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Filip Petrušev’s Long-Winding Journey to the NBA

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 7/29/2021 Lila Bromberg

How Petrušev is following in the footsteps of Nikola Jokić, Ivica Zubac and Goga Bitadze to reach the NBA.

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Filip Petrušev knew he had to do something. There was too much at stake.

It was July 2020. Just a few months prior, he had earned West Coast Conference Player of the Year honors and led Gonzaga to the league’s tournament championship. But then COVID-19 cases erupted, abruptly ending his sophomore season and completely altering the NBA draft process.

As impressive of a year as he had, it wasn’t enough to get scouts to buy in. The league’s modern big man is expected to either stretch the floor as a shooter or be a highly athletic rim-running, shot-blocker, but he had played a more traditional style for the Zags. And with no combine or in-person workouts with teams, there wouldn’t be any opportunities to improve his shot at getting drafted.

Knowing he needed another year to boost his stock, Petrušev began surveying the best route to take. That’s what the Serbian native has always done—scanning and planning and sacrificing with one end goal in mind: reaching the NBA.

Which leads us to a conversation between Petrušev, his father, Dejan, his brother, David, and his longtime coach/trainer Marko Andjelkovic, all of whom were staying with him in Spokane through the early months of the pandemic. Petrušev had narrowed his choices to returning to Gonzaga or signing with Mega Basket, a European team with a knack for producing NBA talent.

“It’s about who you trust more,” Andjelkovic said as they mulled over the options. That struck a chord.

a basketball player in front of a crowd © Provided by Sports Illustrated

Petrusev didn’t trust that anything would change in his favor if he went back to Gonzaga. He committed to the program under the impression he’d continue playing as a stretch big, like he had in high school, and the shift had directly hurt his stock. Uncertainty also lay with what the next season of college basketball would look like, whether it was even going to happen.

He felt like he could trust Mega. The team had proven results of sending similar big men to the NBA, most notably Nikola Jokić, Ivica Zubac and Goga Bitadze in recent years. The club had a reputation of prioritizing the growth of young players in a way European and college teams rarely do, played against high-caliber competition in the ABA League, and also just so happened to be based in his hometown of Belgrade, Serbia. It was a daunting move, but he had to take the risk for the betterment of his career.

“After two years of me giving everything I had for the school and for that team, I just felt like I wasn’t given back much,” Petrušev says. “I had the same goal, so I just wanted to take care of myself a little bit more.”

As soon as he made up his mind, Petrušev scheduled a meeting with the Gonzaga coaching staff for the following day. But hours before he was set to inform them he was leaving, the news was leaked by a Serbian reporter. He immediately called to apologize and explained that it was out of his control.

They understood, but Petrušev knows a lot of other people didn’t. This wasn’t the first move he’s made that has provoked judgment or caused people to turn their heads in confusion.

Driven by an unwavering self-determination, Petrušev has been carving out his own path since he was a young teenager. From Serbia to Spain, across the Atlantic Ocean to stops of Connecticut, Florida and Washington in the United States, and then back to Serbia this past season, each move intentionally chosen for the sake of his basketball career.

At 14 years old, Filip Petrušev says he didn’t know anything about life, about what it actually meant to be an adult. But he did know one thing: He wouldn’t be like the others.

Several of his friends had tried going overseas to start their basketball careers with clubs across Europe, but none had lasted. After a few weeks, if that, they all returned to Serbia.

He felt that weight himself. Everything was different in Spain. Nobody spoke Serbian, for starters. He had learned English, but that wasn’t anything useful in the Basque country town of Vitoria-Gasteiz. He was without his family for the first time (though they visited every few months) and living in a house with other foreign players.

“Those first two or three months, like you either break or you bend and you keep going,” Petrušev says. “There is no backing up; there is no going back for me.”

When things got especially trying, he turned to the one person he has always been able to turn to: his younger brother, David. The pair would spend countless hours playing on a mini basketball hoop in their childhood home in Belgrade. Filip would pretend to be Dirk Nowitzki—his favorite player growing up—and David was LeBron James. “He usually dunked over me,” the younger Petrušev recalls with a laugh.

When the NBA draft rolled around, they’d sit in front of the television together and watch every pick get called. As each player stepped onto the stage, they’d wonder aloud about what they would look like in that moment, imagining the day that one of their names would be read as the next selection.

“On my journey I’m competing against all the people that want the same as me, and by itself that’s a competition,” Petrušev says. “And anytime I hear it’s a competition, it’s on.”

So he pushed forward. He trained under Inaki Iriarte, who had mentored other big men like Luis Scola and Serge Ibaka. Iriarte was a master at post play—despite his short stature and having never played the position himself—and he drilled the young Petrušev, helping him hone his footwork in the post and master the hook shot through hours of film and practice.

The more hours Petrušev put in, the more he started to question whether this was the best way to reach the NBA. He saw how long it took players to climb the rankings through the European club system and how little control they had in that process, especially in regard to where they were sent. He wanted his fate to be in his own hands.

So Petrušev and his family began discussing other options. He wanted to go to the United States, eager to get more exposure and inch closer to the NBA. And his father knew that was the only place where he could have basketball and education at the highest level.

“He felt that he was the one choosing his path,” David Petrušev says. “And me and our parents just helped him and support him all the way.”

When Petrušev began thinking more seriously about moving to the United States to continue his basketball career, he and his brother scoured YouTube watching video after video to see how high schoolers played across the Atlantic. “It looked crazy,” David Petursev recalls. “Crazy athletes, different type of game.”

But when they arrived at Avon Old Farms, a small all-boys boarding school in Connecticut for his junior season, Petrušev was taken aback by how disorganized the basketball was. At that point, he was restricted to the sidelines while recovering from a foot injury, but as he watched he grew worried.

Once he was able to get back on the court, his mind was reassured. Petrušev fell in love with the different style of play, how the game operated at a much faster pace, and he was able to get more involved with the offense. He could stretch the floor and shoot the three, and he liked having the ball in his hands more.

Dejan Petrušev had chosen Avon Old Farms because it seemed like a safe environment for his sons to transition to another new country, but it wasn’t a high-level basketball program. That needed to change for Filip to continue his path toward the NBA. So, after two years in Spain and one year in Connecticut came another move—this time to Florida.

Petrušev transferred to Montverde Academy to play for Kevin Boyle, who had a reputation as an elite developer, for his senior season. By that point in 2017, the program had become known for regularly attracting and churning out college and NBA talent, particularly on the international front, and Petrušev hoped to be next in line.

Boyle was drawn to Petrušev’s versatility; he envisioned the 6' 11" Serbian as a modern big who could shoot threes and set himself apart as an inside-outside player. But he was too thin at the time. “You gotta put some muscle on,” Petrušev remembers Boyle telling him. “You gotta be ready for college—you can’t play college like that.”

Petrušev regularly asked coaches to get in the gym with him outside ofindividual and team practices, determined to develop his game even more. He put on weight, improved his shot and learned to space the floor better.

“His mindset was that nobody was gonna outwork him,” Boyle says.

But more than anything, Petrušev focused on developing his confidence at Montverde. He was on a team led by RJ Barrett, the No. 1 player in the country, as well as top recruits Andrew Nemhard and Mike Devoe. He hadn’t played with so much talent of that caliber before, and at first, he was somewhat hesitant, often passing up open looks in early practices and games. Boyle and his coaching staff wanted him to be more aggressive.

“We tried to stress to him … how good he is already and how good he can be,” Boyle says. “And that he’s got to really believe that and understand that the sky’s the limit for him.”

Though Petrušev was dead set on reaching the NBA, a part of him needed reassurance that he was indeed on the right path to get there, that he did possess the intangibles. He bought into Boyle’s vision and excelled throughout the latter part of the season, showing off an improved perimeter game as a stretch big, and he played a key role in helping the team finish the season undefeated with a national championship. His plan was starting to fall into place.

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few stopped an early fall 2018 practice in its place. Upset by the lack of toughness Petrušev was showing, he opted to try a different tactic.

“That's not good, Filip. Go sit and come back when you're ready,” Petrušev recalled the head coach yelling. “This is not Serbia!”

Petrušev was getting thoroughly outplayed in the post, struggling to acclimate to a new system while going up against future NBA forwards Brandon Clarke, Killian Tillie and Rui Hachimura. He took five minutes on the bench to regroup, quietly fuming. Once he stepped back onto the court, it was as if he were a different player.

“When he said all those things, in my head I was like, 'O.K., well now I’m gonna be a baaaad motherf-----!'” Petrušev says. The 6' 11" forward was determined to be as physical as possible for the rest of the practice, boxing out with full force and trying to grab every rebound he could.

“He came back and he just crushed everyone,” recalls guard Greg Foster Jr. “He’s never been one to really back down from anything.”

That mindset was evident from the very first practice of the season, when Petrušev dazzled with a lights-out shooting performance, showing off his unique ability to let it fly from deep, mixing in a fair share of midrange floaters and fadeaway jumpers as well.

“I don’t think he missed a shot for like 10 minutes,” recalls Travis Knight, Gonzaga’s strength and conditioning coach. “You could see he was going to be an NBA player.”

As impressive as the showing was, Petrušev was quickly informed that the Gonzaga coaches wanted him to develop his interior presence and play a more traditional style. It was the complete opposite of everything he had just worked to develop at Montverde.

“It was really, really stressful,” Petrušev says. “They literally changed my whole game.”

Though he put in lots of extra hours late at night in the practice gym, often with Foster, Petrušev admits he didn’t play with his usual passion or effort at times, frustrated by the whole situation. Adjusting to an entirely new style of play is hard in itself, and he was also adapting to yet another new place—his fourth stop in recent years.

He averaged 6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds in 11.4 minutes per game off the bench in that 2018–19 season. And though he was named to the WCC All-Freshman team, neither he nor the coaching staff were satisfied with how the year had transpired.

Gonzaga was set to lose Hachimura and Clarke to the NBA draft, so it was pivotal that the big man step up to play a bigger role as a sophomore. Assistant coach Tommy Lloyd had a lot of one-on-one talks with Petrušev in his office that offseason, breaking down what the staff expected of him and what needed to change.

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Petrušev made a huge leap as a sophomore, bumping his production up to 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists a night, starting all 33 games before the season was cut short. The coaching staff was concerned with the lack of depth on that year’s team, but behind the efforts of Petrušev, alongside Tillie and Corey Kispert, the Bulldogs went 31–2 and were expected to be a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

“Not a lot of people are willing to pay the price that it takes,” Lloyd says. “And Filip showed that he was.”

He was named the WCC Player of the Year and a Third-Team All-America after fully embracing the traditional style of play, but it came at the cost of his NBA prospects, leading him to sign with Mega the following season.

As soon as he landed in Belgrade, Serbia, in September, Petrušev found himself surrounded by a cluster of extended family members—the group of nearly 15 took up so much room that a part of the airport had to be sectioned off for them. For half an hour or so, they just stood there embracing and catching up, savoring the feeling of being back together.

After seven years of being separated by thousands of miles, his family was now just 20 minutes away. He went to his childhood home every weekend. His parents came over to his apartment for dinner a couple of times a week. For the first time in recent memory, they got to celebrate Christmas and Easter together. And at every home game, Petrušev could look into the stands and there they were cheering for him.

He had grown accustomed to adapting to other environments, an expert at shape-shifting to fit other cultures and customs. But for once, there was no need. He was back where it all started, in the city where he grew up surrounded by familiar faces. There was an immediate feeling of comfort in that.

As enjoyable as it was, there’s no mistaking that this was the most intense season he’d been a part of. He was a professional now. There were no time limits on practice mandated by NCAA rules or school-related responsibilities pulling him in opposite directions. Everything was centered on the basketball court and he worked tirelessly, continuing to chase his dream with all the energy and dedication he had.

The main focus was developing a more consistent perimeter game. He had always possessed a unique shooting ability for someone of his size and he’d worked on honing that at Montverde, but there still was a lot to be done to make it a staple of his play. He continued to transform his body in the weight room as well, adding noticeable muscle to his frame. And he put an emphasis on his ability to handle the ball and his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll game.

Everything clicked in the fourth contest of the regular season against Crvena Zvezda (also known as Red Star), one of the best teams in the ABA.

After his team fell into a 14-point deficit early, Petrušev scored nine points to lead an 11–2 run in a little over three minutes. He continued to keep his team in it throughout the contest, igniting a 7–0 run to tie the affair in the third quarter, and then notching things even again with about a minute left. Mega wasn’t ultimately able to pull off the upset, suffering a 76–73 defeat, but Petrušev’s 22-point, 11-rebound effort made it the closest game between the two clubs since 2015.

Once he had a quiet moment after the game, Petrušev took some time to reflect and let it all soak in. “You can’t be afraid of anybody; they gotta be afraid of you,” he told himself.

From that point forward, he had a newfound sense of confidence. He was finally able to tap into playing with the passion, aggressiveness and toughness that the Gonzaga staff had been trying to coax out of him for so long. He relished in trash talking and provoking opposing players, leaning into every emotion and fully embracing his competitive side.

The 21-year-old went on to be named the MVP of the ABA League, following in the footsteps of Jokić and Bitadze, after averaging 23.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. He also received awards as the league’s scoring leader and best prospect following the dominant season, which saw him shoot 41.9% beyond the arc.

Although Serbia was knocked out by Italy in the championship game, Petrušev impressed throughout the FIBA Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournaments in Belgrade as well. He led his country in points per game (15.5) and shooting percentage (76.9%), making more of an impact than NBA talents Boban Marjanović and Nemanja Bjelica, despite averaging less than 20 minutes off the bench. And he played both the four and five positions throughout the tournament, once again displaying his versatility.

Petrušev has seen the mock drafts and big boards, though, fully aware of the doubt still coming his way. It’s like it always has been, competing against everyone else trying to get to the same place as him. But he’s more self-assured now than ever before, confident he’ll hear his name called during the draft come Thursday.

He’s been named MVP at both the college and professional levels. He’s excelled in vastly different roles and environments while creating his own path. He’s proven himself time and time again; now it’s just time to do so in the NBA.

More NBA Coverage:

NBA Mock Draft 6.0: Dust Settles on Top ThreeNBA Draft Big Board: Final Top 80 RankingsNBA Free Agency Rankings

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