Jovic: ''I became a better player at the World Cup''
MIAMI (USA) - That was fast!
Nikola Jovic needed just two years to go from promising talent with Serbia at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2021 in Riga to bona fide star with the senior team at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Manila.
Coming off a rookie season in the NBA with the Miami Heat when Jovic had to put his head down, work, and deal with some injuries, his development accelerated with Serbia at the World Cup.
Serbia needed the 20-year-old's dynamic, all-round play and he provided it as they reached the Final.
Jovic learned, he says, many things and gained a lot of experience.
"And playing at a top level like that, it's cool."
It was a great summer for Jovic as national team coach Svetislav Pesic surrounded him with veteran players who were laser focused.
"I think you play a lot harder that way," he said. "Playing with some great teammates and just learning. I think I became a better player in every way. I learned a lot. Competing against different countries in a tournament like that, it's special.
"IT MEANT A LOT, JUST TO CONTINUE BUILDING THAT LEGACY AND FOR PEOPLE TO KNOW THAT WE'RE A BASKETBALL COUNTRY."
"It gave me a lot of confidence, especially because the year before that, I didn't play much (in Miami) because of injuries. Just being there helped me a lot."
Jovic ranked third on the Serbia team in efficiency at 12.0 per game behind talisman Bogdan Bogdanovic (21.6) and center Nikola Milutinov (19.5).
Jovic averaged 10.1 points per game while shooting 56.6 percent from the floor, including an impressive 42.3 percent from the arc and 76.9 percent at the free-throw line.
He also averaged 2.6 assists and 3.0 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game, which was third highest on the team.
His best game was against South Sudan, a 25-point eruption.
"It was like every other game (smiling)," he said.
"I was just trying to win. My teammates helped me post up a lot more. And I would just make shots, you know, I would just make shots. They were finding me and that's it."
Jovic made all nine of his shots from the floor against the Bright Stars, including five from long range.
He carried the momentum into the next game against Puerto Rico and had 17 points. Against the Boricuas, he was three of five from deep.
Confirmation of his outstanding tournament was that Jovic finished second to Australia's Josh Giddey in the race for the Wanda Rising Star Award.
Jovic played in the FIBA Basketball World Cup Final against Germany in Manila
Big things have been expected of Jovic in the past couple of years.
In 2021, he was Serbia's top player at the U19 World Cup in Riga, where he was the tournament's third-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, and also tied for sixth in both rebounding (8.3 per game) and blocks (1.7 per game).
Jovic arrived at the World Cup in a positive mood despite having logged just 13 minutes in the post-season with Miami, and only three overall in the NBA Finals against Denver.
"Just being there (at the NBA Finals) helped me," he said. "Just being with the team, helping them during practices, seeing how they prepare and how mentally tough it is. And that's why I went to the World Cup."
Jovic was also able to write a new chapter in Serbia's famous basketball lore.
"I grew up watching the national basketball team," he said. "That's something that people from my country really admire. And that's something when you first start playing basketball over there, that's one of the first things you think about."
Jovic had been among the high-fliers at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in 2021
Reaching the World Cup Final is a memory Jovic will treasure, always. The last time that Serbia had reached the podium had been at FIBA EuroBasket 2017, when they were second and Jovic was just 14.
"It represents a lot," he said of second place at the World Cup. "First of all, it represents how hard the whole team worked and how much we believed in each other.
"You know, nobody really believed in us. We were just competing and it was really important for us. We believed in each other, just bringing some joy to our nation.
"We hadn't won anything internationally in, you know, I think six years in basketball. And it meant a lot, just to continue building that legacy and for people to know that we're a basketball country."
Asked to sum up the silver medal in one word, he answered: "Brotherhood. That's because everything, the whole thing, how much we believe in each other as a group. It was like a brotherhood."
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Jovic, 20, will be excited to make his Olympic bow in France and to have some success there, too.
"Last year for the World Cup, our goal was to give everything we could and see where we'd end up," he said.
"Of course, the medal is something that we really admire. We want to win something. But, you never know. And it just depends. There are a lot of factors that need to go right for us to win a medal. But we'll give everything we have and we'll see where it goes."
Defending champions USA will be among the teams standing in their way.
"If it ends up like people say, they're going to have a great team," Jovic said. "And the thing is, it's a long game. I don't know if it'll be us or someone else or if anybody is going to beat them. But we'll see. Like I said, it's going to be an interesting tournament."
A lot will happen between now and the Olympics.
Jovic's concentration right now is on Miami, and getting better under coach Erik Spoelstra.
"We're really encouraged by Niko's development and how much he's grown," Spoelstra said. Jovic has not played a lot of minutes for the Heat in November. "The fact that he's not playing should not be an indication of how we feel that he's developed. He's taken major strides. This is all part of the development process, particularly when you're a younger player. You know he was the youngest player last year and there are steps to follow. He'll continue to get better because of his work ethic and his skill set, which is really unique."
From Jovic's vantage point, all he can do is keep working hard.
"I'm not as much in the rotation as people want to see me," he said. "But it's a great opportunity for me to improve here. We'll see how it goes."