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Out of the box: Toni Rocak continues unique basketball journey at UC San Diego

The Swiss sensation was pigeon-holed for years as a conventional big man. Now he’s poised to break out for one of Division I’s newest teams.

Toni Rocak drives against UC Irvine.
Mike McGinnis/UC San Diego

There’s a jersey that hangs proudly on the wall of Toni Rocak’s dorm room, and it’s one that you may not see very often. It’s a Toni Kukoč Croatian national team jersey, a player with whom Rocak shares more than just a first name. There’s a shared Croatian ancestry and deep family connection, as Rocak’s mom used to go to Kukoč’s games when he was playing in Split, Croatia before his jump to the NBA in the early 90’s.

Kukoč has always been there pushing the UC San Diego rising senior.

“I’ve studied film to learn more about him, found interviews no one knows about,” Rocak said. “He’s this icon in Croatia and a legend, and he’s been kind of lingering behind me my entire life.”

Like his basketball idol, Rocak knows he’s a good shooter and the way he figures it, it’s only a matter time before the rest of college basketball knows it too. After shooting just under 25 percent from distance last year, Rocak said he’s been getting up 400 or 500 shots a day since the season ended. It’s something he admits he’s struggled with the past few years, and is eager to prove to himself.

“It’s coming along, but I guess you’ll have to wait until the season to find out.”

That three-point percentage was about the only ding on what was otherwise a breakout campaign for Rocak, who may be poised to be one of the best players in the Big West. The Division II transfer led the Tritons in scoring and rebounding last year — all while coming off the bench — as UCSD made its own debut in Division I. Now, he’s out to prove there’s even more to his game.

It’s the latest bit of faith in a basketball journey like few others in college basketball.

Rocak has been playing under big pressure long before he suited up in Division I. He was born in Croatia and moved to Switzerland when he was three, and at seven began trying different organized sports. There was ping pong and soccer, but ultimately he landed on basketball, a sport that runs through his Croatian DNA.

“I wasn’t anything exceptional as a player growing up,” Rocak said of those early days. “I just kind of stuck to working hard and putting myself in situations where I could succeed, and kind of climbed up the ranks.”

Climb he did. Advancing through the youth team setups in Switzerland, he eventually received an invite to the U16 Swiss national team, where things really took off for him. At 16, he also started practicing with the senior squad at Swiss Central Basket, a team playing in Switzerland’s top professional league. Just days after turning 17, he found himself on the court as a professional.

He made brief appearances in just six games in 2016, but it stuck with him.

“I just tried to soak everything in,” he said. “I wasn’t just the young guy that was on the outside; they really incorporated me into the team and the coaches and players wanted me to be a part of it. It helped me fall in love with the game even more.”

That stint allowed Rocak to develop a relationship with Rhamel Brown, a former Manhattan star that took him under his wing and that he’s stayed in contact with over the years. Brown was a four-year starter for the Jaspers, and a key part of the team that put a scare into Louisville in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Then two years into his own pro career overseas, Brown talked to Rocak about taking his next step by playing college basketball in the United States.

It’s a path Rocak would ultimately take, with some turns along the way.

Coming to the States

Dunk City played a part in Rocak’s first taste of basketball in America.

When he was 16, he traveled across the Atlantic to play in AAU tournaments as a part of Swiss team organized by former Florida Gulf Coast guard and Swiss native Christophe Varidel, who was a part of the Eagles run to the 2013 Sweet 16. These weren’t glamorous, sponsored events flush with shoe company money, but Rocak said they gave him a view into what the sport was like in the U.S.

“It was enough for me to see there are people that are really serious about playing basketball, trying to get out of some tough spots and get a scholarship and education, and that’s what I’m competing against. Seeing that made me say, ‘let’s get back to work.’”

While he was one of — if not, the — most heralded Swiss youth players in his age group, Rocak didn’t have any college offers as he graduated high school.

In his words, Switzerland is not a European basketball powerhouse like France or Serbia, so this wasn’t necessarily surprising. According to realgm.com, there have been just 46 Swiss players to play NCAA basketball at any level since 2001. Compare that with the 214 players that have come from Belgrade, Serbia alone over that same period and the picture is clear: it’s a route not many have taken.

With a lack of offers but a determination to play college basketball, Rocak did a prep year at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. The 6’9 young forward suddenly became typecast as he began his extended stay in the U.S. Whereas he said he had always prided himself on versatility and being able to play anywhere on the court, coaches saw his size and put him under the basket, asking him to be a conventional big man. The orders were simple: box out, rebound and get points on the inside.

But it wasn’t necessarily him.

“I kind of lost those things I grew up doing, but sharpened my inside game. Those other things just atrophied and disappeared. It made me sad and frustrated at the same time since I knew that I could do much more,” Rocak said.

Despite feeling out of position, college interest picked up during Rocak’s prep year. He said he eventually got three or four Division I offers ahead of the 2018-19 season but there was one problem: each school wanted him to play the traditional big man role that he didn’t necessarily feel was him. With those schools putting pressure on him, he got a call late in the Spring of 2018 from halfway across the country.

Division II Regis University in Denver was interested, and Rocak had a simple message.

“I told them straight up, I’m not just a 4 or a 5. I don’t know what I am myself, but I don’t want to be put in a box and see my game get limited.”

It was a message that was well received by Rangers coach Brady Bergeson, who told Rocak that the team was at its best with him at his best. With that, Rocak packed up and headed West, though still found himself coming off the bench and primarily playing down low as a freshman in 2018-19. He was able to get more minutes on the perimeter as a sophomore, putting in a solid season (15.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG) that nabbed him a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) all-league honorable mention nod.

Despite the success, Rocak was struggling with his identity as a player. He couldn’t always beat other bigs with his strength, but he could use his quickness and felt natural playing on the outside as a slasher and driver. But if he missed a shot from the perimeter he’d always feel a sub breathing down his neck.

Still, Division I remained the goal as Rocak hit a crossroads.

In Switzerland he’d been a prodigy, with people expecting Division I and the NBA with what he called a lack of perspective that comes with being so far removed from the American basketball scene. Rocak had trusted his gut with the Division II route and even though he said he was struggling with confidence in certain parts of his game — namely, shooting — he took a leap faith. After difficult conversations with the staff at Regis, he put his name in the transfer portal with the hopes of making the jump to Division I.

What he found was a school that mirrored himself in a lot ways.

Jumping up a level, together

Eric Olen knows Division II basketball. More importantly, he appreciates it better than most.

“Having been at that level for so long, we know how good the players are that are really producing in leagues like the RMAC,” he said.

The Tritons’ head coach would know, having spent 16 seasons at the Division II level, starting as an assistant at UCSD in 2004 before being elevated to the top spot in 2013. He oversaw a pair of Sweet 16 appearances in 2016 and 2017, and has been the architect of the Tritons’ move into Division I.

He knew what he was looking at when he spotted Rocak in the transfer portal as he was trying to bolster his inaugural Division I roster. UCSD was the first school to contact Rocak in April of 2020, and while he couldn’t take a visit because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the now-well-traveled Swiss forward knew it was the right fit. The Tritons were proactive recruiting him, and saw the potential for growth that the pigeon-holed, at-times frustrated five man saw in himself.

Rocak’s arrival in Southern California was typical of the pandemic season, as he had to quarantine for two weeks and then was able to start practicing with the team in masks. Despite being 6,000 miles from home, there was one familiar face. Senior big man Hugh Baxter had visited Regis during Rocak’s freshman year in Denver as he considered his options transferring from Colgate. The two had connected then, and now on the same team, the plan was for Rocak to tangle with Baxter and the rest of the Tritons in practice, and nothing more, during a redshirt year.

“I was just going to use that redshirt year to get better, to grind, literally put my head down and grind,” he said.

Rocak went from redshirt to key player in 2020-21.
Derrick Tuskan/UC San Diego

That plan changed when the NCAA announced the blanket free year shortly before the Tritons first game. Suddenly, even though he wouldn’t crack the starting lineup, Rocak was a big part of UCSD’s debut season in Division I. He scored in double figures his first three games, including a 20-point, 5-rebound outing against UC Irvine in early January. In total, Rocak would lead the Tritons in scoring (12.8 PPG) and rebounding (5.3 RPG) and finished with a bang, scoring a career high 26 points against Cal State Fullerton in his final game of the year.

Olen said that type of production coming off the bench isn’t something he’d typically do.

“He has a unique kind of size, skill level and athleticism combination. I think it took us a little while to figure out to put him in the right positions, but it was a unique year,” Olen said. “He was significantly better attacking the basket off the bounce, driving it into space and out in transition. He’s a pretty tough matchup for other bigs, so us figuring out how to best use him was part of why he came off the bench.”

As the 2021-22 season approaches, Rocak is focused on building on that impressive debut. He said he’s working on everything from ball screen reads to his inside game, and being more of a match up problem for opposing bigs with his versatile game. That involves the playmaking and creativity that got somewhat ignored as he was stuffed into the traditional big man box.

“I love passing the ball and haven’t showcased that much. In my head, it’s just like I’m sharpening those skills that I’ve lost the last three or four years and I knew how to do but just stopped using,” he said. “Handling the ball, if you get a rebound, push the ball...[the coaching staff] is putting their trust in me to have a huge role, and I’m really excited for that.”

Rocak said he’s finally where he wanted to be when he took that leap across the Atlantic four years ago. A part of that includes being a leader on a Triton team that’ll include four freshmen. Bringing the team together, even if it’s something as simple as meeting up in the cafeteria, is something Rocak believes in strongly, especially coming from a European youth system that saw him play and build chemistry with the same group of players from the age of seven.

Olen said he expects his Swiss rising senior to take on that role.

“Toni is such a great personality and connector of guys,” Olen said. “It’s something he and I have talked about a fair amount. There’s a responsibility to being one of the better players, your practice habits matter more, your response to things matters more. I want him to really feel an ownership of things.”

Rocak has already started down that path. He speaks nearly as many languages as he has fingers on one hand (four), and reached out to incoming Serbian guard Vuk Vulikic, who said he’s excited to speak to in Croatian (which is similar to Serbian).

He’ll also get to flex his lingual dexterity in August, as his first season at UCSD did not go unnoticed by the Swiss national team. He got called up to the senior team for the first time, and will spend three weeks away playing in World Cup qualifiers with EuroLeague players and, potentially, Clint Capella of the Atlanta Hawks.

“I’m really excited for him to get that opportunity,” Olen said. “For his development, it’s just another opportunity to grow, and he can get reps against really great players and take some of the things he’s been working on and apply it in a game setting where there’s a whistle and a score.”

The game settings will, hopefully, get bigger for the Tritons in their second season in Division I. Through semantics, they won’t appear in the Big West standings during their four-year transitionary period, but their games count for the other schools, and Triton players are eligible for individual awards. Olen said there was a lot of excitement and support on the 40,000-student for the move to Division I, but that last year felt like year zero or 0.5 due to the pandemic.

As he returns from national team duty, Rocak will be the at the center of what should be a more normal season for UCSD in its new home. And for him, it’s a home that’s finally let him get out of the big man box, and spread his wings on the court.