How Kings' Serbian connections help make Bogdan Bogdanovic feel at home


Editor’s note: NBC Sports California’s first “King of the Day” this season is Bogdan Bogdanovic. Stay with our digital and TV coverage all day long to learn everything about the Kings' versatile super-sub.

SACRAMENTO -- It’s an off day for the Sacramento Kings. Often times they call these “maintenance days,” although that may be a crafty term used to uninvite prying eyes.

Players come to the facility to get treatment or pump iron. For those who need work on the game plan, there always is a player development coach ready to go through film or shag balls in the team’s practice facility adjacent to Golden 1 Center.

Assistant general manager Peja Stojakovic makes his way to the court for an interview for the Purple Talk podcast. While he’s waiting for lights to be struck and cameras to roll, he grabs a ball and shoots a corner 3-pointer. And then another.

You don’t lose that want. You don’t forget the sound of the ball sliding through the net. You don’t forget being young, making millions and hearing the roar of the crowd. And so he lets it fly.

Stojakovic still has it. His 3-point stroke hasn’t flattened out and if anything, the 6-foot-10 former forward is leaner than back in his playing days.

While Stojakovic prepared to mic up for his interview, the next generation of Serbian sharpshooter stepped on the court to take over. Like handing over the torch, Stojakovic passed Bogdan Bogdanovic the rock and took a seat to discuss basketball, not play it.

As if one continuation of the same thread, Bogdanovic took the ball in stride and began dribbling around the court. It’s a common theme around the Kings. You can’t make it five minutes without running into a Serbian-born basketball player, either current or retired.

Bogdanovic pipes music through the sound system that will have to be turned down once the interview with Stojakovic starts, but the Kings guard is here to work out, which is what he does all day, every day.

He doesn’t need to go over the playbook. He knows it from front to back. He also doesn’t need to work out or get shots up -- he did hundreds of hours of that during the offseason and currently is in the best shape of his life.

The gym is where Bogdanovic feels most comfortable in the world. Like his countryman sitting down for a chat, Bogdanovic is a hooper. It’s all he knows and all he wants to know. 

“He’s one of those players that came to the surface through hard work,” Stojakovic said. “Bogdan is a hard worker. He’s earned every single thing in his career so far, at every single level.”

Journey to NBA

Bogdanovic showed he was ready to play immediately during his rookie season, including this game-winning shot against the Warriors (photo via USA Today Sports Images)

The Kings acquired Bogdanovic through a trade on draft night in the summer of 2016. Armed with the No. 9 overall selection that year, general manager Vlade Divac traded down with the Phoenix Suns to acquire pick No. 13, No. 28 and the rights to Bogdanovic, who was drafted two seasons earlier, but had chosen to stay with Fenerbahçe of the Turkish Super League.

At first, Bogdanovic looked like a throw-in on the deal, but Divac had his eye on the 6-foot-6 wing long before the Kings acquired him via trade. Originally signed as a teenager by Partizan, a professional team in Belgrade, Serbia, Bogdanovic played under legendary head coach Duško Vujošević, who had also coached Divac years before.

The scouting department didn’t need a file on Bogdanovic. Divac, who also hails from Serbia, had seen him play countless times and had watched him develop as a member of the Serbian national team. Divac also knew that the question wasn’t if Bogdanovic would come over from Europe, but when.

“When we made that deal, I felt very comfortable that he was going to be a King,” Divac told NBC Sports California. “Going back to see him play a few times, I knew that his ultimate goal was to play in the NBA. It was very easy for us to convince him to join the NBA.”

Easy is a relative term. Bogdanovic stayed in Europe an additional season to finish out his commitment to Fenerbahçe. He used the time to earn a EuroLeague MVP and also win the EuroBasket Championship.

When Bogdanovic did join the Kings, it was on the richest contract ever for a rookie. He received a three-year deal for $27 million, including a record $9.5 million salary in his rookie season.

In addition to the lure of riches and the greatest basketball league in the world, it didn’t hurt that the man calling for Bogdanovic was more than just some anonymous NBA executive.

Divac, along with Stojakovic, is an icon in Serbia. They are the men who made it to the league and blazed a trail for the current crop of players that includes Nikola Jokic and Bogdanovic’s Kings teammate, Nemanja Bjelica.

“They’re probably like Kobe Bryant here or Shaq, that’s how big they are in Serbia if you want to make some comparison,” Bogdanovic said of Divac and Stojakovic. “They are superstars. They really are heroes.”

While Divac was unaware, Bogdanovic also had a personal connection to the Kings’ GM dating back a couple of decades. As a youth, Bogdanovic applied to go to a basketball camp put on by Divac in Serbia.

“I was lucky, they picked me,” Bogdanovic said. “I didn’t know anybody from basketball, my parents weren’t from the basketball world.”

According to Bogdanovic, he sent in a letter and then was lucky enough to get drawn in a lottery to attend the camp.

While Divac wasn’t available on the day Bogdanovic played, it opened the door to him meeting famous Serbian players and coaches who were there. It was Bogdanovic's first camp and left a huge impression on him from a young age. 

“It was interesting to see that one of those kids made it to the NBA,” Divac said.

Bogdanovic now has his own camp in Serbia during the summer. He invites players from around the league, and it’s his way of giving back.

“They showed me the way and I follow now,” Bogdanovic said. “I know how I felt in those times, so it’s always nice to make kids happy.”

Serbia and Sacramento: Home and home

Basketball is a way of life in Serbia, and Bogdanovic takes pride in playing for his home country every opportunity he can get (photo via Associated Press)

Despite being more than 6,000 miles from home, Bogdanovic rarely feels lonely. His sister, Bojana, lives in Sacramento with him and is working on her M.B.A. at Sacramento State. 

“It’s really nice to go home to talk about different things, not just basketball,” Bogdanovic said of his sister. 

When he is at work, there are opportunities to shift into his native language all the time. 

“We have Igor (Koskokov), Vlade, Peja -- a lot of Serbian people,” Bjelica said. “Every day we’re talking about life, about basketball, about everything. We are like a family here.”

You can often find Bjelica and Bogdanovic sitting at a local coffee shop relaxing and deep in conversation. Before joining the Kings, the two played together at Fenerbahçe and they both continue to play with the Serbian national team during the summers. 

“Sometimes we are too much together during the season, so I don’t want to see him every day,” Bjelica said with a smile. “He has his own life. Myself, I have a family. We see each other with the national team and here - we spend so much time together on the court and off the court ”

Although Bogdanovic had a breakout FIBA World Cup over the summer, Serbia finished in fifth place after coming into the tournament favored. He’s starred in International play before all three of his seasons in Sacramento and has no intention of stopping. 

Playing for Serbia is an incredible honor. The team has a long history of success dating back to Divac’s days and the sport is tremendously popular in the region. 

“When you play for your country, it is special,” Bjelica said. “Everybody loves basketball in Serbia. They are crazy about basketball. They are great people who understand basketball. Our country is very small, but very proud.”

This sentiment was shared by Divac, who made the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on the International ticket earlier this year for his contributions to the game, especially with the Yugoslavian and Serbian national teams.

“Basketball is a way of life in Serbia,” Divac said. “Every corner in any city you have basketball courts and everyone knows basketball.”

For Bogdanovic, playing for his country is more than just an obligation. He is obsessed with the competition and more than anything else, basketball is what defines him.

“I love to compete, I love the game of basketball, that’s why I’m playing it, really honestly,” Bogdanovic said. “Everyone who knows me, they know I just love to play. That is what’s first on my mind, always.”

Between his first and second seasons, Bogdanovic injured his left knee playing in international competition with his national team. It was a fluke injury that could have easily happened in a pickup game at the Kings’ practice facility.

Despite the injury, Bogdanovic has no interest in stopping. Serbia currently is ranked sixth in the world and both he and Bjelica are looking forward to playing in the Olympics next summer in Tokyo, Japan. 

“There is always a chance to be great,” Bogdanovic said. “There’s another opportunity to win the tournament next year. So why not -- to experience that feeling of being a champion. That’s what drives me. That’s who I am.”

Divac played 17 seasons for his national team. Stojakovic played for multiple years as well and the two even won a gold medal at the FIBA World Cup in 2002.

“When you play for the national team, I think it’s the only team you don’t play for any contracts or any extra stuff, you just play for the passion of the game and the love of the game,” Divac said.

Bogdanovic has had to make major adjustments to transition between his national team and the Kings. He is the star for Serbia and starts every game. In Sacramento, he comes off the bench and is asked to be both a scorer and a facilitator. 

“It’s hard, but that’s life,” Bogdanovic said. “You have to adjust and you have to figure it out. You have to find a way to bring value to the team and to help your teammates to win games, that’s what it’s about.”

Barring a major injury concern, it’s unlikely that the Kings, under their current management, would ever ask a player not to play for their national team. That includes players like Cory Joseph, who plays for the Canadian national team, as well as De’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes and Marvin Bagley who were all invited to Team USA this past summer.

Part of the Kings' core

Bogdanovic's high basketball IQ has made him a coach on the floor for the Kings (photo via USA Today Sports Images)

Bogdanovic is considered a big part of the team’s core in Sacramento. After a rough few games to open the season, he has stepped up his game, especially with Fox on the shelf with an ankle injury.

The 27-year-old brings a different style to the game. He’s one of the best distributors on the team and his versatility allows coach Luke Walton to move him all over the court.

“The vision we see here, we want high basketball IQ players, he’s definitely one of them,” Divac said. “It’s easier for coaches. They can play him in different positions. He can play 1, 2, 3.”

In one game Bogdanovic is running the point, and the next he is defending LeBron James and holding his own. While in just his third season in the league, Bogdanovic has been a professional basketball player since a very young age and he is as fundamentally sound as any player on the Kings’ roster.

As a rookie, Bogdanovic could be seen working with Buddy Hield on film study. He would pull then-teammate Skal Labissiere aside after practice or shootaround and continue to explain the game plan and some of the finer nuances of the game. 

“He’s kind of an extra coach on the floor,” Divac said. “When I talk about basketball generally, coming from Serbia, they’re fundamentally very strong. So Bogdan is one of those guys that can teach his teammates to play the right way.”

His experience and basketball IQ are an added bonus for a team with a handful of very young players. He is a team leader, especially when the Kings are between the lines.

“From the young players, I think Bogdan is probably the most mature, basketball-wise, just because he’s been in big situations as a player,” Stojakovic said. “When he does something bad on the court, it pisses you off even more, because you know he is capable of doing more or doing better.” 

After locking up Hield and Harrison Barnes to big extensions over the summer, the Kings have turned their attention to retaining Bogdanovic past this season.  

His contract ends this summer and the team has a standing extension offer that would keep him in Sacramento for the next four seasons. However, his contract situation is complex and likely will take time to sort out.

There is no question that the Kings want Bogdanovic to stick around, and he would love to be in Sacramento long term. But those discussions are for another day. The focus is on winning basketball games now, which the Kings quietly are starting to do after a brutal 0-5 start to the season.

“I want to really be a successful team, like, this is a great organization here and every year we take that little step forward,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s important that you don’t have a step back in those processes, especially a huge step back.” 

The Kings are 5-2 in November and despite losing both Fox and Bagley to injury, they are finding ways to win. These injuries have also opened up more time for Bogdanovic in the rotation, and he is beginning to shine. 

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