Meet Tryggvi Hlinason, Iceland's Sheep Farming NBA Prospect
The 20-year-old 7-footer, who didn't start playing basketball until he was 16, is trying to become the second player from Iceland to make the NBA.
Photo by Juan Navarro/EB via Getty Images
It is about 4,200 miles between Þingeyjarsveit, Iceland, and Las Vegas, Nevada. The gap between the cultures is even wider, spanning what feels like planets. In Vegas, a world away from a farming town that even others in Iceland consider to be an outpost, Tryggvi Hlinason is starting to feel at home in the basketball world.
How Hlinason got here is becoming a well-told story now, to the extent that he offers a short and a long version of it depending on how much time is available. Briefly: He didn't find his way to the game of basketball—or even see it played 5-on-5—until the age of 16, but his immense size and natural feel quickly made him a prospect to watch back home in Iceland. Before he had much experience at all, he was playing in Under-18 Euro Championship action, and at age 19 he was playing in the Icelandic professional league. His play there and in international action with the senior men's team, combined with a still-developing 7'1" and 260-pound frame, earned him a promotion to Valencia of the highly competitive Spanish ACB league and EuroLeague.
That was the pre-draft hook, and it's an endlessly endearing one. His story is also more than the late-bloomer path to prospect status. Hlinason's story is intriguing because he's quite literally an Icelandic sheep farmer turned NBA prospect, and he has a wry charm and a way of making his far-away story feel much less distant.
His life was not exactly relatable. In the winter time, snowmobiling was the primary mode of transportation, with the nearest grocery store an hour away and the farm needing to be largely self-sufficient. That includes the care of sheep, who obviously needed to survive the long winter, shifting a heavy burden of work to summer, where the list of chores was endless. As he grew up, the responsibilities were a little lighter. Stay where dad can see you, stay out of trouble, and occupy yourself. Quickly, and especially because Hlinason grew rapidly and embraced the work, he was called on for much more. He could drive a tractor at an early age, built strength harvesting, bailing, and storing hay for the winter, and took on the role of shepherd and all the intricacies that came with it.
This is where the late start to basketball despite his size makes sense. There wasn't really time and, more importantly, enough people around to play competitive sports with. His nearest neighbor was four miles down the road, not exactly close enough to get a quick game of HORSE or 21 in. Hlinason was active as a natural product of the labor he had to put in and an affinity for motor sports, but until age 16 his focus remained almost exclusively on how to help the family and the farm.
"In Iceland, you've gotta harvest the hay and store it for winter so the sheep can eat over the winter time, because of the snow and such. So that'd be a big part of the summertime," he says. "It's a tough job. When I was younger, I would probably follow my dad around most of the time. So I would be working either driving tractors, taking care of the sheep, herding. Moving manure is always a classic. So you would do everything. Wherever you could be helpful, you would be there trying to do something."
If that last part sounds a little on the nose for Las Vegas Summer League, where most players on the NBA fringes are trying to show they can offer that same sort of helpless assistance, the ham-fisted analogy is not lost on Hlinason. Nor is the irony in Hlinason's upbringing on the farm helping make an otherwise difficult transition as he tries to become the second Icelandic player ever to catch on at the NBA level. The work is hard, the practices long, and the gratification possibly far down the line.
Given what he's used to, none of that seems all that trying or out of the ordinary, and he's been able to make some of the intangibles that are second nature to him transfer to his new environment.
"You can't really whine. You rarely find me whining about anything," he says, noting the one occasional exception is when the world around him is too small for a man of his size. "Probably the work ethic. Like, if you're a farmer, you've gotta finish what you started. Or you don't eat, your animals suffer, and all that," he explains. "You get the hard work. You're having no days off, all these things. So the workload is probably similar, even probably more constant on the farmer's side. Work-wise, you would really have to try to break me to make me start complaining. Work ethic and all these things, that's probably what I transfer the most. And the basic, basic strength."
That work ethic will come in handy over the next few years as Hlinason continues to develop. He is a few steps away from his ultimate goal of playing in the NBA, though his pre-draft story met an unfortunate bookmark when he went undrafted. Hlinason thought he'd be selected in the second round by a team willing to stash him back at Valencia for a year while he continued to develop, and he made his way to the NBA Draft in June in hopes of hearing his name called.
"[He's] super young, super big, and super intriguing."
Instead, he quickly found the bright side—the chance to choose a program that best suited his development—and recalibrated his path.
"I was really open-minded. I don't want to say I don't mind getting not drafted, [but] it just changes my plan," he says. "Being drafted would be, I feel like probably a quicker way into the league. As I was undrafted, it really opens different ways. For example, we can find a team that really wants to develop me to make me a great player, so instead of having maybe a team which would draft me but really just leave me out and just hope I'll become a player and then use that right to take me. So it's a good thing, and also a bad thing because it makes it a little bit longer way to the NBA."
Enter the Toronto Raptors, who Hlinason decided on late into the night after the draft. The Raptors were, understandably, drawn to his size, and were a little shocked that he went undrafted. They also feel his surprising speed and agility could make him a good fit for the modern NBA down the line, where he may be able to bang with more traditional centers but keep up with the perimeter-oriented ones, as well.
"[He's] super young, super big, and super intriguing," Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela says when describing the 7-footer. "Potential is such an interesting word in basketball, and he is that. He's the epitome of it. Super young and just there's tons of potential. And now we've gotta try to really mould it and see what happens."
There is reason for optimism that Hlinason will continue developing quickly. He has come remarkably far remarkably fast. It was only in the summer of 2017, three-and-a-half years after Hlinason first started playing, that basketball began feeling "natural" to him, and while that rapid a development curve is an unfair linear projection, he's confident—in a self-deprecating manner—that he'll continue getting better.
"Now when you look back, you'd be looking at one-and-a-half years ago and you'd be like, 'What the hell was I doing back there?'" he says. "So even now, I could probably say in two years I'll be looking back at me now and still thinking, 'What the hell am I doing over there?'"
It was around that same time that the Raptors watched Hlinason score 19 points against Jonas Valanciunas and the Lithuanian national team in an exhibition game, a performance that caught plenty of attention at the time ahead of his first EuroLeague season. He also had a strong showing with Iceland in recent FIBA World Cup qualifiers, blocking six shots and dishing three assists in a narrow do-or-die loss to Bulgaria. He played sparingly with Valencia, though, and it's perhaps because he didn’t get much opportunity to show off his game that no team jumped on draft night despite the tantalizing potential.
The Raptors are happy to get the chance to take a longer look at him now despite not having a pick, and even with their very real basketball interest, they, too, can't help but marvel at Hlinason's story.
"He seems like a really good kid," says Raptors assistant general manager Dan Tolzman. "The little bit of talking to him, I was talking with him about Iceland and he was telling me all about where he's from, and it's amazing, his story. He was just giving me the little background of the town around him, and I'm just kinda like, 'What?'
"He is, like, an actual Viking."
The Raptors have not used Hlinason heavily in Vegas so far, as they've been trying to get a look at a number of centers on the roster. Hlinason has played in just one of the team's four games, and what his plan is from here is a little unclear. He is under contract to Valencia and is enjoying the challenge of a tougher, more cerebral league and the opportunity to work on his fourth language, Spanish (he speaks English, Icelandic, and some unused Danish). He is also open to the idea of the NBA or, if the situation is right, even the G League, and barring him being signed and a plan being dictated for him, he intends to work out in the United States for the majority of the summer.
What is clear is that before any of that starts back up in earnest, there is other work to be done. When Summer League ends, Hlinason will head back to Þingeyjarsveit, reunite with his family on the farm, and resume the same summer chores he’s always done. In a new career filled with uncertainty and potential, Hlinason remains firmly grounded, his roots on the farm providing a perspective and an unlikely escape.
"Really, the plan is constantly changing. But I'm hoping to take two, three weeks now, take a small break, get out on the farm, do some work, then start back up. That's probably what I'm gonna do after this. I'm gonna go back home, get some work in. Can't wait," he says.
"I would even if I didn't have to. It's just peaceful. It's nice. Taking some days off, completely get out of it, get some real work in, if that makes any sense. Some honest work."
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.