Nineteen years ago this month, former Kings general manager Geoff Petrie spent several days in Greece, scouting games and schmoozing representatives of the sweet-shooting small forward he drafted two years earlier amid the boos and groans of a disgruntled fan base.
But Peja Stojakovic was more than worth the wait. You think? The Kings current director of player personnel, who was 21 when he made his NBA debut, developed into a three-time All-Star, two-time 3-Point Shootout champ, a fan favorite and an integral part of the most successful and entertaining Kings teams in the Sacramento era.
Bogdan Bogdanovic? It’s now or never. The intriguing prospect needs to pull a Peja for a couple of reasons, primarily money, opportunity, age and no DeMarcus Cousins, which alone guarantees a more welcoming environment.
Let’s start with the latest developments regarding the 6-foot-6 Serbian guard, who helped Fenerbahce defeat perennial power Olyampiacos last weekend for its first EuroLeague Championship. Current Kings general manager Vlade Divac – coincidentally, also a native of the former Yugoslavia – trekked to Turkey for the semifinals and finals on a similar Petrie-esque mission: Woo Bogdanovic’s friends. Make sure his imposing 7-foot-1 presence is noticed by everyone in the arena. Get another look at the player whose rights he obtained with his extremely active draft-day maneuvering last June.
Divac, remember, was pretty much skewered last June for drafting and trading the Kings’ No. 8 pick to Phoenix (Marquese Chriss) for No. 13 (Georgios Papagiannis), No. 28 (Skal Labissiere), the Suns’ 2020 second-round selection and the rights to Bogdanovic, who can begin negotiating with the Kings when NBA free agency begins July 1.
While Papagiannis and Labissiere shuttled between the Kings’ D-League team and Sacramento until late in the season, when both players received significant playing time and contributed to the upbeat mood swing in Golden 1 Center – it’s all about development post-Cousins, remember – Bogdanovic was emerging as one of Europe’s stars. Statistically, he averaged 14.6 points (43 percent from 3-point range), 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals, though the numbers in the overseas pro leagues are often misleading and should be evaluated with a heavy dose of skepticism.
But Bogdan’s grasp of the fundamentals is acutely obvious. Wiry but deceptively strong, he has excellent size, a 7-foot wingspan, the athleticism and creativity to penetrate and score or find open teammates, a lefty-righty handle and quick release on his jumper. He doesn’t shoot with Peja’s depth or accuracy – who does? – but he moves without the ball like a young Peja or Jim Paxson and is an above-average defender. Yes, he is a rarity, a Euro prospect who defends.
So the press is on. Bogdanovic, who would make his NBA debut at age 25, can ill afford to wait any longer. The league is becoming increasingly younger, sort of teen trendy with the annual influx of one-and-done players. The era of a Toni Kukoc, Sarunas Marciulionis and the late Drazen Petrovic waiting until their mid-20s to test the NBA is a phenomenon of the past, in no small part measure because successive collective bargaining agreements have made it advantageous for teams to both develop and retain their assets.
For Bogdanovic, finances are an especially key consideration. As a free agent not bound by the rookie contract (because he is three years removed from his draft class), the Kings can offer a multi-year deal and a substantially higher salary than the estimated $2.5 million year he earned this past season. Several sources within the league theorize that Bogdanovic would have been a top 10-15 pick in this upcoming draft, and believe that when the parties begin negotiating July 1, annual salary terms will range anywhere from $5 million to $10 million.
Apart from the economics – and the unsettled political situation in Turkey – Bogdanovic would be joining a franchise that has been bumped, bruised, blasted and otherwise widely ridiculed in recent seasons but seems to be in the infancy of a recovery phase of a post-Cousins era. Since the volatile All-Star was traded to New Orleans in February, the heaviness that burdened the franchise for seven consecutive seasons has been replaced by a lightness of being, the organization’s continued absence from the postseason notwithstanding. For the first time since, well, forever, the Kings younger players are actually staying in Sacramento and working out daily at the practice facility. Connect the emotional dots.
“It’s very important for European players to come to the right place, at the right time,” Stojakovic said recently. “You want to come to a place that offers support, because it is such a big adjustment, from the culture to the game. That’s why I believe that for the international players, the younger you come over here the better because you have to do extra things every day prove that you can play (at any level).”
Stojakovic, who was drafted in 1996 at age 19, spent two additional seasons with PAOK in Thessaloniki, Greece. The one-time Greek League MVP remained overseas partly because his father, Miodrag, thought he wasn’t ready for the NBA, but also, he said, because his contract contained a hefty buyout clause.
Two seasons and one career-threatening leg injury later, Stojakovic, who was physically mature beyond his years, joined a franchise in the process of signing a free agent named Vlade Divac – the Serb icon who offers a case study in the importance of the time/place/environment component.
Drafted by legendary Jerry West in the epic international draft class of 1989, Divac benefited enormously from the nurturing of Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, Mychal Thompson and Doug Christie, among others. Sarunas Marciulionis that same year was similarly embraced by Don Nelson, Chris Mullin and the Golden State Warriors. Kukoc, who went to the Chicago Bulls, was not so fortunate; he was caught in the personality conflicts involving Jerry Krause, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Nor was Petrovic, a brilliant shooter who joined a veteran Portland Trail Blazers squad and sat on the bench for most of two seasons. Zarko Paspalj spoke fluent English, but struggled under Larry Brown’s demanding tutelage in San Antonio and returned to Europe after one season.
“When you go where people want you,” Stojakovic added, “you can just feel it. It gives you energy and confidence. I was one of the few players who took a pay cut to come to America, to make the jump, and, of course, as you know, I have no regrets.”
Bogdanovic? He’s not a kid anymore. It’s time. Add it all up and, barring a financial impasse, expect him to be wearing his No. 13 (Christie’s old jersey) next season for the Kings.