Playing It Cool Nik Popovic has moved past last season’s mental blowups, and is finally having fun playing basketball.

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im Christian clapped his hands. In his trademark gravelly tone, the head coach of Boston College men’s basketball’s voice sounded hoarse as he yelled at the players. Unlike an average practice for this program, this scream wasn’t in aggravation—it was encouraging. His starters, albeit against a squadron of walk-ons, ran a picture-perfect offensive possession, with ball movement around the perimeter that finished with a wide-open layup drive by the team’s star point guard, Ky Bowman.

But offense hasn’t ever been the problem for the Eagles—the team has struggled on defense during Christian’s tenure. Whenever his chosen starting five is on the court, they start with a defensive possession against the walk-ons. Ideally, they’ll earn the ball in transition to score, instead of starting with a set plan. Following a successful pairing of these two, Christian got his guys into the huddle and they started again.

The sound in Power Gym increased as the two sides fought—ACC starters hoping to hold their own against the Dukes and North Carolinas of the world, against walk-ons hoping to just get some action against Maine on Nov. 10, BC’s opening day. Bowman squared off directly against Gordon Gehan, the Eagles’ best walk-on, forcing him to scramble beyond the arc and chuck up a desperation 3-pointer as the shot clock expired.

The key to that play wasn’t Bowman’s perimeter defense, though—it was the behemoth holing up the paint: Nik Popovic, the team’s starting center. But before you could notice Popovic’s improved inside presence—even if it came against players a foot shorter than him—he was already dashing down on the fast break, right hand raised in the air. He didn’t look back until Bowman called him.

“Niko! Niko!” he screeched, heaving the ball down the court. Popovic caught it, just barely in transition, and tried to dunk.

There wouldn’t be any highlight reel ending to this possession, though. Popovic got stuffed by the rim like Frederic Weis against Vince Carter, falling backward as the ball hit him in the face on the fall.

Then, something happened that never would have happened last season to Popovic, who was then an underweight, skinny freshman who played just a year of high school ball in Florida after going stateside from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He started cracking up with Bowman, his best friend and former roommate.

Then, something happened on the very next possession that really never would have happened to the player who grew a notorious reputation both inside the program and out for a temper when things didn’t go his way that would shut him down for the remainder of a game.

He dunked.  

“Scott Spinelli stood out, he was there every day. He was coming all the time, he was calling me all the time, he wanted to make that connection. So that’s why I decided to come here.” Nik Popovic

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o say Popovic dwarfs most in size should be obvious. At 6-foot-11, Popovic is the second-tallest player Christian has had at BC, only behind Steve Donahue recruit Dennis Clifford. His stature feels even bigger with the slight bend he has at the neck when he looks down, and the width by which his shoulders have grown with offseason workouts. His heavily accented English flows perfectly, even if he forgets the occasional vocab word. Popovic lets out a chuckle after every question asked, as if he thinks back to each moment he recalls as if he were there. But as we sat and watched women’s basketball’s practice during our conversation in Conte Forum, he never took his eyes off the ball, watching as Erik Johnson’s team ran its offense through its centers.

It’s that kind of focus that made him leave his home at age 14 to play in Serbia. The decision was challenging for a young boy so close to his father and sister, neither of whom could contribute to this story due to their inability to speak English. But the coach of his soccer team saw that, while he was athletic, he just couldn’t move as well laterally to keep up with the sport. So the coach called up a basketball coach he knew to help get Popovic set up with KK Crvena zvezda—the Red Star—a multi-level basketball club in Serbia’s professional league. That translated to joining the Serbian U17 National Team—though born and raised in Bosnia, Popovic’s Serbian ethnicity makes him eligible as a citizen—where he competed for the 2014 FIBA World Championship.    

During that time, he started crafting a list of basketball idols. It rarely was composed of men from Eastern Europe, like Drazen Petrovic or Vlade Divac. Rather, he studied the offensive system of the San Antonio Spurs, and his new hero: the Big Fundamental.

“The coach has the same last name like me, so that was like the first association,” Popovic said, referring to the legendary Gregg Popovich. “But I used to watch Tim Duncan a lot, because I like his game and I’m trying to play as much like he does.”

He took that desire to be a well-rounded, double-double machine to the States as an 18-year-old, where he played for the Sagemont School, a prep school in Broward County, Fla. In what would be his senior year, Popovic averaged eight points, seven boards, and three blocks, earning an All-County First Team selection by the Sun-Sentinel. He received fleeting offers from colleges, such as Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Maryland, but none were more serious than a carbon-copy letter. A few coaches visited him, like from Rice and Richmond, from time to time. One came repeatedly.

“Scott Spinelli stood out, he was there every day,” Popovic said about the BC assistant. “He was coming all the time, he was calling me all the time, he wanted to make that connection. So that’s why I decided to come here.”

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he transition, however, wasn’t seamless. With Clifford gone and no other true center on the roster, Popovic was expected to play significant time in all of the Eagles’ ACC games. But in conference play, Popovic only averaged 14.7 minutes per game. Part of this was conditioning and typical freshman adjusting to the game. But another huge factor was foul trouble. Of BC’s 18 ACC games, three times he picked up four fouls, and four times he fouled out.

And when Popovic got called for fouls, he took it personally. He’d throw his hands up. He’d yell at refs. And, mentally, he’d check out.

“Because I put a lot of expectations on myself and then when I didn’t make the results I wanted, I was disappointed,” Popovic said of his temper.

The mentality was noticeable to fans and the team alike. Christian often had to get in Popovic’s face—not because he was mad Popovic committed the foul, but because he got mad and appeared to quit. And last season, because he was so hard on himself and still didn’t have a ton of familiarity with the team or the country’s customs, he’d shut down and not talk to anyone. His roommate, Bowman, took notice.

“His temper, when it got out of hand, sometimes it could cost us the game, it would turn into 4-on-5,” Bowman said. “When he cools down, with him listening and keeping his mind in the game, he’s helping himself and us.”

So Bowman took that mission into his own hands. He sought out Popovic before the season to live with him, because he wanted to interact with someone who came from a different background. Popovic agreed, only because he was intrigued by Bowman’s red hair. Bowman introduced him to a number of American customs—Popovic’s first trips to McDonald’s, Raising Cane’s, and IHOP, which might not be as international as its name implies, were particular highlights. The two have an unfiltered connection with one another, which has helped them grow closer. The trust that the two have built helped Bowman work with Popovic on his temper.

“If a coach gets mad at him, I can always talk to him and cool him down, and it helps us continue on with the game,” Bowman said.

For Popovic, what’s more important is the connection that helps create on the court. Popovic simply feels comfortable playing with Bowman, and it’s shown in practice. The big man routinely finds Bowman on feeds when the spark plug point guard drives in with blazing speed. And Bowman can draw double coverages that open up lanes for Popovic’s Euro-stepping layups or turnaround hook shot jumpers.

“Ky understand everything I do,” Popovic said. “So he kind of knows how I’m moving, what I’m doing, he actually knows. He’s always one step ahead of me.”

That adjustment has led to a happier, more upbeat Popovic.

“I think the best part about him, he’s really growing and maturing as a person,” Christian said. “When you grow and mature, you get better, you understand what you need to do. I think he has grown past the blow ups. I know that will happen.”

He showed flashes of that in the Auburn game last year at Madison Square Garden, which Popovic indicated is his favorite moment in a BC uniform to date. Down by one with 7.5 seconds remaining, Bowman drove down the court and attempted a drive and lay-in for the win. The shot tipped off the backboard and rim, bouncing forward into the scrum with two seconds left. With three Auburn defenders surrounding him, Popovic soared up with his right hand for the bounding tip-in. At the top of the paint, all alone, Bryce Brown of Auburn put his hands on his head in the “Surrender Eagle” formation, while Popovic raced down the end of the court.

It was a great moment for Popovic, according to Christian, that gave him the confidence that he could take the next step. But for Bowman, it said more about that electric personality. Because, instead of running to the bench to celebrate with his team, Popovic dashed straight to Auburn’s cheerleaders, and started trash talking. It represented a sign that Popovic can channel his anger and attitude toward his opponents.

And if he makes the jump like Christian expects, the rest of the ACC is going to hear it.

Featured Images by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor | Lizzy Barrett / Heights Editor

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About Michael Sullivan

Michael Sullivan is the editor-in-chief of The Heights. After shouting out this space to his mother for two years as sports editor, he'd like to give one to his dad. You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelJSully.