The Road to the NBA Passes Through This Serbian Club

Matt Howard (No. 54) and Dlordje Simeunovic (No. 33) in action during SIG Strasbourg vs. Mega Leks on Game Day 5 in the Basketball Champions League in Strasbourg, France, on November 16, 2016.

SourceElyxandro Cegarra/Getty

Why you should care

Because the Mega Leks seem to have come out of nowhere. 

In early January, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic caught the ball in the post from teammate Jamal Murray. With his back to the basket, Jokic flipped the ball over his shoulder in a perfect no-look dime to his rookie teammate cutting through the lane. It was the kind of move that has made Jokic an NBA unicorn, a singular athlete with no apparent antecedents. Most unicorns, like Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers or Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, are high draft picks. Jokic, however, was plucked out of obscurity in the second round of the 2014 draft from Mega Leks. Never heard of it? That’s because they’re a Serbian-based team that competes in Europe’s Adriatic League.

Mega Leks may be a long way off the beaten path to the NBA, but they’ve become a hotbed for top prospects drawn from inside and outside of Serbia. Until 2014, only one player from the club had ever been drafted by the NBA — Milovan Rakovic, a 6’10” center tapped in the second round in 2007 by the Dallas Mavericks. He never made it to the American circuit. In the past three drafts, however, three of six players drafted are playing in the big show, including Jokic, the face of the Denver Nuggets. The others are Ivica Zubac, a 7’1” Bosnian center on the Los Angeles Lakers, and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, a French 6’6” shooting guard/small forward on the 76ers. “I think you can compare [Mega Leks] to Kentucky,” says Josh Riddell, an NBA scout for DraftExpress. “They can say, ‘Hey, come play for Mega Leks. We’re going to get you drafted.’”

[The team] can say, ‘Hey, come play for Mega Leks. We’re going to get you drafted.’

Josh Riddell, NBA scout, DraftExpress

It’s all part of the NBA’s move to look for talent beyond traditional European sources like France, Spain and Turkey. And Mega Leks was one of the first teams to capitalize on the league’s broader perspective by making a savvy investment in a youth movement that’s atypical in Europe. Fran Fraschilla confirms the trend. “They definitely made a concerted effort the last two years to go young,” says the international basketball analyst for ESPN.

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Ivica Zubac (No. 40) of the Los Angeles Lakers and Nikola Jokic (No. 15) of the Denver Nuggets both came up in Mega Leks.

Source Kevork Djansezian/Getty

“You look at the Spanish League, and you have to be one of the best players in the world at 17 or 18 to get minutes at all,” notes Riddell. “Players are starting to see they can go somewhere else and get minutes, instead of sitting on the bench.” That’s how a team in Serbia attracted a top French prospect like Luwawu-Cabarrot. “He played in second league in France and didn’t get much playing time,” says former teammate and current Mega Leks star Kostja Mushidi, a 6’5” shooting guard from Germany. “He spent one year here, and now he is playing in the NBA.”

While young players in Spanish and French leagues may benefit from better overall competition, increased playing time with Mega Leks has proved invaluable in helping players prepare for the NBA. “You’re going to get minutes against a lot of guys who were really good college players,” says Riddell. “So when they get to the NBA, they look more comfortable than a lot of rookies who sat on the bench overseas.” Mega Leks head coach Dejan Milojevic is clear about his priorities. “Our goal is to make players who can adapt to the NBA easier and faster. If they improve in the right way, the club will grow with them.”

Mega Leks have had a long slog to the big time. Prior to joining the Adriatic League, the club struggled through the lower leagues in Serbia, training in an elementary school under the name KK Avala Ada. From there they clawed their way to the Serbian first division for the 2005–06 season as the KK Mega Basket. Newly minted as Mega Leks thanks to a sponsorship deal, the team gradually improved under Milojevic and, by the end of 2012, qualified for the Adriatic League. The coach brought a new energy to the club, leading it to a second-place finish last season. Milojevic claims seven NBA general managers came to watch his team practice during the campaign.

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Philadelphia 76ers guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (No. 20) played at Mega Leks.

Source Barry Chin/Getty

While Mega Leks play in what Riddell calls a middle-tier league, the Serbian club qualified for this year’s European Champions League, which has pitted the squad against better competition and generated more exposure for the organization. That’s drawn even more eyes from NBA scouts and general managers impressed by players like Mushidi and Alpha Kaba, the team’s top prospects, according to Riddell. “I’m really high on Kaba,” Riddell says of the 6’10” center/power forward from France. “He’s a big man who can shoot a little bit, play the perimeter and guard ball screens defensively. I really think he could fit into the league.” Both players have the potential to be taken in the 2017 NBA draft.

The success of alums like Jokic has not escaped Kaba’s notice. “When we see someone is drafted, we are all happy for him,” he says. “It motivates us to work even harder, to challenge ourselves more.” Mushidi adds: “It depends on every player [whether] he can reach his full potential, but if you are clear in your head and you know what you want, you can do that at Mega Leks.”

Then there was the time this season against the Portland Trail Blazers when Jokic called for the ball in transition. As Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried darted past, Jokic made like Aaron Rodgers checking off his receivers and delivered a perfect strike to his front-court partner without making eye contact. Just another unicorn move that Jokic honed bouncing around the Adriatic.

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