A star in Europe, Vasilije Micic is embracing the challenge of his Thunder role

A star in Europe, Vasilije Micic is embracing the challenge of his Thunder role

In Europe, Vasilije Micic was a star. An MVP. With the Thunder, he’s had to fight even for role-player minutes. Micic said he’s feeding off the challenge of his basketball reinvention.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 26, 2024, 8:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 26, 2024, 8:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Back home, they wonder about Vasilije Micic. 

He knows it. 

He’s aware that longtime fans of his game in EuroLeague — and there are many — question why he doesn’t play more in the NBA, why he hasn’t put up bigger numbers for the Thunder in his role as a reserve point guard. 

Here’s a player who was “a legend” in Europe, Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said, a former EuroLeague MVP who’s now a 30-year-old rookie scrapping for minutes on a young team tied atop the Western Conference standings. 

It’s a shift in circumstance that Micic knows some folks find confusing 

The native Serbian knows the shift in circumstances is confusing to some folks back home.

But he’s found clarity in it.   

“From the outside for people that follow my career, maybe some things are not smooth and easygoing for me,” Micic said this week, sitting at a courtside seat in the Thunder ION, the team’s practice facility. “But that’s really not important for me. The most important (thing) is my current feeling, and my current feeling is showing me that everything makes sense, everything was with a reason.”

Micic looked relaxed as he said it, though it’s easy to see why he still might feel unsettled. 

He speaks to teammates, coaches and reporters in a language that isn’t his first. He’s living in a country he’d never even visited until he came here to sign with the Thunder last summer. 

And though he was a decorated star in Europe — he averaged 19.1 points and 4.5 assists over his last two appearances in the EuroLeague playoffs — Micic has had to work to earn even the limited minutes he’s found in OKC. 

“Nothing was guaranteed to him, he didn’t want anything guaranteed to him,” Daigneault said. “He just wanted an opportunity. And he put himself kind of back at the bottom of the mountain after working really hard to get to the top of one somewhere else. So as a person, I just really respect the vulnerability that takes and the courage that takes to even put himself in the position, and then obviously, he’s had to grind through it here.”

Catching up to the pitching

Before the season, Thunder general manager Sam Presti told Daigneault that Micic needed “to catch up to the pitching” in the NBA, that he’d need time to grasp the speed and athleticism of the NBA. 

That took time. And the Thunder was playing well enough without him in the rotation that Daigneault didn’t need to give him minutes. 

Still, the coach figured they would come. 

“Micic is so cerebral that you just kind of trust he’s going to get there,” Daigneault said. “I mean, you see the guy play in Europe and he’s a wizard.” 

Lately, he’s shown a few flashes of his old magic. 

After playing in 11 of the Thunder’s first 29 games, Micic has logged time in 13 of the past 15, averaging 3.7 points and 2.7 assists in 11.3 minutes over that span. 

Those are hardly MVP numbers, and though Micic is looking better, finding a role has been an uphill hike. 

But he finds comfort in the climb. 

“Everything in Europe that I achieved was not given to me,” he said. “I had to work for that. Nobody gave me anything there. So that’s how I learned it.”

Passing fancy

Like a lot of America’s budding pinpoint passers, Micic grew up emulating his favorite point guards. 

Unlike many Americans, his idols were Milos Teodosic and Sarunas Jasikevicius, European icons at the position. 

From an early age, Micic said, a knack for passing was “my main weapon,” and it’s been the one he’s most deftly deployed this season.

Micic’s eyes so rarely betray the path of his passes that he seems at times more comfortable with no-look passes than any other variety. 

On a play this month in Miami, Micic drove from the right wing into the paint and — as he appeared to stare down Kenrich Williams behind the 3-point line in the left corner — passed instead to Lu Dort, cutting on the baseline from the right.

In a game against the Celtics, Micic penetrated the paint and, as three defenders crowded him, flipped the ball out of the crowd to a waiting Jaylin Williams for a floater. 

“I think everybody on the team knows to be ready when Vasa has the ball,” Williams said. “He’s gonna find you. Regardless of where you’re at on the court, if he feels like you’re open, you think you’re open, the ball’s gonna come your way.”

The no-look passes can be surprising to his teammates, but Micic’s recent contributions aren’t. Thunder players knew “from the first day we saw Vasa play basketball” in the summer, Williams said, that he had an elite ability to read the game. 

During a Summer League practice, Williams said, Micic sat next to him and — having never played a minute in the NBA — gave him valuable advice on angles for setting screens to make life easier on his guards. 

Daigneault said Micic is “probably being a little humble” to call passing his greatest weapon. The coach noted the way Micic manipulates a pick-and-roll, the way he anticipates plays a beat ahead. 

“He really, really thinks the game with high, high levels of anticipation,” Daigneault said. “He’s incredibly high IQ.” 

It’s been that way as long as Daigneault can remember — and he can remember pretty far. When he was assisting then-Florida coach Billy Donovan with a USA Basketball team in Prague, he watched a young Micic pick apart the competition. 

“And even at that age, and he was, like, ridiculous as a passer,” Daigneault said. “I mean, he was 18 or 19 years old. So he’s always kind of had that, but there’s more to him. I mean, he’s got a great sense for the game.”

He’s using it now to assist the Thunder. 

Just maybe not as often as some people expected. 

On a role

During his days in the EuroLeague or the Turkish Sigorta Basketbol Süper Ligi, Micic could beat you in any number of ways. 

He was a dead-eye shooter at high volume — he hit 45.9% on five attempts per game last season in the BSL — who could score or pitch off penetration. Twice in his European pro career he hit better than 60% of his two-point shots. 

“I always feel happier when I pass than score,” Micic said. “But of course in modern basketball you have to be capable of scoring. So it’s kind of a mix of everything.”

With the Thunder, though, he’s found that his passing “makes everyone kind of happy,” and he’s found initiating offense for others the best thing he can do for his team. 

He’s found comfort with the Thunder’s second unit, serving sometimes as its primary playmaker and at other times as a secondary creator playing off starter Jalen Williams. 

Though he played more minutes in Europe and had more “let’s say importance to the team,” Micic said, he stresses that he’s happy with his role, pleased that he’s earning trust from Daigneault and his teammates and hopeful that in time he’ll earn even more. 

“It’s very important when you play for a team that is winning that you kind of find your peace and put ego on the side,” he said. “That’s something that, especially for young players, is the hardest part.” 

But Micic isn’t a young player. Certainly not by Thunder standards. 

At 31 years old, Davis Bertans is the only player on the OKC roster older than Micic, who turned 30 this month. The average age of the Thunder’s starters is 22.6, making Micic practically ancient. 

“I mean, the time flies fast,” Micic said. “It’s a fact, but they are right now very young and they believe they’re gonna stay forever young. And I believe the same thing. Inside of me, I really feel young. I really feel enthusiastic. I really wake up every day with same enthusiasm that I had when I was 20.”

The decision to come to the NBA at age 29 was “an example of my enthusiasm, my dedication,” Micic said. And of his patience. 

Micic is giving more to the Thunder, and he’s convinced there’s more to give. 

He came to the NBA to get out of his comfort zone. If it takes time to get into a new one, he can wait. 

“Deciding to come here was something that initially maybe didn’t look so logical for some of the people,” Micic said. “But for myself, knowing what I’ve been through, it’s something that just came as another challenge. And right now I’m feeding myself off of it.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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