drafted?
LM: I will prove myself. I would just keep working harder and trying to improve. I will go to summer league, I will go to tryouts or I will go play in the EuroLeague. And in two years, they're going to offer me even more money than I would have made as a rookie (smiles and laughs).