Bogdan Bogdanovic has yet to see “Lady Bird,” our precious independent film that blows kisses to Sacramento and is a surprise contender in the annual awards conversation.
Soon, maybe. The Kings rookie credits cartoons, movies and video games with improving his English language skills and accelerating his introduction to a new city, a new country, a new culture. Repetition and routine are aiding his cause as well.
After trekking from his home in West Sacramento to Golden 1 Center repeatedly these past several weeks, Bogdanovic now knows the yellow bridge he drives across is the iconic Tower Bridge. He has been exposed to the back-to-back games that are an integral (and dreaded) part of the NBA schedule. He is adapting to small forward after being a ballhandling, hybrid guard most of his career. And in case anyone is wondering how the native of Belgrade, Serbia, is adjusting to American culture and California cuisine, fret not. He is diving right into the “farm-to-fork” scene.
Take Thanksgiving, for instance. Bogdanovic, who goes by “Bogi,” invited six of his boyhood friends to visit him for the week and hired a chef to cook an All-American meal.
“We had turkey and the dressing you pour over it – what is it called? Gravy?” he said. “Stuffing, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese. A couple of pies, too. I don’t like the pumpkin pie, but I had berry and apple pie, and that was very good. We will do it again Christmas, even though we are orthodox and our Christmas is later. My parents are coming, so of course, we will celebrate (Dec. 25) because we are here.”
The former EuroLeague star is also increasingly comfortable with his evolving job as reserve small forward/shooting guard.
The early book on Bogdanovic, who at 25 is older and more physically mature than most rookies, is proving to be accurate. One Western Conference scout who attended Kings games this past week described the 6-foot-6, 205-pound former Fenerbahce Istanbul star accordingly: Has toughness, size, strength. Not afraid of the big moment. Makes big shots. Is good in pick-and-rolls. Excellent coming off screens. Has a beautiful shot. Makes plays.
In the relatively small sample size of 18 games, Bogdanovic leads all first-year players in free-throw percentage (94.1 percent) and ranks in the top 10 among rookies in points (9.5), field-goal percentage (44.1), steals and assists (1.9) in 23.6 minutes per game.
But the stats only hint at his value to a Kings team that is 6-15 and stalled somewhere between young and old, and yet to establish an identity. Coach Dave Joerger’s blueprint for a squad known for stingy defense, excellent passing and movement, and a fast, rhythmic pace has materialized only occasionally. Some of this is attributable to the presence of so many inexperienced players, but also to a style conflict between some of the veterans who prefer a methodical, halfcourt pace, and youngsters who want to get out and go.
Bogi? He wants to get out and go. One month into the season, he has developed friendships and on-court chemistry with several of his teammates who are beneficiaries of his generous passing and skillful playmaking.
Besides the versatile repertoire of jumpers, dunks and floaters that Bogdanovic has showcased – including a game-winning bank shot against the Golden State Warriors on Monday – Joerger increasingly is asking him to facilitate the offense, using his exceptional court vision and slick passing skills on both the break and in halfcourt sets.
His knack for throwing entry passes to the bigs is impressive for such a young player, and he has dazzled with lobs to Kosta Koufos, Skal Labissiere and in particular the long, athletic Willie Cauley-Stein. In the recent victory over the Lakers, five of Bogi’s seven assists were alley-oops to the 7-footer, including a spectacular left-handed hook pass that the Kings center slammed through the net and left the sellout crowd buzzing.
Yet like most rookies, there have been bumps and bruises, episodes of confusion and shaken confidence.
“All those alley-oops the other night (Lakers) were contested the next night,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said. “The scouting is excellent here, and teams figure out your game. So you have to adjust, not year after year, but game by game. But Bogi is doing great and, defensively, he is surprising people with those long arms and good instincts.”
The most difficult transition, Bogdanovic says, is adapting to the speed of the NBA game. That, and the break-neck schedule. Similar to some of his teammates, he struggles with the quick turnaround on back-to-back games.
“That’s another lesson,” he said. “Beat the Warriors then come back the next night empty, and we can’t do that. In Europe, we play maybe two games a week and don’t have back-to-back games. We play one night, travel (commercial) the next day, then play the following night. Because we don’t have the charters and you are traveling all day, we call those our ‘back-to-backs.’ ”
There are several other notable differences between playing in Europe and the NBA, among them the interruption in the EuroLeague season to accommodate domestic matchups and national cup games, among others, along with a prolonged postseason and an offseason spent competing in the European Championships, World Cup and Olympics.
Even the warmups for practices and games contrast sharply. Bogdanovic says warmups in the NBA are longer and more regimented, with a much greater emphasis on stretching. But he enjoys the yoga sessions and doesn’t miss the occasional excessively long overseas practices.
“In Europe, you don’t have as many games,” he says, grinning, “but if you lose, the coach can punish you the next day with a three-hour practice.”
Bogdanovic seems to be embracing almost everything about his adopted hometown and the NBA, including the elite competition.
“This is my dream,” he said, “and I am loving it. I know I can be better here than in Europe.”