Like so many around the world, former Arizona center Dusan Ristic is holed up in his apartment catching up on Netflix as he tries to stay occupied during this state of social distancing.
The 7-footer is currently based in Kazakhstan, waiting to hear when, or if, his second professional season will continue amid the coronavirus outbreak.
“A lot of players and coaches think that the season is over because of the situation with the virus outbreak. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse,” Ristic said. “Me, personally, I don’t see how the leagues will be resumed this season. ... So I’m here indefinitely, just trying to be patient.”
Before everything was put on hold, Ristic was having a dominant year with BC Astana in the VTB League, averaging 15.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game while shooting close to 60 percent from the field, according to eurobasket.com.
This comes after Ristic spent his first pro season with Red Star Belgrade in his home country of Serbia, coming off the bench for one of the most powerful clubs in Europe.
Currently under quarantine, Ristic had plenty of time to talk about his pro career as well as his time with the Arizona Wildcats. The conversation was so insightful that I will be breaking his comments into two articles, the first focusing on his pro career and the second centering on his time in Tucson.
Here is part one of the interview. Part two will be released Monday morning.
Ristic on his time with Red Star: “That’s the best Serbian team. They’re one of the best in Europe as well. The first season was successful, we won a lot of trophies, a lot of championships, had a chance to play with some really good players. At the end of the season, we actually qualified for EuroLeague, which you probably know is the top European league. Then the people from the club called me, they actually brought in two players at my position–they’re former NBA players—and if I stayed there, I wouldn’t see a lot of playing time.
“So at that moment I was thinking, ‘what’s gonna be the best thing for my career?’ And I didn’t want to just stay there even though it was a good situation. I had a pretty good contract and it was a really good thing to play EuroLeague at my age, but I wasn’t happy about the possible role, the possible long-term effect. The most important thing for a young player in Europe is to play at the highest possible level but also to have minutes and a meaningful role. So, after some time thinking and talking to my close people, I made a decision to leave the team.”
On why he joined Astana: “How things work in Europe is I’m on loan. When I went to Red Star, I signed a three-year deal, so pretty much my second year is a year on loan here in Astana. So, fast forward this whole year, it turned out to be a really good decision. Astana is obviously a little worse quality-wise than Red Star, but they play in a better league. The VTB League is a Russian professional league, and it’s probably, along with the Spanish league, the best domestic league in Europe, so I had the chance to compete against the best players in the world outside of NBA.
“And I had a pretty successful year. The coach here in Astana gave me a lot of freedom. I was pretty much the only 5 on my team, so I played like 30, 35 minutes per game. When I was playing at the U of A, each year I made a step forward in terms of my own personal development, and I feel this year was one of those years where I again made progress, added some things to my arsenal, so I’m happy about it.”
On the differences between college basketball and European basketball: “I have this conversation a lot, just talking to my friends from the States and some people from Europe. I always like to make a comparison between European basketball and college basketball. Obviously you have some high-level teams—us Arizona, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State. And then you have some really low-major teams that they don’t play high level basketball. So it’s the same thing in Europe.
“My league is a pretty physical league. The refs let a lot of contact, they don’t call fouls that easily. It’s still a fast-paced league because a lot of former NBA players are in this league right now. This year I had a chance to play against some players like Kosta Koufos, (Timofey) Mozgov, and Alan Williams. Sam Dekker, I had a chance to play against him the year against Wisconsin, he’s in this league too. Jonas Jerebko, who played for the Warriors, as well. There are a lot of former NBA players and top college stars that play this league and it’s still a fast-paced league with a lot of influence from American basketball, but also there’s a lot of physicality and a lot of dirty basketball. So it’s been a really, really good thing for me just to have a chance to play with all these players and to develop my game more and more.”
On how he has developed since leaving Arizona: “When you play in Europe for any team they don’t really care where you come from or what you did the previous year. The teams here, they pay you and then they expect production from you right away. It’s a business. It’s totally different than college basketball. So my main priority coming into this year was to be as efficient as possible and to play the best basketball as I can, and to help my team win as much as possible.
“Obviously I got a lot of playing time so I developed my game in different ways. In college I was a lot of a low-post player. This year, I was shooting a lot actually from the outside. I was shooting 3s. I didn’t take a lot of 3s because I had some good shooters on my team, but I was probably taking like 1.2, 1.3 3s per game. I was shooting a lot of mid-range jumpers. That was probably 50 percent of my offensive game this year, where in college when I got the ball down in the post, it was much easier for me to play one-on-one. In many situations, I had success and then the refs would call fouls if the defense was too physical.
“But here, they don’t call fouls. You’re gonna get elbows, they’re gonna hit you, push you with legs, everything, but they don’t call fouls like that, so that’s why I had to adapt. It’s not easy to just be a one-dimensional player. ... The scouting here is really good. The players, the teams, they dedicate a lot of time to learning the game, studying the game, so you have to try to outsmart the other teams.”
On how his time at Arizona prepared him for his pro career: “Obviously not a lot of players get to spend four years at a program like Arizona and other big programs in the country. I was one of the rare ones that had that opportunity, and looking from this perspective, two years out of college, I really gained a lot of experience—and really the whole experience prepared me well for the professional world. Because when you go through four years of practice with Coach (Sean) Miller and his dedication to basketball, dedication to little small details, you’re ready for anything else. Any other coaches in Europe or anywhere else, they’re not as precise as him. So after four years in Arizona, everything else was much easier here for me.
“And historically when you go back and really see not only the players who ended up in the NBA, but the players that went to Europe and other overseas leagues that played for Coach Miller, all of those players had, and are having, really successful careers because of the system and the whole preparation that you go through those four years. Those examples tell how much Coach Sean’s system is good.”
On if he planned to be in college for four years before going pro: “To be honest, I never thought about the long term. I never planned to stay four years for sure. So, for me, it was a year-by-year decision, just considering the progress that I was making and just communicating with Coach Miller. And people don’t know that, but pretty much after each year in my college career, I had offers from Europe to come back and play professionally right away. And then after each year, I had to think about what was the best solution for my career. Not only for this year, next year, and after that, but five years from now.
“And from this perspective, I think I made really smart decisions. I’ve never tried to chase any money, any big contracts or instant success. But I always try to think truthfully, I always try to think what’s gonna be prepare me best for the professional world. Obviously when I got to Arizona, my goal was to make it to the NBA like all the players that come to Arizona. And after four years when I didn’t have a good guaranteed deal, I just decided to go back to Europe, where I feel that the game fits me better for my style of play.”
On what’s next in his pro career: “I don’t think I’ll be returning here because again this was just a one-year loan. I have one more year on my contract with Red Star, but I’ll have to talk to my agent and we’ll probably negotiate. So either I’ll sign a new contract with Red Star or I might go somewhere else. I don’t know that at this point. It’s still way too early, but I won’t be staying here, that’s for sure. But I will always keep you guys updated, all the people from Arizona that follow my career.”
This article is also part of an ongoing Q&A series that will highlight former UA student-athletes. The rest of the editions are linked below. If you are a former UA student-athlete and would like to participate, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or message me on Twitter at @RKelapire.