Bogdan Bogdanovic has barely been in town two weeks and already a moment stole his breath away.
It wasn’t dining with fellow Serbs Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, leasing a Tesla or renting a house somewhere “across the yellow bridge.”
No, Bogdanovic can’t wait to tell his friends back in Belgrade about the highlight of his NBA preseason debut Monday against the San Antonio Spurs: He subbed for Vince Carter. The future Hall of Famer. The half-man, half-amazing superstar he played as in video games as a kid. The veteran who obliged when his friend begged for a photo and an autograph when they were introduced in Sacramento this summer.
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“My friend and I were getting into a van to go to dinner with Vlade,” Bogdanovic recalled, “and Vince was sitting in the car. He said, ‘What’s up?’ I was like ‘Wow. No way!’ Then to sub for him and to somehow score my first points on a dunk – and I am not a dunker – there is something special about this.”
The eldest of the Kings rookies at age 25, Bogdanovic is animated as he talks about his legendary teammate, about his new team and new city, only gradually moving past the pinch-me phase of his NBA career. He swears he is merely breathless and not out of breath despite a frenetic “offseason” playing for Fenerbahce in the EuroLeague championships and the Serbian national team in the EuroBasket tournament that ended days before training camp.
Then it was off to America. Getting a social security card. Setting up a bank account. Meeting with a tax specialist. Choosing a rental house large enough to accommodate his parents when they move here next month.
“But I’m not exhausted, because I’m happy to be here,” he said while seated in a corner of the practice facility. “I’m doing things to keep my mind and body fresh. Like, today, we did yoga.”
What form of yoga? Bikram? Beginner?
“Um, the stretching yoga,” he said with a laugh.
Bogdanovic, who prefers the nickname “Bogi” (BO-gee), arrives at an opportune time. The locker room in the Golden 1 Center is a mellow place these days, the daily soap opera having ended after the 2016-17 season.
Coach Dave Joerger has job security. Carter is the undisputed leader, and though the 40-year-old’s explosive athleticism is gone, the line forms after him. Divac has rebuilt the roster, stocking it with talented youngsters and selfless veterans who are embracing their roles as mentors and contributors.
Bogdanovic, whose draft rights were acquired from the Phoenix Suns two summers ago, is projected as a significant piece of the new foundation – a perception that has been reinforced in the early weeks of the preseason. At 6-foot-6 and 205 pounds, he is physically mature, versatile and seasoned. He has broad shoulders, large hands and a wingspan that enables him to deflect balls and pester in the passing lanes.
“I like him because he can do a lot of things,” said Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, the former coach of CSKA Moscow and the Italian national team who has known Bogdanovic for years. “He can score, he can pass, he can defend and he is very, very poised. Now if you ask me, ‘Does he excel at something?’ I would say no. For example, (Milo) Teodosic will surprise you with phenomenal passes. He (Bogdanovic) will make the good pass, the solid pass. And I think he’s a good shooter, but he can still improve.”
That may be true, but the shooting contests between Bogdanovic and second-year guard Buddy Hield have been the talk of camp. Stojakovic, the Kings player development director and one of the game’s premier shooters during his career, routinely sits nearby and keeps score. It has not been uncommon, he says, for both players to convert 40 or more consecutive 3-pointers.
When not launching from deep, the two guards often engage in intense one-on-one matchups in a near-empty gym, long after practice has ended.
“Buddy loves to work, loves to play, and I love it,” Bogdanovic said. “We practice really well together. And he’s a tough, tough competitor, and he likes to talk a lot. It’s fun.”
On those occasions when he is confused about a scheme or assignment, he usually relies on George Hill, the veteran point guard who signed a three-year deal with the Kings during the summer.
“The NBA is so different than Europe,” Bogdanovic continued. “Speed is the biggest difference, but the defense is more physical, and then there is the three-second rule. George, I don’t even need to ask. I just look at him and he is like, ‘Oh, you need to do this or do that,’ in words I understand. I learn many, many things from him.”
Bogdanovic learned English by playing video games – his favorite was “World of Warcraft” – and listening to hip hop and R&B music. Still, while much of basketball is a universal language, there have been challenges. Though reasonably fluent, he tends to translate word for word instead of filtering phrases and sentences. Similar to Divac, who spoke absolutely no English when he joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989, the Kings rookie continues to think in his native language.
Yet he takes much of this in stride, even pokes fun at himself for using the wrong word or failing to clearly articulate his thoughts.
“Like against the Spurs,” Bogdanovic offers, with a grin. “Coach said, ‘Bring the ball to the side.’ I thought, ‘Bring the ball to the side?’ That means I bring the ball to the side and, in Europe, I call that play. So I bring the ball to the side and try to call a play, and he called a timeout. I didn’t know that’s what it meant. A timeout. It was pretty funny.”
There have been other moments, some more nerve-wracking than others. Bogdanovic studied the booklet for his driver’s examination, but when he arrived for his scheduled appointment, was turned away because he was missing some paperwork. Choosing a neighborhood and a place to live was time-consuming as well, especially given his parents’ pending move and his desire for a short commute. He found what he believes is the perfect spot.
“I don’t know the name of the neighborhood,” he said, “but it’s across the yellow bridge.”
That would be West Sacramento, he was told.
“Oh, OK,” he said, smiling. “I am still learning the area, restaurants, things like that. But I am just so happy to be here. The guys are great, a lot of fun to be around, and having Vlade and Peja here. That helps, too. The Kings were our favorite team because of them.”
Then again, that was then. Vince Carter is here and now.
“I remember when I was really, really young, and he was in the dunk contests,” Bogdanovic said. “When Vlade called me last summer and said, ‘We signed Vince Carter,’ I couldn’t believe it. Yeah, yeah. When I meet him I am in … awe. Now I want to learn from him and listen to what he tells me. All of the vets, they can teach me a lot, how to be more mobile, and especially on defense. But it was great to get started, and somehow, to start with a dunk.”