When Dusan Ristic tagged along with Sean Miller to Pac-12 Media Day in October, little did he know he was putting undue pressure on himself.
“I told him that in the nine years that I’ve gone to Pac-12 Media Day, I’ve never taken a player who didn’t become an All-Conference player,” Miller said.
Ristic seemed intrigued by that factoid, Miller recalls.
Maybe it seemed like Miller was setting a lofty goal — Ristic had never even been an honorable mention in his first three seasons at Arizona — but now it’s as if the Arizona Wildcats coach was making a bold prediction.
Because if the 2017-18 season ended today, Ristic probably would be an All-Conference player.
The 7-footer is averaging career-highs across the board for the league’s top team.
“If you go through it, the impact that he’s had, how consistent he’s played, Dusan is probably one of the top 15 players in our conference,” Miller said. “And he’s having a great senior year, which you always hope to see.”
Those around the Arizona program will tell you that is a culmination of all the hard work he has put in through the years.
“I cannot say enough good things about him as a kid,” Miller said. “Again, I do not talk about him nearly enough. You get a player like him, and you always hope that they develop into something special because he works so hard.
“Bill Walton says it a lot, and he is right — some guys are seven feet and play basketball because they were told at a young age that this is what they should do because they are bigger than everybody.
“Then once in a while, you get that 7-footer that if he were 5-9, he would be a good player or want to be a good player, and I would say that is Dusan. He is the first to the gym and the last to leave.
“He sacrificed being away from his family. This guy in four years has been home for maybe a grand total of a month in four years. Came here, barely spoke English, and he is two classes away from graduating.
“He is our team’s heart and soul in a lot of ways. When we lost three games in a row in the Bahamas, he was the guy that stood up and had the tough talk, and everybody respected him because he leads by example.”
An unrelenting work ethic has always been part of Ristic’s persona. So has a soft touch around the basket and crafty footwork.
But sometimes he has lacked one of the most important intangibles a basketball player needs to have — confidence.
“Confidence is big for all of our players, but it’s really nice to see Dusan have the confidence that he does because he hasn’t always had great confidence playing here,” Miller said. “Some of it was probably me taking him in and out, trying to make him a defensive player and maybe not understanding his gifts on offense enough. But I know this, he’s in a really good place and he takes a lot of pride in winning.”
Miller is clearly still learning about those gifts.
Saturday, the ultra-confident Ristic made all three 3-pointers he took in a one-point win against Utah. The big man had not made a single long ball all season.
So all three attempts made Miller cringe — especially the contested 3 that put Arizona up by four with a minute left (which turned out to be the dagger).
Classic Sean Miler reaction on Dusan Ristic's 3. pic.twitter.com/ETHuqJyENP— Cameron Cox (@CamCox12) January 28, 2018
“I didn’t know what to say. I was so surprised he took the 3,” Miller said. “I couldn’t believe it. And then when that thing went in, I’m not sure how I reacted but I’m glad it went in for his sake.”
It capped off a career-best 23-point effort by Ristic and pushed him over 1,000 career points, becoming just the 52nd Wildcat to reach that milestone.
Plus, his seven rebounds got him to the 500-rebound mark and he is only a few victories away from becoming UA’s all-time wins leader.
“To see him all of a sudden become a 3-point shooter, go 9-for-11, 23 points, seven rebounds in a game of this magnitude, it is awfully nice to see. I think we are all happy for him, proud of him,” Miller said.
“He told me in the locker room that this was his 1,000th point which reminds you that these guys always keep their stats. But the fact that he scored 1,000 points on that 3-point shot ... is even a better story. Today was his day, and I center that on him because we played through adversity, and we needed him to have a big day, and he did.”
Ristic’s season has been littered with dominant performances, and after every one, at least one member of the local media would ask him if that was his best game of his UA career.
The Serb usually shrugs off that question, but Thursday, after posting 15 points and eight rebounds, he was flat-out tired of that inquiry.
“You guys keep asking me the same question every game,” Ristic quipped.
But Saturday, Ristic had a much different tone.
He entered the press room with a wide smile and made sure he beat reporters to the punchline.
“Can I just say something?” Ristic said to open his postgame interview. “I think this was my best game for Arizona so far. I just wanted to answer the question for you guys.”
The room erupted in laughter.
“He’s a great guy to have on your side,” Miller said. “I know this, every coach in our conference would love to have him.”
If true, Miller’s streak will continue. Those same coaches vote for the All-Conference team.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire