Men’s basketball: French connection

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University of North Texas senior forward Niko Stojiljkovic (25) goes up for a shot against Western Kentucky, Thursday, February 7, 2013, in Denton, TX.
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Stojiljkovic took winding path to UNT

Every aspect of Niko Stojiljkovic’s college basketball story has been unconventional.

So it stood to reason that his last hurrah in a home game at North Texas would be a little different as well.

Stojiljkovic took his turn walking to center court on senior night at the Super Pit last week, but the former member of the French national team wasn’t met by his parents or his girlfriend like his teammates.

Stojiljkovic was met by head coach Tony Benford and everyone else on UNT’s bench who crowded in for a senior night picture that commemorated the end of his unique journey, one Stojiljkovic didn’t want to make a few years ago.

Stojiljkovic wrestled with the decision of whether to turn professional or come to the U.S. to play college basketball before electing to sign with San Francisco back in 2009.

Four years, four coaches and three colleges later, Stojiljkovic is still trying to fully capitalize on his potential and is down to his last chance in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, which will begin Friday when UNT faces Louisiana-Lafayette in an opening-round game.

That’s perfectly fine with the lanky 6-foot-9-inch forward with an inside-outside game and a pass-first mentality.

For Stojiljkovic, the journey — one that left him alone when it comes to family for events like senior night — has been worth it, even though it didn’t turn out as he expected.

“It helped me find myself,” Stojiljkovic said. “When you are by yourself away from family, you find

out a lot about yourself, even though you have people helping you. You see what kind of character you have and what kind of person you are. I found out that I am pretty tough. It hasn’t been easy, but I haven’t gone home.”

Stojiljkovic instead has looked for the next opportunity, going from San Francisco to a now-bankrupt junior college in East Texas to UNT. It was with the Mean Green that Stojiljkovic finally found a long-term home and a group of coaches and teammates who are willing to try to coax out the talent that once made him a highly regarded player in France.

Stojiljkovic’s coaches have always said he has the talent to be a top college player. He just hasn’t found it in himself to consistently force his will on the court — at least not yet.

“Niko lost a lot of confidence when he was in San Francisco,” Benford said. “Niko is tough on himself. He beats himself up a lot. You can’t do that as a basketball player. You have to have a short memory and go on to the next play.”

 

The journey to Denton

Stojiljkovic was at the top of the European basketball world in the summer of 2009.

The European championships were played that summer, and Stojiljkovic was a regular with the French team. Stojiljkovic scored 14 points in a game against the Czech Republic and helped lead France to the title game, where he played 24 minutes and scored six points in a 78-72 loss to Serbia.

Stojiljkovic had the size and the skill set that gave him a choice: play college basketball in America or begin a pro career in Europe.

Stojiljkovic wanted to turn pro, but his parents pushed him toward America.

“It was a tough decision, but my parents showed me that it would be better for me to go get a degree rather than stop school at 18,” Stojiljkovic said. “That would give me a better situation after sports. I wanted to go pro. All my friends were going pro.”

A few made it to the NBA, including former teammate Evan Fournier, who now is with the Denver Nuggets.

Stojiljkovic signed with San Francisco to play for Rex Walters, a former Kansas standout now in his seventh season as a head coach and fifth with the Dons.

Benford and the rest of Stojiljkovic’s coaches over the last few years say he is still struggling to recover from a bad experience at the school. Stojiljkovic played in just 15 games, scoring 12 points and adding 22 rebounds in the 2009-10 season.

“I was pretty big in France when I came here,” Stojiljkovic said. “It was a shock when I came here because I was just somebody. The way it went at San Francisco messed with my confidence and my head a little bit. It was a cultural thing and the game is played differently here. I needed time to adjust and didn’t get it at San Francisco. It’s more physical here and I am not the biggest guy on the floor.”

An interview request for Walters was denied by a San Francisco spokesman.

Stojiljkovic could have gone home to France but instead decided to start over again at Lon Morris College in Jacksonville, about the farthest place from San Francisco — at least culturally — that he could find.

The East Texas town of just more than 14,000 was once known as the Tomato Capital of the World and hosts a Tomato Fest every summer.

“It was in the middle of nowhere, but it was great,” Stojiljkovic said. “I loved the coaches and my teammates. It was a good experience traveling on the bus everywhere in Texas. The people were awesome. It was just a little town. Everyone was trying to help you out.”

Dale Dotson, the longtime coach at Lon Morris, was chief among them. He found out about Stojiljkovic through his college basketball contacts and sold him on the idea of leaving San Francisco and starting over at a smaller school.

Lon Morris seemed like the kind of place where Stojiljkovic could just relax and play, but he ran into problems right away.

“We heard he was an excellent shooter, but he was with us a week and dislocated his finger,” Dotson said. “It was sideways. He was hurt the entire year. He didn’t shoot it that well because of it, but he rebounded the ball well and got the ball to people when they needed it.”

Stojiljkovic averaged 9.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists a game for Lon Morris, which declared bankruptcy last year.

Just like every other coach Stojiljkovic has played for since he came to America, Dotson thought he was capable of more.

“We talked about it,” Dotson said. “If he could just turn himself loose and play, he would be a lot better. He told me that he knows. His frame of mind is one that he wants to help others. If he would force it, he could go get 20 points.”

What Stojiljkovic showed was enough to attract the attention of former UNT assistant coach Bill Foy.

UNT was looking to build around Tony Mitchell, a top-20 prospect in the class of 2010 who signed with the Mean Green and sat out for a season after originally committing to Missouri.

“The thing I liked about Niko was that he was a good rebounder and passer and he had decent skill,” said Foy, who is now the head coach at Richland College. “We were looking around for one more post guy late and I liked his versatility.”

Stojiljkovic liked the idea of playing with Mitchell on a team he thought could end up qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

“I’m here because of Tony, to be honest,” Stojiljkovic said. “I thought we would have a really good team, and I wanted to win.”

UNT advanced to the Sun Belt tournament final last season but blew a 13-point second-half lead and lost to Western Kentucky. Head coach Johnny Jones left for LSU after the season.

Nothing has been the same since for UNT, which has struggled in its first year under Benford.

Stojiljkovic said it took him a long time to get over the loss to the Hilltoppers.

The consolation for Stojiljkovic is that he finally settled in at a four-year school. He is on track to finish his degree in international studies and has found the right fit with his teammates.

“Niko is quiet around everyone else, but when he is with the team, he’s the funniest guy,” junior guard Jordan Williams said. “He’s always cracking jokes. He’s smart and always has something to say.”

One last chance

Williams says that Stojiljkovic is one of the most versatile and talented players on the team, one the Mean Green needs more than ever this week.

UNT has lost three key players to season-ending injuries, which is one reason the Mean Green has failed to live up to expectations so far.

UNT was expected to win the Sun Belt West Division and maybe even push its way into the Top 25 this year, but is just the ninth seed in this week’s 11-team conference tournament. UNT (12-19) will have to win four games in four days to win the tournament.

The Mean Green hasn’t won four straight games all year.

“We need Niko,” Benford said. “What he struggles with is being more aggressive and physical. He plays too finesse at times. Sometimes at this level you just have to get in there and mix it up.”

Benford has given Stojiljkovic a few books to read in the hope that they will bolster his confidence, including The Positive Dog: A Story About the Power of Positivity by Jon Gordon.

Stojiljkovic has had plenty of time to consider why he struggles to capitalize on his potential and has come up with his own theory. He plays best when there is something on the line.

“When I am needed or there is a big game, I become more aggressive and play well,” Stojiljkovic said. “That is on me sometimes, but that is the way I play. I am not going to go hunting for shots and looking to score. I’m trying to make the right play every time.”

That approach was evident after Stojiljkovic was joined by his teammates on the court at the Super Pit on senior night.

Stojiljkovic wanted to win that final home game, not only for himself but for his fellow seniors who welcomed him in at UNT: Roger Franklin, Jacob Holmen and Justin Patton.

Early in the first half, Franklin found Stojiljkovic at the 3-point line at the wing. Stojiljkovic didn’t hesitate and hit the shot.

Twice later in the half, he grabbed a rebound and found a teammate with a perfectly placed pass for an assist, the first time hitting Williams for layup and then Franklin, who connected on a jumper.

UNT’s first four points after halftime also came courtesy of assists from Stojiljkovic, who found Williams for a 3-pointer and Franklin for another jumper.

By the end of the night, Stojiljkovic had seven points, eight rebounds and a team-high four assists in a 74-50 win over Arkansas State, the Sun Belt West Division champion. It was the type of performance Stojiljkovic’s teammates and coaches believe is an indication of how much potential he possesses.

“Niko doesn’t think he helps us, but he does,” guard Chris Jones said. “He is a very versatile big man. He just doesn’t realize how much potential he has. Once he realizes it, he is going to be very helpful. I think he’s saving it for the tournament. Then everyone will see the real Niko.”

Stojiljkovic has shown flashes of who he could be throughout his journey from France to San Francisco to Jacksonville to Denton.

Along the way, he found himself as a person. This week he will try one last time to find in himself the aggression that could make him the player so many people have imagined he can be.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com .


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