Our CanesHoops Consigliere Josh Frank (aka @JoshDaCane) was able to land an in-depth interview with emerging star, Dejan Vasiljevic, whose name exploded onto the international basketball scene as he led Australia to a silver medal at the 2017 FIBA 17U World Championships (check the highlights at the end of this interview). Dejan poured in 29 points in a close championship loss against the United States, securing All-Tournament honors. The 6'2" guard developed a reputation not only for filling it up from all over the court, but one whose on-court leadership and off-the-court work ethic have led some to believe that he could be one of the most underrated recruits to step foot onto a college basketball roster next year. Certainly, college coaches are very aware of his winning ways - in addition to Miami, Vasiljevic has planned visits to Stanford, LSU, Louisville and likely Texas. Vasiljevic will be in Coral Gables for the Florida State game on January 9.
Vasiljevic graciously agreed to answer our questions via email all the way from the Centre of Excellence in Australia, where he attends school and plays with some of the best prospects in Australian basketball. In light of his comprehensive, detailed answers - which touch on everything from his personal experiences to Australian basketball culture as a whole - we've decided to run the entire exchange, lightly edited and annotated [in brackets] for clarity and context. Any mistakes are ours. We truly appreciate his thoroughness and insight, and hope to hear more from him after his successful visit to Miami during the season.
SOTU: Most of us haven't seen you play, or have only seen highlights - tell us about your game, your strengths, and what you need to improve on to be successful at the next level.
DV: From a technical point of view, all coaches so far have exploited my ability to score from the perimeter - I was known for scoring a lot in short periods of time. However some, like my state coach in U18, gave me other duties such as to run a point and lead the offence on the court. In recent times, I have been working more on my inside game - post-ups and penetration using pick and roll situations which further improved my scoring efficiency. From this perspective my strength would likely be my ability to find a way to score in a number of ways - it may not be pretty but it will still count.
However, I would say that my main strength is my attitude towards the game and my teammates. I do know that I can be hard on my teammates on occasion, but I simply like to win. It might have come from my heritage and upbringing as I was constantly reminded during my early years that I would never fail in anything I attempted if I gave it all. I enjoy any contest and the bigger the occasion, the tougher and better I play as if I thrive on all that energy on the court. I have always tried to radiate this energy onto my teammates and as a unit we certainly delivered on a number of occasions.
Certainly in terms of improving, basically every part of my game could be improved to take me to the highest possible level. Shot selection and patience are two things I certainly can get better at offensively, and then I really have to keep working on my quickness, agility and strength to become better defensively.
SOTU: What is the experience like playing basketball in Australia, where the game has grown tremendously but is not as prominent as it is in the United States and parts of Europe?
DV: Interestingly enough, junior basketball is probably the sport with the greatest participation in Australia with several layers of competition - domestic - more socially oriented competition and run by local associations; representative - state and regional competitions through larger associations usually linked with senior clubs and overseen by a state entity as Basketball Victoria; and then school competitions - which involve primary and secondary schools and run through a series of tournaments. These are all junior competitions and then senior competitions have three levels - state such as Big V, interstate such as SEABL and then NBL [National Basketball League] which is the Australian professional league. The normal pathway to the national recognition leads through the representative basketball, state selections and then national competitions where the talent is recognized and selected for the national teams.
I have lived in Australia since the age of 6 [Vasiljevic was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada] and started playing domestic basketball when I was 10 and representative when I turned 11. And overall the experience has been tremendous. I have been through every single level of competition in the Australian basketball apart from NBL. Every Friday night and weekend, I would play against the best players in the state representative competitions.
The game has a huge competition in the Australian football, which recruits many junior basketball players when they turn 17-18 due to athleticism, vision and the game IQ. However, more recently NBL has seen drastic changes and is becoming established presence in Australian sport. NBL has big-time NBA players like Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. Also, many local junior players started opting out to develop in the United States, such as Ben Simmons and Thon Maker. So the pathways to the big leagues in the US and Europe are numerous now and NBL is being recognized internationally as such with many local players getting opportunities in NBA.
SOTU: What was it like to experience such success at the World Championships, and against some of the colleges on overseas tours? Did that influence your decision to play college basketball, or have you always known that you wanted to play in college?
DV: No words can describe that opportunity and experience of playing at the biggest junior stage in the World. The competition is so intense and demanding that after completion you still run on adrenaline for days. It is basically 24/7 with preparations for each game. It is not your usual opponents, but teams with different style of play and abilities that we needed to prepare for each game differently. And then playing in the grand finals against a star studded US team, it was a surreal experience - I thought we ran out of steam towards the end and were outmuscled so definitely looking forward meeting some of the US players on the court again.
I did get this opportunity already in Australia when I played against Ivan Rabb of Cal Berkley on two occasions. These encounter,s including also one against Yale, were really interesting and very valuable experience for two reasons - first, I was able to match up against one of the best in the College basketball; and second, promoted my abilities in the College circles in the US. Consequently, the recruiting interests picked up and I certainly knew where I wanted to be - in one of the high major conferences. Certainly, I have always wanted to develop myself as a player through the NCAA system, but the events in the past year have changed my perspective completely.
SOTU: What teams and conferences do you get to watch in Australia? Does the opportunity to play in the ACC - which we have been told is the most widely watched and known in Europe, for example - mean anything in particular to you?
DV: When it comes to popularity of the conferences, I would say ACC and SEC are equally popular mainly because of the big four - Duke, Kentucky, Louisville and North Carolina - there are many supporters of these teams in Australia. Personally, I will watch any game that is on, mainly to create my own benchmark and re-evaluate my game and development. Being "short" in basketball terms, I would always follow players of the similar physic and one of these players was Shane Larkin. I also like to watch Curry and Irving and try to craft my game based on their abilities. I have always dreamt to play for Coach K, I guess I may actually end up playing against him and for Coach L. Seems like I may pick my coach based on the alphabetical order.
SOTU: A lot of Australian players are coming over - some in high school, some directly for college - and Miami is involved with others such as Harry Froling. "Package deals" are discussed a lot in U.S. recruiting. Have you talked to Froling or your other club and national teammates about playing together at the next level?
DV: When it comes to the Centre of Excellence where Harry and I are residing at the moment, the discussion of about college choices are rather minimal. Obviously, we know of all the visits and many offers are immediately made public, but that would sum it up all. Harry is a really good player and whichever college he chooses, the benefits for the college will be immediate. We have, however, never discussed a possibility of a package deal, although I am aware that the list of interested colleges in his case is very long. If I had a choice to choose a player to come with me in a package, that would probably be Isaac Humphries, currently with Kentucky, or Deng Gak, who until recently was with us in the Center and played in both World's Championships [Gak recently moved to Blair Academy in New Jersey and is a recruit in the 2017 class].
SOTU: How long has Miami been recruiting you, and when did you begin to seriously consider them?
DV: The Canes reached out to me right after the U19 World's in July. Coaches Brunt and Fisher made the initial contact and they told me they needed someone who could play in both positions and make a significant immediate contribution. As I said, I knew of the Canes through their 2013 run. Usually the teams that can beat Duke draw attention. The coaches asked me to consider coming to Miami and join Coach L in his attempt to put another conference winning team together. More recently, Coach Fisher visited me in the Centre and confirmed the firm view of the coaching staff that I would be an important part of their program. Coach L has not visited me but he has been texting me almost every day, following up with the calls at least once a week, reinforcing their interest. For me, playing in a major conference is one of the goals. Since I am also interested in academic side of any college, I had to do my own research in regards to available programs in the University. I did not realize that Coach L was one of the academics in the University [Larrañaga was appointed Adjunct Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences in 2013].
SOTU: What did you know about the school and Coach L before they started recruiting you?
DV: To be honest, I do not know much about the school itself, although I did follow the Canes during their successful 2013 season and would check from time to time how they performed. Being in basketball circles, I follow many reports and did know that Coach L was named the coach of the year and achieved successes even before 2013 in the NCAA. Another interest of mine is to play for a winning coach, and I am convinced Coach L has proven himself in this domain. He has successfully coached many guards, Larkin included, which gives me confidence that my development may take off to a next, higher level.
SOTU: What are you looking for in a college? Do you know what you want to study? What do you want to see or do on your visit to Miami?
DV: For me, a combination of academics and basketball program is important. I have always been good in mathematics and considered an engineering program in the past. However, my parents asked me to select an economics course prior to my junior year in high school and I really liked it since it is in some way applied mathematics with a social angle. So I will certainly pursue a program in this domain and I believe Coach L can also guide me in the right direction. Also, through my discussions with Coach L and Fisher, I wanted to ensure that they were fully aware of my intentions and aspirations - I would like an opportunity to play as a freshman and be developed as a point guard. There is a mutual understanding that nothing is given and everything is earned, and if I decide to come to Miami I am definitely looking forward to this challenge. One of the important components of my visit to Miami will be to see the team in action. I don't know much about the city, apart from basketball and what I saw in the movie "Bad Boys", but since my family will accompany me during my visit, I think my mom will definitely find a good shopping mall.
SOTU: We know you have a schedule of visits planned for December and January. Have you been to the States before and visited any other schools unofficially?
DV: Being almost 10,000 miles away from Miami does not really provide for many opportunities to travel to Miami or the US and visit schools unofficially. Also, it is very difficult sometimes to find a way in the maze of the NCAA rules, so I decided to let the recruitment take its own course. I have been to the US twice, when I attended Adidas Nations in 2013 with the team Australia and at the start of this year in early February when I attended the NBA Without Borders Camp in New York City during the All-Star weekend. Since I was born in Canada, I will definitely go back to my home continent.
SOTU: Are you choosing from the five schools that you are visiting officially? Do you have any favorites?
DV: I must say that the whole recruiting process has been a really great learning experience and taught me a lot about human relationships. When it came down to making this final short list, I really felt bad I had to make a choice and remove some great colleges with equally great staff. These colleges (and they will certainly know whom I am talking about) are really lucky to have these coaches on their staff. Out of the five on the visiting list, I would not be able to separate them since they have all been great. I think they became more confident and relaxed upon realizing that they should be more focused on the part they knew the best - basketball and what their program could do to assist in my development. Since I am also interested in educational development, I rely on my dad and his US contacts in different colleges to provide me with an assessment, which in hindsight appeared to have worked the best for everyone involved in the recruiting process.
SOTU: What will ultimately influence your decision? Who will help you make it?
DV: These visits will tilt the balance definitely so I am looking forward to them. It will come down to facilities and their availability, sensing the vibe on campus and maybe even talking to some of the academics may assist in the process. It will definitely be interesting. From the start of the recruiting process, I have had a tremendous support of Basketball Australia and my family. The Boomers head coach, Andrej Lemanis, personally arranged for his US contacts to provide a detailed report on every college of my interest and then Coach Adam Caporn, who previously was on the coaching staff of St. Mary's College and currently leading the men's program in the Centre of Excellence, played his part with inside knowledge of styles of play. My family has been always there for me, supporting and trusting me all the way. My dad used to be a professional athlete and is now an academic, so he has the first-hand knowledge of the demands and requirements this double life tags along. All this will assist me in making an educated decision.
SOTU: Tell us more about who you are off the court - what do you like to do in your free time? What else do Miami fans need to know about you that we didn't cover?
DV: When you combine the time I spent in school or around it with sessions at the Centre, there is not much spare time left. Since most of my time is spent with the same people, we all try to break monotony by socializing with other youngsters from the school or our neighborhood who are also athletes, but in different sports. I like going to primary schools and talking to young students about my experience and views. It is really moving to see that I can inspire young lives to set their own goals. Whenever I go back home to Melbourne, I try to spend as much time as possible with my old classmates playing games or hanging out. And then I also find time to assist my sister in her training sessions, helping her get better. She is the one to watch in the future.