Rising Star Bogdanovic Isn't Playing Like a Rookie

Get an in-depth look at how the European superstar's versatile game has seamlessly translated to the NBA.
by Alex Kramers
Kings.com Contributor

In a rookie class headlined by franchise-defining floor generals and versatile big men, Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic has been flying under the radar for much of the season, quietly shooting with escalating efficiency and facilitating the offense with the poise and confidence of a multi-year veteran.

As he's continued to showcase his endless arsenal of moves and high basketball IQ, No. 8 – who was fittingly voted as one of the most underrated offseason acquisitions in NBA.com's annual GM survey in early October – is beginning to garner national recognition as one of the most polished up-and-comers in the game.

The recently-named All-Star Weekend Rising Star has set a new career-high scoring mark twice in the last 13 games, notching 25 points and making all six attempts from outside on Jan. 17. Surging since Dec. 1, Bogdanovic has averaged 12.2 points on 48 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from three-point range, to go along with 3.7 assists and a steal per outing.

“I think I’m an experienced player, and I know how to be ready to play every single night,” Bogdanovic said, crediting the reformatted EuroLeague schedule for accelerating his adjustment to the NBA. “I feel good. There’s no tiredness. I don’t feel a rookie wall.”

The fact is that while the Serbia native may be classified as an NBA rookie, the 25-year-old – who made his professional debut with Partizan Belgrade at age 18 – is far from a professional basketball novice.

Last season, the 2017 All-Europe Player of the Year guided Turkish club Fenerbahçe to the EuroLeague championship, averaging 14.6 points on 50 percent from the floor and 43 percent from distance, 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 27.9 minutes per game.

Over the course of his overseas career, the two-time EuroLeague Rising Star connected on 37.6 percent from long range on 4.9 attempts per game, routinely pulling up from well beyond the FIBA three-point arc, and much like his idol, Kings legend Peja Stojakovic, coming through with one clutch shot after the next.

“(Peja) played my position, so I definitely (admired him),” Bogdanovic said. “I watched Peja and Vlade (Divac) play for the Kings back in the day. I was playing soccer and basketball, but the (Yugoslavia national team) played in 2002 in Indianapolis, when they won a gold medal. That was the time when I decided I should play (basketball).”

It’s no surprise that after stockpiling a laundry list of achievements and accolades in Europe, "Bogi" – acquired from the Suns in a 2016 Draft-day trade – has been as NBA-ready as advertised, ranking in the top-10 among all rookies in scoring (11.2 points per game), assists (3.1), steals (1.0) and three-pointers made (76).

Despite making only 32.7 percent from downtown over his first 18 games, he's connecting on 39.6 from deep on the season, the third-best mark among first-year players with at least 100 attempts, according to NBA.com. Since the start of December, the 6-foot-6 guard is hitting from deep at a higher clip (42.3) than All-Stars Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.

In addition to demonstrating his ability to smoothly shoot off screens and dribble handoffs, Bogdanovic has taken full advantage of his quick release in wide-open outside opportunities, drilling a team-leading 45.8 percent of those looks.

What separates the Sacramento sharpshooter from many of his peers is his efficiency from mid-range (48.6 percent) – a lost art in today's NBA – where he trails only Stephen Curry and Chris Paul in accuracy among all guards (min. 100 attempts).

“He’s not a rookie,” said Kings guard George Hill. “To you guys he is, but to us, he’s a seasoned vet. He’s been battle tested, and has been playing high-level basketball his whole life now. He just knows how to play the game the right way. We feed off that. He plays with that edge, that grit. He just wants to win.”

Although his lights-out shooting has drawn the most attention, Bogdanovic has proven he shouldn’t be pigeonholed as strictly a spot-up specialist.

Comfortable facilitating the offense, the rookie’s court vision and playmaking ability, especially in pick-and-roll situations, has led to high-quality scoring opportunities for open teammates around the basket.

“He knows how to play,” said Kings Head Coach Dave Joerger. “He can make passes in pick-and-roll, he can make passes on the move, can pass and cut, play in the pick-and-roll.”

Operating as the pick-and-roll ball-handler on 29.5 percent of his possessions, Bogdanovic – able to convert consistently on floaters and pull-ups – leads the team in effective-field-goal percentage (52 percent) in such situations, while his 0.88 points per possession paces all first-year players with at least 100 opportunities.

“He’s been great for us,” said Kings guard De’Aaron Fox. “He goes out there and just makes plays, whether it’s throwing lobs, getting people involved or scoring for himself. He’s not playing like a rookie and we don’t treat him like a rookie.”

While he’s dropped off nifty passes to big men Kosta Koufos and Zach Randolph at the basket, nearly a quarter of his assists have gone into the hands of Willie Cauley-Stein – frequently for highlight-worthy, above-the-rim finishes. In a win over the Lakers on Nov. 22, 2017 five of the Kings guard’s seven dishes were alley-oops to No. 00, including a dazzling over-the-head, left-handed lob that resulted in a two-handed slam.

“First of all, we were born on the same date – that’s why we are so good (together),” Bogdanovic said with a chuckle. “I try to make the right play every single time, and we’re trying to play as a team. We’ve just known each other for two, three months. I believe in these guys and we have good chemistry. That’s most important.”

At the same time, No. 8 has recognized when to seize control of the offense as the go-to scorer, showing no hesitation with the ball in his hands at the most critical junctures.

In the closing seconds against the Warriors on Nov. 27, 2017, he elevated for a six-foot bank shot over Draymond Green, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, to give the Kings a two-point lead. After rebounding a Klay Thompson miss on the other end, Bogdanovic calmly sank a pair of free throws to seal a 110-106 victory.

In Monday's comeback win against Chicago, he once again came through in crunch time, draining a tightly-contested triple over two Bulls defenders to give the Kings the lead with under a minute left on the clock.

“I have experience of knocking down clutch shots, and have confidence in taking them,” Bogdanovic said, before shrugging his shoulders. “Sometimes the ball goes in, and sometimes not.

“Coach keeps telling me to be more aggressive, but I think that’s something I need to get used to. The pace of the game here is different than in Europe.”

It's easy to forget that although he plays far more like a tried-and-true veteran than an international rookie adjusting to a new league and foreign culture, Bogdanovic is only 50 games into his NBA career, and the transition from FIBA competition has come with its share of adjustments.

Among the major differences have been the speed and physicality of the NBA game, combined with long road trips, sporadic practices and frequent back-to-backs over the course of a grueling 82-game schedule.

"It's just a matter of time for guys who come over from overseas," Joerger said. "He's pretty seasoned, so he's just getting a feel for the length, and (understanding) the speed of the game versus the game overseas is a little different. He's still working at it. Usually, you get into your second year, and you're a lot more comfortable."

Stylistically, Bogdanovic said, the European game focuses less on fast-paced, one-on-one play, in favor of slowing down the offense to generate more ball movement, create better spacing and make the “extra pass” the norm rather than the exception.

“It’s much different here,” he said. “There’s more freedom. You have more space to show whatever is your talent. In Europe, it’s more like team basketball. It’s a game of (limiting) mistakes there, so it’s a different kind of pressure.”

A player who thrived in those very same high-pressure situations overseas for five years, "Bogi" is hardly satisfied with his budding NBA production or his team’s record, looking forward to devoting an entire offseason to improving his game, while preaching patience as a youthful Sacramento nucleus establishes its identity.

“As I say every time, it’s not about one game or two games, or three wins in a row – it’s all about creating a culture,” he said. “It will come, I believe.

“There are many things I can prove, and I can improve (over) time,” he added. “This summer will be the first summer off for me after a long time – seven, eight years – so I will work on my body and I will work on my skills. I know I can get a lot better.”

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