LAS VEGAS — Leaving Gonzaga to play professionally in his native Serbia for Mega Basket was perhaps the best basketball decision for 76ers second-round pick Filip Petrušev.
“At Gonzaga, I was mostly playing inside,” he said. “Back home, I got to play a lot outside, popping, shooting threes, handling as well. So I feel like I became a complete player.”
Before he turned pro, Petrušev led Gonzaga to the West Coast Conference tournament championship and won conference player of the year honors for the 2019-20 season. But Petrušev saw an abrupt end to his sophomore season as COVID-19 cases canceled the 2020 NCAA tournament and altered the NBA draft process.
As good as he was that season, the 6-foot-11, 235-pounder knew it wasn’t enough to impress NBA scouts. At Gonzaga, he was a traditional back-to-the-basket center. But in the modern NBA, post players are expected to stretch the floor as a shooter or be an athletic rim-running, shot-blocker.
With no NBA combine or in-person workouts with teams, the Serbian power forward/center could not show NBA executives his versatility and athleticism in order to build his draft stock.
So he had a tough decision to ponder.
Should he go back to Gonzaga for the 2020-21 season without assurance that a college season would be played?
Petrušev, who came to Gonzaga as a stretch big only to play a different style, also had to consider whether his role would change if he returned.
He opted to forgo his final two seasons while signing a contract to play for Mega, in his hometown of Belgrade, Serbia.
The team recently sent notable big men Nikola Jokić, Ivica Zubac and Goga Bitadze to the NBA. Mega has a reputation for giving young players freedom to showcase and work on their skills against competitive ABA League foes.
The decision worked out well for Petrušev, who swept the ABA’s MVP, top prospect and top scorer awards this past season. In addition to leading the league in scoring (23.6 points), he led it in minutes played (32.0 per game) and field-goal percentage (57.9%). In addition to that, he made 41.9% of his three-pointers and averaged 7.6 rebounds.
“And then the fact that I played against pros, definitely got me closer to the NBA,” Petrušev said, “and got me more ready for it because [I was playing against] grown men.”
While Petrušev says he’s more ready for the NBA, Sixers president of basketball operation Daryl Morey said he will remain overseas as a draft-and-stash player next season. The thing is, Petrušev can opt out of his contract with Mega.
“My intentions would be obviously to come over as soon as possible,” he said. “But it’s not up to me.”
Petrušev could be a solid addition whenever he does come over because of his skill set. He can stretch the floor and knock down shots to create space for Joel Embiid and others in a backup role.
“I’m about to do a lot of things so I can be on the court and do whatever they need me to do for the moment,” he said, “whether it’s playing the four, stretch it, shoot it, whether it’s playing the five, set screens, go to the basket. Play D at the five and guard pick-and-rolls.
“So whatever they need me to do at the moment. I can cover, shoot, spot release. I think that’s my advantage.”