KRAVITZ: Like Oladipo and Sabonis, Bogdanovic has been a Pacers' revelation – and he can play defense, too

Indiana Pacers' Bojan Bogdanovic (44) spins his finger after making a 3-point basket against the Orlando Magic during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Nov. 20, 2017, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - When Pacers’ general manager Kevin Pritchard made the decision to acquire Bojan Bogdanovic this off-season, I checked his NBA stats and other analytics and came to the following conclusion:

Meh.

Paul George’s replacement? Really? And while we’re at it, when is Glenn Robinson III coming back from injury? Bogdanovic was supposed to be known as a long-range bomber, but his lifetime .367 percentage from three was only slightly better than the league average. And his defense, well, he was ranked by ESPN as the 466th out of 468 players last season, hardly what this Indiana team needed in terms of a wing defender.

Maybe it was ignorance on my part, but I thought about Bogdanovic this way: He was a typical Euro-sniper who stood in the corner, waited for the ball to be passed his way, and chucked it from deep. Then, on the other end, he was a defensive cipher, due either to a lack of athleticism or a general distaste for guarding people – or both.

Well, if we were wrong about Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis – OK, we were painfully, happily wrong about those two guys – we (and I add myself here) were completely off-base when it came to the Bosnian-born Croatian who the Pacers acquired this past off-season as a free agent. Like the aforementioned rising stars, Bogdanovic has also been a pleasant surprise who has performed in ways that his previous numbers and prevailing reputation suggested were absurd, if not impossible.

Three-point shooting? He came into Wednesday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls shooting 44.5 percent from behind the arc, and has been especially effective from the corners.

Two-point shooting? He came into Wednesday night’s game shooting 55.9 percent on two-point field goals.

Here’s how good he’s been offensively, according to my resident (unpaid) stats guru, Grant Afseth: Bogdanovic leads the entire NBA in points per possession for any player who has logged at least 250 possessions (1.169 points per possession).

This is what most of us didn’t know: Bogdanovic, or Bogey if you prefer, has a well-rounded offensive game that goes far beyond standing outside the arc and letting it fly. He is effective on the pump-fake-and-drive. He is terrific in the pull-up game. He isn’t PG, but he’s been a perfect complement for a team that is playing terrific basketball and in the midst of a six-game homestand when they figure to put some distance between themselves and the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“He can shoot from three,’’ said assistant coach and defensive guru Dan Burke, “but his pull-up game is money. He’s got that soft touch off the glass. There’s a real quiet confidence about him that I like, an internal fire. For a while, I was like, 'Does this kid have a pulse?' Yeah, he does. When you evaluate guys, you ask, 'Is he a winner?' Yeah, I think he’s a winner.’’

Bojan Bogdanovic & LeBron James
Indiana Pacers' Bojan Bogdanovic (44), from Croatia, is fouled by Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in Cleveland. The Pacers won 124-107. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

This, though, is where we move into the realm of the unbelievable with this player: He’s not only a decent defender, he’s reached the point where he’s taken on folks like LeBron James and DeMar DeRozan and done a better-than-acceptable job on them. No. 466 out of 468? Really? Not any longer. Now, we’re not saying he’s a stopper or anything, but he’s good enough, and his offensive output combined with his passable defensive work have made him a central part of the Pacers’ renaissance this season.

"A big part of it is that when I played in Brooklyn, we were giving up 120, 130 points every night, so it’s hard to say who plays good defense and who doesn’t play defense,’’ he said. “…I read all these stories about how I am a bad defensive player, so I came here to prove that I’m not bad, that I can play defense. Almost all the league knows I can shoot, so I wanted to prove something else. Those are the two things I tried hard to improve last summer, my ball handling and footwork for defense, and it’s paying off. I’m trying to challenge myself to defend all those stars and the coach believes in me and that gives me the confidence to play well against them.’’

Did we mention that LeBron will be Bogdanovic’s defensive assignment when the Cavaliers come to Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday? Here’s the thing, though: The Pacers have no hesitation about sticking Bogdanovic on guys like LeBron, DeRozan, James Harden and others. It’s not just his growing defensive ability, but he has the ability to make those same superstars work hard on their defensive end as they attempt to run around and guard a player who moves beautifully, and unceasingly, off the ball.

“That was something I saw when we played against him when he was in Brooklyn,’’ Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. “Paul [George] had to guard him and had to chase him around screens all night and he did a really great job of moving without the ball. A guy like that is so hard to guard. He’s reading what the defense is doing and using screens and constantly moving.’’

If you don’t think Bogdanovic has been a reasonably good defender, just listen to Burke, who is generally a crusty curmudgeon who throws around compliments like manhole covers. Even he’s been impressed by Bogey’s work on the defensive end.

“In Brooklyn, they put him on some tough assignments, but I figured it was because they didn’t have much there,’’ Burke said. “But he takes great pride in it. He studies opponents. He wants to know where his man is going to be and he mentally prepares. Honestly, he’s been a joy to coach.

“He’s been more versatile defensively than I thought he would be. He’s shown a real talent and skill to guard every position. He’s got a lot of savvy in one-on-one situations. You saw the great job he did against DeRozan when Toronto was in here. He’s got good length, he knows how to space guys correctly, he gets into guy’s bodies and he does it skillfully, so it’s not a foul. So I’ve been surprised at how versatile and how wide his skill level is on defense.’’

Bogdanovic is also the product of the European basketball system, which puts great emphasis on practice and skill development – far different from America’s AAU, where it’s all about games, so many games. He grew up in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and played 10 years overseas. He was drafted at the top of the second round by Miami in 2011, but didn’t come to the States until 2014. He did three years in Brooklyn and one year in Washington before the Pacers, who desperately needed a long-range shooter, signed him as a free agent this past off-season.

In the offseason, he still goes back home to Mostar, a city that, like so many cities in that impossibly complex country, was badly destroyed during a series of internecine wars that raged in his part of the world during the early 1990’s. He was just a small boy when the wars were being waged, but he’s heard plenty about the violence from his family, and notes the physical scars the wars left in Mostar and so many of cities in the former Yugoslavia.

“My city is still divided by the [Neretva] river, Croatia and Bosnia, Catholic and Muslim,’’ he said. “The situation is fine right now but it’s not normal. We still talk about it [the war] and the newspapers talk about it all the time. It should be past but the government is still fighting all the time. It’s affected all of us.’’

For now, Indy is a second home, and it looks like a perfectly comfortable fit both for the player and his rising team. He’s not the guy we thought he was. Good thing, as it turns out.

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