Bogdanovic, Quiet by Nature, Starting To Make Some Noise
He's shy by nature and living in a foreign country, so it's no wonder he isn't the most talkative guy in the Pacers locker room. After most home games he manages to quietly escape while reporters are huddled around one of his teammates and head for the safety of his downtown condo, where he lives alone.
He's a shooter, too, a player whose NBA career hinges on the accuracy of his 3-point shot, which currently is among the best in the league. Shooters aren't out there to grind, they're there to do the fun stuff. To be the piano player rather than the piano carrier, as the saying goes.
He also has a pleasant, even-tempered demeanor. Something really big has to happen, such as the lack of a foul call when he's trying to get off a shot at the end of that game in Toronto on Dec. 19, to inspire much emotion from him.
Don't, however, make the mistake of attaching the dreaded "soft" label to Bojan Bogdanovic. You don't go from 15-year-old soccer player in Croatia who "didn't know anything about basketball" to a starting forward for an NBA team in 10 years without real fortitude...without accepting harsh coaching...without overcoming failure and moving on.
Bogdanovic has accomplished all that and more, and it seems there's a story to be told here. Digging into it, however, isn't easy. We're talking about a guy who doesn't even do social media. He has a twitter account, @44Bojan, but nothing has been posted under that handle since March 12, 2017. Someone else ran it for a while but abandoned it, which is fine with him. He never used it. Doesn't remember who was running it for him. Doesn't even know the password for it.
So, as you can imagine, he's not one to go on about himself for long. It isn't easy to find others who will do it for him, either. His father, Mario, doesn't speak much English and lives in Croatia, along with Bogdanovic's mother (Vesna) and three younger sisters, as well as his French Bulldog, Babo. Former teammates who witnessed his introduction to the NBA are difficult to reach. Current teammates like him, but it's not as if there's a treasure trove of Bojan stories to be told.
Bogdanovic's early years in basketball can be told succinctly enough. He was a natural athlete who played water polo, tennis and soccer while growing up. Soccer was his best and favorite sport, as it was for the vast majority of boys in Croatia then. Even now, if you watch closely, you might see him display a remnant of his futbol skills by controlling and passing a basketball with his feet while the Pacers shoot around at the end of practice.
He believes he was good enough to have a legitimate shot to play for the Croatian national soccer team someday, but he didn't appear to be on track for a professional career. His father, an attorney, had played basketball semi-professionally in the Yugoslavian League through his late twenties, and knew the game. He finally convinced Bojan to devote himself to a new sport where his height could be used to greater advantage.
Bojan balked, but gave in. What if he hadn't?
"Who knows?" he said. "Maybe I would be stuck in my own city, playing for my hometown soccer team. That wouldn't be enough for me."
Bogdanovic playing for the Croatian National Team
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
It wouldn't be enough, because Bogdanovic's easy-going nature masks an inner drive that has him playing the best basketball of his career in his fifth NBA season at age 29. It's his best in the obvious measurements such as scoring average (16.2) and shooting accuracy (50 percent from the field and 44 percent from the 3-point line), but also in the more nuanced analytics such as Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares. His 3-point rate, once best in the league at 50 percent, has dipped to ninth because of a recent dry spell but still will rank among the best percentages in franchise history if maintained, better than Reggie Miller ever managed in a single season.
Although Bogdanovic arrived at basketball late, it came to him quickly. His athletic background, his father's individual tutoring and the experience of playing for local school and club teams enabled him to develop so quickly that he signed with Real Madrid's junior team in Spain at 16, just one year after taking up the game. He had two fellow Croatians for teammates to help alleviate homesickness, but he grew up fast there. He gradually developed into a star performer in Euroleague play and for the Croatian national team.
His dream in those days was to represent his country in international play. He was barely aware of the NBA at the time, but it became a realistic option for him when, at 22, he was selected by Miami with the first pick in the second round of the league's draft. By the end of the evening he had been traded to Minnesota and then to Brooklyn. Predictably, he laid low during all the commotion, quietly watching the proceedings with his agent and a couple of friends from a hotel room in New York.
"I knew that I would not be in the first 15 picks, so I didn't want to go there for no reason," he says.
He stayed in Europe for a few more seasons before signing with the Nets in 2014. It turned out to be the right place at the right time. The Nets weren't very good, finishing 38-44, but had veterans such as Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Thaddeus Young to set examples, and Europeans such as Mirza Teletovic and Andrei Kirilenko to help him feel comfortable.
He started 28 games that season, 39 the next and 54 of 55 the next before he was traded to Washington for a first-round draft pick. The Wizards wanted another scorer for their playoff run, and he did a reasonably good job of providing one. He averaged 20 points off the bench while shooting 62 percent from the 3-point line in his first six games before his playing time dwindled, and he averaged 8.8 points in the 2017 postseason for a team that lost a seven-game series to Boston in the second round.
He was a free agent that summer. Four teams made offers, two to become a starter and two to play off the bench. He won't identify the teams, but says one glance at the standings reminds him he made the right choice.
The Pacers presented the right combination of a starting opportunity and a chance to win. Coach Nate McMillan says he was on board because he always had to specifically prepare for Bogdanovic when playing against the Nets. If so, McMillan and his staff must have done a good job, because Bogdanovic's career scoring average against the Pacers (7.6 points on 34 percent shooting in 10 games) is his lowest versus all NBA opponents.
Signing Bogdanovic didn't exactly exhilarate the Pacers' fan base, though. He wasn't a well-known player nationally, he hadn't performed well when his teams played against the Pacers, he was regarded as one of the NBA's worst defenders and he would be replacing their best player, Paul George, at small forward. It's easy to forget now, but at the time Glenn Robinson III seemed a capable successor to George as a more athletic wing player who had shot better from 3-point range (39 percent) than Bogdanovic the previous season.
Bogdanovic has turned out better than most people, McMillan included, anticipated. But his path to the most stable situation of his career hasn't been without some pratfalls. He performed poorly in some clutch moments last season, most notably with that panicky lob pass against Boston in December of 2017 that was picked off and converted to a game-winning dunk by Terry Rozier, spoiling an impressive Pacers comeback.
That dark moment, however, turned out to be a positive development, a turning point of sorts for Bogdanovic with the Pacers. McMillan and the other players not only forgave him, they embraced him.
"Looking from this point right now, it was good that it happened," Bogdanovic says. "But at the time I was devastated. I was so mad at myself; I was so down. But all teammates and organization really supported me. I got tons of (text) messages from them. I was surprised."
Bogdanovic celebrates with teammates
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
It would have been understandable if McMillan had stopped playing Bogdanovic in crucial late-game moments after that, but he stuck with him. He continued to let Bogdanovic inbound the ball on most possessions to tie or win the game as a show of faith and continued to play him on cold shooting nights. If handled properly, McMillan figured, that moment and others could be manipulated into something inspirational.
"It hurts like hell when it happens, but it helps you grow," McMillan said. "I felt bad for him. There wasn't too much we could do. We dropped it, let's move on. He'll never forget it and he has grown from that experience.
"Now he's one of the guys who understands exactly what we're looking for."
Bogdanovic had the luxury of operating mostly in the background last season. Fellow newcomers Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, Darren Collison, and Cory Joseph and semi-newcomer Lance Stephenson all played more dynamically and attracted more attention from fans and media. Bogdanovic had the occasional big game and the occasional gaffe, but was the most anonymous of the rotation players. He's been more visible this season. He appears more comfortable, more confident, the end product of McMillan's patience and expectations as well as greater familiarity with his teammates.
Which isn't to say he feels as if he has it made.
"I am here trying to prove myself every single game," he says.
McMillan coaches him a little differently than last season. He's tougher on him, having learned that the player who rose through the European leagues can take the heat without flinching. Bogdanovic has responded by becoming the Pacers' No. 2 offensive option, and was No. 1 when Oladipo was absent. He averaged 19.4 points on 53 percent shooting – 45 percent from 3-point range - in the 11 games Oladipo missed. He's also been their most consistent scoring threat, having scored in double figures in 31 consecutive games – another career high – until ending the streak in Wednesday's loss at Boston.
"He's mentally tougher than a lot of players," McMillan said. "He doesn't drop his head when you criticize him. I've challenged him a lot. Last year we were kind of feeling him out, this year we know him and he's getting more and doing more, and we're expecting more. I've had to challenge him.
"That kid continues to play. He's not one of these guys you get on him during the course of a game and you lose him. The kid believes in himself, he's confident...he's a man. I think he's grown up in an environment where hard coaching doesn't faze him."
"In Europe they are all kind of hard," Bogdanovic says. "They yell a lot, but they are trying to be honest and try to teach you how to get a work ethic and how to play the right way.
"Here a lot of guys, if you yell at them, they get upset or mad at you. I'm not this type of person. I love when someone is honest with me and tells me right in my face what they are thinking about my game or my attitude or whatever."
His game and his attitude and his whatever are better than ever now. The player who got off to a late start will have a lot to do with how the Pacers finish the season and should have plenty of opportunities to let his game speak for him. Beyond that, who knows? Someday he'll return to Croatia to live. But he wants to put off that day for as long as possible.
"I feel great," he says. "I'm trying to take care of my body. I love this game, so there's no reason to think about retirement yet. There's a lot of years of good basketball still in front of me."
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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