Thunder’s Vasilije Micic tries to buck the trend of EuroLeague stars

Thunder’s Vasilije Micic tries to buck the trend of EuroLeague stars

Berry Tramel: Vulnerability. That’s a good word for Micic’s odyssey. He’s a 6-foot-5 point guard who was the 2021 EuroLeague most valuable player … he’s a made man in European basketball, and no doubt well-versed in the difficult transition to the American hardwood.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Oct 3, 2023, 1:33pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Oct 3, 2023, 1:33pm CDT

OKLAHOMA CITY — Mark Daigneault respects Vasilije Micic’s game. The Thunder coach might respect Micic’s decision more.

Micic sat in the Oklahoma City Convention Center on Monday, a long way from the European metropolises of Istanbul and Munich, wearing Thunder blue and about to embark on a grand adventure. The mid-day sun shining through a massive window helped illuminate Micic to Oklahomans.

Micic looks just like we’d expect Micic to look. Straight out of the Vlade Divac handbook, with thin beard and thick smile. Central casting for basketball players crossing the pond.

Will Micic play just like we’d expect Micic to play? How would we ever know? Who knows what to expect from Micic?

Twenty-nine-year-old European stars rarely experience late-career crisis. Teenagers, like Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokonumpo, sure. Twenty-year-olds, like Dirk Nowitzki and Nikola Jokic, OK. Twenty-five-year-olds, like Drazen Petrovic and Tony Kukoc, it happens.

But not 29-year-olds. Not stars who have reached or passed their prime, yet still feel the lure of the world’s best league and want to give the NBA a go. Only 10 Europeans have debuted in the NBA at age 29 or older. Legendary center Arvydas Sabonis was the best, with some scattered other success stories.

Which explains the admiration Micic’s latest coach declares for Micic.

“I have a lot of respect for, No. 1, what he’s accomplished overseas,” Daigneault said during Thunder Media Day. “He’s an incredible, incredible player over there that has an illustrious career and really is a legend over there at this point.

“But I also have a lot of respect and administration for the fact that he’s kind of thrusting himself into this position because he’s really got nothing to prove as a player, and yet he’s putting himself kind of at square one in the NBA, and he’s doing so with great vulnerability, which I have respect for the courage that that takes.”

Vulnerability. That’s a good word for Micic’s odyssey. He’s a 6-foot-5 point guard who was the 2021 EuroLeague most valuable player and a two-time EuroLeague Final Four MVP (2021, 2022). He’s a made man in European basketball, well-accustomed to the nuanced differences in the Euro game and no doubt well-versed in the difficult transition to the American hardwood.

For example, Milos Teodosic, a Serbian point guard, just like Micic. Teodosic was the 2010 EuroLeague MVP at age 23, then came to the NBA at age 30, signing with the Clippers. Teodosic lasted 60 games over two seasons, averaging eight points and four assists per game. In February 2019, the Clippers waived Teodosic, and soon enough he returned to European basketball.

Does that fate await Micic? Who knows? But credit Micic for taking his swings with a team loaded at point guard, with superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and blossoming Josh Giddey, still a week shy of his 21st birthday.

Micic was playing for Anadolu Efes in Istanbul. Micic had a nice contract, he calls Istanbul one of the best cities and Turkey one of the best countries in which to live. He was set and settled.

But Micic felt the siren song of the NBA.

“Inside, I felt like I needed to do something,” Micic said. “I feel like somehow I’ve got to challenge myself once again.”

Micic told Daigneault “I can be maybe this year the most excited guy on the court even though I’m older than that. That’s the main thing that drives me. When you reach some level of success over there, you kind of want to spread your potential out, and I feel this call came on time. As I said, if I didn’t get this one, I would probably stay there until the end.”

Micic was drafted by the 76ers in the 2014 second round, 11 picks after fellow Serb Jokic went to the Nuggets, but said he never talked to the Sixers about coming over to the U.S. That doesn’t sound right, but maybe something was lost in translation.

Anyway, Micic never showed much interest. The Thunder acquired his rights in a December 2020 trade that brought Al Horford and Theo Maledon to OKC, for Danny Green, Vincent Poirer and Terrance Ferguson.

But almost three years later, the Thunder has one of the NBA’s most intriguing rookies.

“A lot of things kind of just fell into place and it made sense,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said of the Mimic signing, to a three-year, $23.5 million contract. “As far as his game goes, I think everybody knows the NBA is very, very favorable to skill players that know how to play, that are really good with the ball and can anticipate how to serve the game. He has a lot of that.

“Now, how will that translate? I can’t give you that answer. I certainly know that we’re not going to see him play in the first 10, 20 games and go, ‘we have our answer.’ It’s going to be something that he has to learn, we have to learn him. There’s no fixed mindset on what exactly he can do or can’t do.”

Thunder newcomer Davis Bertans, 30, played EuroLeague ball against Micic before coming to the NBA seven years ago. He knows Micic’s game a little and the transition from Europe to the NBA a lot.

“He’s an excellent point guard, now with a lot of experience,” Bertans said. “Definitely brings the experience of a guy who knows how to win and play for the team. He can help a lot of guys. It’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment for him because obviously there’s differences, but in a way offensively it’s a little bit easier. Might take some getting used to with the athleticism and speed of some guys here but I think Euroleague has been in that sense getting better every single year as well. I think the gap is not that big as it was when I came.”

No one expects Micic to crack the starting lineup. But cracking Daigneault’s expansive rotation would seem an attainable goal for a recent vintage EuroLeague MVP.

Micic should provide veteran leadership — he says he expects no rookie hazing but will accept it if it happens — and already has a nickname, VaVa, from Thunder staff sergeant Kenrich Williams. Micic also gives the Thunder a point guard off the bench; the Thunder is awash in combo guards, but the Thunder’s only true point guards are Gilgeous-Aleander and Giddey, both of whom start.

Micic says he came to the Thunder with no promise or guarantee of playing time.

“So far in my life, nothing was given to me, and nothing was easy to reach,” Micic said. “I’m very happy to accept everything that comes to me.

“I told them I don’t need any prompts. I just want somebody to want me, and that’s what they showed to me, and at that point I will try to do my best and fight for my position like every other player here. We all have rights to hope for the best.”

That desire and that demeanor make Micic seem like a natural fit. EuroLeague stars don’t seem to have the attitude of NBA stars.

Remember Carmelo Anthony’s lone Thunder Media Day, in September 2017, when Carmelo bristled at the notion he might come off the bench? There was no bristling Monday.

Just a EuroLeague all-star looking what you’d think a EuroLeague all-star would look like, and a EuroLeague star talking like a EuroLeague star would talk, drawing respect from his new coach and curious eyes from all who like to see athletes buck the trend.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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