WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Luka Brajkovic caught the ball in the post, froze and started glancing around. With a Wake Forest defender pressing on his back, the freshman had the look of someone who wanted to pass.
And then a Davidson assistant coach screamed out from the sideline: “Go to work!”
Brajkovic obliged. With two dribbles and a few pushes, he inched closer to the rim, spun to his right and hoisted a high floater with his right hand that fell softly through the hoop, then he sprinted to the other end of the court.
Without star guard Kellan Grady, Davidson wound up losing that game to the Demon Deacons by just four points, but it was the best game of the season for Brajkovic, the Wildcats’ newest international weapon. The fearless 6’10 freshman from Feldkirch, Austria abused the painted area at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum that December night, racking up 19 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes of play.
Going against an ACC team on national television — and without the reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year on his side — Brajkovic wasn’t intimidated. To him, all opponents are the same, in that he’s certain he can score on them.
“I just try to be aggressive the whole time and protect the post,” Brajkovic said. “If I make a move correctly, I’m pretty sure it goes in. I’m pretty confident against whoever I play.”
The points, rebounds and minutes played at Wake Forest are still all season-highs for Brajkovic, but his play has been consistent. In Davidson’s Atlantic 10-opening win over Duquesne on Saturday, he needed just eight shots to tally 15 points, and he also had five rebounds, a block and a steal.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, many wondered how the reigning A-10 champs would replace the production of Peyton Aldridge, the conference’s Player of the Year a season ago. The 6’8 forward, now playing professionally in Italy, averaged 21.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last year.
Little did folks know that head coach Bob McKillop had another international recruit in the pipeline. He isn’t an exact replica of Aldridge, but his per-game averages of 12.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists as a freshman are not only steps in the right direction, but also glimpses of his potential. Right now, Brakjovic leads the Wildcats in rebounding, and is their third-highest scorer.
His 57 percent connection rate on field goals is also third in the A-10 this season among players who have attempted at least 100 shots. Among freshmen, he leads the conference in rebounding.
Before this season, there were just a few schools who knew Brajkovic and expressed serious interest. He was also recruited by Stanford, Purdue, Penn State and Saint Mary’s, but opted to go with McKillop’s crew just north of Charlotte. It’s unclear what gave the A-10 side the edge in landing Brajkovic over those Power 5 programs, but a track record of success with foreign players had to help.
“I have to say, I’ve adjusted great,” Brajkovic said. “That’s part of the program at Davidson. The coaches really helped me The transition was pretty smooth for me because the coaches, really in the summer, worked with me a lot and helped me tremendously. Coming from Europe, playing American basketball can be hard. Here, that wasn’t the case for me. It just clicked immediately.”
In McKillop’s 30 seasons at Davidson, he’s brought in players from 21 different countries outside of the U.S. and has been successful with them, going to the NCAA Tournament nine times and the NIT six times. Under the 68-year-old’s watch, 57 players from Davidson have played professionally.
McKillop recently landed another recruit from overseas, signing 6-10 forward David Kristensen of Denmark who has played for his country’s national teams at the U-16, U-18 and U-19 levels. He’ll join the Wildcats next season.
This year, in addition to Brajkovic, the Wildcats feature players from Nigeria, Iceland, England, Serbia and Sweden.
Dusan Kovacevic, a redshirt junior, is the player from Serbia. While Brajkovic’s native tongue is German, he also speaks Serbian, so the players have bonded over that.
“My parents are from Serbia, so we can speak the language, which really helps,” Brajkovic said. “I just think having other European guys on the team definitely helped.”
Brajkovic began making a name for himself at the 2017 FIBA U18 European Championships. Over the span of eight games, he averaged a double-double with 18.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per-contest. In a matchup with Ireland, he was unstoppable, scoring 30 points and grabbing 17 rebounds.
It was there where some coaches realized how natural the game of basketball came to the Austrian and that, underneath his gentle demeanor and bright smile, he’s someone who has the potential to be an absolute force in the paint. He excels at performing with his back to the basket, but he can also knock down a mid-range jumper, pass out of the post with expertise and fight for a rebound with anyone, no matter how big or strong they might be. He’s also been solid from the free throw line, knocking down 72.5 percent of his attempts.
Usually, Brajkovic’s offensive possessions look like this: He catches a pass, surveys the defense and then operates. If he can get to the basket, he’ll go there. If he can’t, he’ll look to use his length to shoot over a defender, or he’ll hand it off to one of Davidson’s other play-makers.
Like all mortal players, Brajkovic can be stopped, but his ability in the paint puts opposing head coaches in difficult situations. If opponents double-team the freshman, Davidson has marksmen open on the outside — four of which shoot above 35 percent from behind the arc. If a team focuses on those shooters, Brajkovic is free to operate one-on-one in the post, and the man guarding him might just get thrown into a torture chamber as the Austrian uses his strength and footwork to get to the rim.
This was the dilemma Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot had to face on Saturday. He chose to let Brajkovic eat and instead tried to guard the shooters closely. Davidson still won.
“We didn’t do a great job [on Brajkovic], but he’s good down there,” Dambrot said. “You just have to decide whether you’re going to give him [shots in the paint] or you want to give up possible three’s by post-doubling. We chose to play him a little more one-on-one and make sure we did a better job with Kellan Grady and [Jon Axel] Gudmundson.”
Brajkovic is trying to work on his shooting from deep. He’s attempted just five shots from three-point land this season, making two. If he improves there, that’ll be another headache for the rest of the A-10.
“Definitely the top of the key three. That has been a focus for me,” Brajkovic said. “It hurts our offense when somebody just sits in the paint, and in practice I can really hit that shot. Coach told me, ‘When you’re open, you’re going to shoot.’”
Coming from the European game to college basketball, the adjustments weren’t vast, and his teammates and coaches at Davidson helped him get up to speed on the things he wasn’t used to. Speaking of speed, the one thing Brajkovic admitted that was difficult to acclimate to was defending the pace of the American game, where many offenses are built around running, three-pointers and screens.
“It’s much more exhausting to play here, especially when you have to guard off-ball screens,” Brajkovic said. “It can get really exhausting guarding a team doing three ball screens per-possession.”
Luckily for him, the A-10 has just one team inside KenPom’s top 90 in adjusted tempo, La Salle.
As conference play begins, Davidson is right in the mix to win the title again. In their fifth A-10 season, and with three starters remaining from last year, the Wildcats are 10-4 and are armed with all-conference talents like Grady, Gudmundsson and now, Brajkovic.
“He’s a pretty good player,” McKillop said. “He’s very crafty. He has great hands, incredibly coachable and a great teammate. As a freshman, we went to him. And as a freshman, he’s been exposed to quickness and athleticism that he’s never seen before and he’s responded like a champion for us.”