Game Notes: Partizan Belgrade vs. Suns
It takes a Vujosevic to raise a child.
As the game clock raced backward to zero, Partizan’s Strahinja Milosevic rose up and guided the ball upward off of his finger tips and toward the rim. The red lights illuminated the backboard’s edges as the shot found its intended target, testing the outer limits of the term “improvement” as it rattled in. Final buzzer. Phoenix Suns: 111. Partizan Belgrade: 80.
Not good. But not bad, either. With their 32-point loss to Denver in the rearview, a 31-point loss in the desert suddenly feels a bit more humane. After all, losing by a wider margin would be a step backwards for the Serbian team, and Head Coach Dusko Vujosevic has never been one for regression. And while the scoring disparity may seem negligible, keep in mind that inside that single point, a horrendous shooting clip of 28 percent blossomed into a decent 41 percent, three-point and free throw lines saw their visitors succeed at a better rate, and the turnover total shrunk from a high school-esque 39 to a slightly-less-awful 34 (but don’t’ get me wrong; still awful).
“We played two good teams—Denver went to the Conference finals and Phoenix has always been a great team, so we couldn’t ask for better preparation,” said center Aleks Maric, who followed a brilliant 16-point, 21-rebound performance against Denver with 14 and 6 against Phoenix in only 17 minutes of action.
Despite the lopsided losses, Maric still says they achieved everything they set out to do, which was “To compete as much as we can, to come together as a team,” and to use the NBA teams as a “measuring stick” so they know how they stack up once their European season starts in about a week.
Maric was not alone in his defense of losing; everybody in the locker room agreed that while the results were far from ideal, they didn’t diminish the experiences they’ve absorbed in the past couple weeks. Not one bit. As 19-year-old guard Aleksander Mitrovic explained, “This is a very young team constructed to push young players forward… and we saw the way these NBA players—the best players in the world—work and behave.” How can these young, vulnerable athletes find the maturity to appreciate and even cherish the unseen positives in situations that seem tailor-made for ego destruction? Like, for instance, suffering back-to-back 30-point losses in front of thousands?
It all comes back to Coach Vujosevic, whose sometimes brutal realism is always served with a dash of optimism and attaboys. With eight straight Serbian titles in his back pocket and not much else—Partizan has one of the lowest payrolls in the Euroleague—Vujosevic makes it happen year in and year out despite an almost annual depletion of his young talent. How about two years ago, when Milt Palacio and 21-year-old Montenegrin big man Nikola Pekovic led Partizan to their first Euroleague quarterfinals during the Vujosevic regime. Belgrade went nuts, spirits were high…and then the offseason came around. Palacio dips to Khimki Moscow for more cash. Their All-Euroleague Second Teamer, Pekovic, follows the green to Panathinaikos Athens. Partizan is left with a dissembled core.
Instead of panicking, the veteran coach bides his time, pinches his wallet, and comes out firing with national treasures Milenko Tepic, Novica Velickovic and Uros Tripkovic to go along with former UMass and NBA big, Stephane Lasme. The season is even more fruitful than its predecessor as Partizan fills the Belgrade Arena with a European record 22,567 fans that watches their boys dismantle the eventual champs, Panathinaikos, en route to another quarterfinals appearance. But here comes summer again, and that pesky offseason is nipping at its heels. Real Madrid promptly plucks Velickovic, the Euroleague’s Rising Star (awarded to the best player under the age of 22), point forward Tepic signs on with his old buddy Pekovic and the champs, and sharpshooter Tripkovic is summoned to Ricky Rubio’s former team, DKV Joventut, to fill some holes and knock down some shots in the backcourt.
Which brings us to this year. With seven players under the age of 22, Vujosevic will have the youngest roster in the Euroleague for a third consecutive year. His team—just like the rest of Europe—thinks there could be no man better suited for the task.
“Our coach does a great job of pointing them in the right direction,” says Maric, who, at 25, is the old man on a roster speckled with teenagers. “And when they step out of line,” he continues, “he’ll put them back in line.”
And while it may sound like tough love at first, Maric is quick to point out that it’s his rare ability to connect with youngsters that makes him so effective. “When you have those two characteristics and skills, to have the knowledge of the game and to present it so that young athletes can understand it, it’s great.”
And though Vujosevic’s active batch of projects like Pekovic, Kosta Perovic and Nenad Krstic might be enough for most coaches’ resumés, Vujosevic started polishing raw talent way back in the late 80s when Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Predrag Danilovic started playing for Partizan, not knowing that Vujosevic’s genius would result in a Yugoslavian Silver Medal in the 1996 Olympics.
The coach’s developmental pedigree is not lost upon 6-11, 19-year-old Jan Vesely, who says, “He’s a special coach, and he loves to teach the young players how to play.” So special, in fact, that Vesely had a dozen NBA scouts checking him out on the sidelines of tonight’s game, and his line of 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in 27 minutes might just be enough to lock him into this year’s Draft Lottery.
Mitrovic, a top European prospect in his own right, also knows that he’s in good hands. “What I’ve seen from my small time with the club is that he’s unbelievably devoted to basketball, and he thinks about it 24/7,” says the 6-8 guard who was one of 13 Partizan players to get in the PTS column against Phoenix. “I think that’s what makes him one of the best.”
And if a teacher is to be judged solely on the work of his or her pupils, then Coach Dusko Vujosevic just might be the best European that ever paced painted sidelines.
Nick Gibson is the co-creator and producer of Slam and Freaknick’s Euroleague Adventures, which features a blog, podcast, prospect watch and a closer look at Americans playing overseas. Gibson is a broadcast journalism student at Syracuse University and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.