BOGACZYK: Nikolic Brings Euro-game to Herd Hoops
The Word on the Herd-Oct. 16, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- When Aleksa Nikolic left the Serbian banks of the Danube River in August to come to Marshall University, he said he wasn’t really worried about a bit of a language barrier.
"Basketball has a universal language," Nikolic said recently on the Cam Henderson Center floor. "It’s the international game."
And it’s a game that’s coming to Herd hoops with new Coach Dan D’Antoni, who is teaching the European style of quick-movement play his brother, Mike, brought to the NBA from a legendary playing and coaching career in Italy.
Nikolic, from Pancevo, Serbia, is at the front of this foreign-exchange movement for the Herd, and not just because he’s a point guard.
"The D’Antoni way is for lots of international players," said the 19-year-old Nikolic, whose teammates call him "Alex." "Pick and rolls … (D’Antoni’s) offense, the way he coaches the game is the way I like to play. I think this style of game is best for me. It was an easy sell for me to come."
The headband-sporting Nikolic has grown an inch to 6 feet 6 since he arrived. His wears size 15 shoes. His wingspan is 6-11. And on a team that wants to look for the first good shot and take it – and Mike D’Antoni says it’s just that, not the well-chronicled "seven seconds or less" – Nikolic is happy being a facilitator.
"I don’t know how big I’ll grow; I’m 6-6 now," Nikolic said. "I’m getting stronger. The 6-11 wingspan, long arms, that helps me play defense. I can get tips and steals. I think I’m an all-around player.
"I don’t want to be a player who only does one thing … take the ball to the goal and shoot from the perimeter, both of those. But what I like most to do is pass the ball. I learned that at an early age."
Watch Nikolic in practice and think about foreign point guards, and he’s a younger, taller and longer version of NBA veteran star Steve Nash – a one-time D’Antoni family point guard. At his height, he can bring a presence. With his skills, he can produce a prescience.
"I think it helps that in Europe, you play everything," Nikolic said. "I like all kinds of sports … basketball, volleyball, soccer. You play 6-8 hours a day there. I was pretty good in distance running, which is important here, with as much as Coach has us running."
Scott Rigot, the D’Antoni assistant coach who helped sell the Herd boss on Nikolic, said the rangy guard’s learning curve will be significant despite his obvious ball skills on the floor.
"There’s the language barrier," Rigot said. "He’s got to pick up terminology, got to learn to adjust to play against athletes. It’s a different game. American players can have a lot of physical tools that overwhelm you."
Nikolic already has noticed the difference between Division I practices and schoolboy and club hoops for Kris Kros Pancevo in Serbia.
"Here it is much more physical," said Nikolic, who speaks passable English. "It’s much faster, more fast breaks. Lots, lots of pick-and-rolls, lots of shots. I like that game, like it a lot. I need to get stronger, but since I’ve been here, I’ve gained about 7-8 pounds, up to 198.
"It has been a transition for me. School is totally different, basketball is different, everything is different. But I am adapting and I think as we go on, I’ll do very, very well with this team. Classes are going well.
"With the language, I understand everything, but sometimes I have a problem when I need to say something, the right words. But I’m learning. It’s going very well so far."
Asked if there is something he feels he has taught his teammates, Nikolic smiles, shrugs his shoulders and says, "I don’t know."
He passes with a veteran’s verve – and nerve at times. His shot? It has more soft bounce than a dryer sheet.
And if Nikolic’s love of the game and his competitiveness become woven into D’Antoni’s early Marshall teams, that might be enough for him.
"They say European players are very skilled, but players in the USA are very, very skilled, too," Nikolic said. "It’s different skills. I’m learning a lot. I hope my team can learn from me. We’re all starting out in this. It is a new system for all of us."
D’Antoni isn’t worried about Nikolic fitting in with his Herd, where the newcomers include Nikolic’s developing 6-9 countryman, Milan Mijovic.
"Alex is adapting well to the American college life and he plays the type of game that we like to play," the former MU Hall of Fame point guard said. "He sees the floor well and is an excellent passer who shares the ball with teammates.
"His growth will show more when he gets more comfortable with the language here, as when he has fast instructions during practice it will come down to how quickly he can process that. That will give him more comfort on the floor and more confidence, while helping him grow leaps and bounds."
Nikolic said the key for the 2014-15 Herd is the same for him in a personal way.
"My goal is to improve every day out here," he said. "I love basketball and I like to compete. I play hard."
And maybe, just maybe, Aleksa Nikolic is preparing to succeed Rakeem Cato as Marshall’s foremost passer.