Utah Center Andrew Bogut: The Next Big Thing
His coach calls him "the whole package." Scouts and agents have been watching him for years. And at least one broadcaster has predicted on national television that he might be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this summer.
So how did all of that come to be for Utah's Andrew Bogut, a 7-foot Australian who just turned 20 years old?
His father owned his own business repairing them, and Bogut remembers getting his start in basketball by shooting at a makeshift rim that hung in the workplace garage when he was about 8 years old.
"It was just there," Bogut recalls.
"It was just a piece of metal glued into a wall. . . . I think just the workers put it up there, so on their lunch breaks they could just screw around, I guess. I started playing, and started watching it more on TV, trying to make it to the NBA. All of the sudden, I started taking it up seriously, and that was my life, from there." And it has brought him here, to Utah, where barely two months past his 20th birthday, Bogut has established himself not only as the best player in the Mountain West Conference going into a key game against Air Force at the Huntsman Center on Monday night, but perhaps the best in all of college basketball.
Broadcaster Jimmy Dykes suggested on an ESPN broadcast recently that Bogut will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in June, and that is just the kind of potential that former coach Rick Majerus saw in Bogut three years ago, when he recruited him to play for the Utes.
But as successful as Bogut was last season under Majerus - he was the league's Freshman of the Year - he has really blossomed as a sophomore under new coach Ray Giacoletti.
In part, that's because Giacoletti's up-tempo system suits Bogut better, he says, but it's also because he's more familiar with Utah and because he gained so much confidence playing well for Australia against some of the world's best players in the Athens Olympics last summer.
"Seeing and living with the best athletes in the world in every sport just sort of hit me, when I got there," he says. "Knowing that when I come back to Utah, I'm playing against kids again, my age. So I knew that no one could stop me - hopefully - no one could stop me in the nation, and that was that."
Bogut is averaging 19.7 points and 12.3 rebounds for the Utes, who are 16-3 after beating New Mexico on Saturday and riding an 11-game winning streak, their longest in three years. He leads the nation with 14 double-doubles, and coach after coach has puzzled over how to stop him - especially because he's such a good passer that he can beat double- and triple-teams by finding open teammates.
Nobody has found a good answer.
"It doesn't matter if it's man or zone," Giacoletti says. "When it touches his hands, our team is better, bottom line."
Bogut developed into such a good player by hard work and dedication, of course, but also because of nature's unpredictable whims. Though he was bigger than most of the other kids his age until he was about 12 years old, he suddenly stopped growing much for the better part of three years.
The other kids caught up, and Bogut had to play guard and small forward more than center.
"I actually played point in some games," he says.
So that's where the passing and ballhandling skills came along, before Bogut shot up another four or five inches when he was 16. By then, his parents had hired for him a "crazy" personal coach from the former Yugoslavia, who drilled him for hours in ways the young Bogut thought unorthodox.
"He would be waiting for me after school," Bogut recalls. "I'd go with him in the car, he'd take me straight home, I'd get changed, go straight to the basketball stadium . . . and just practice two or three hours."
Bogut remembers donning plastic "blinders" to keep him from looking down at the ball while dribbling, wearing ankle weights while performing skipping drills, and practicing alone much of the time.
"He just kept making me do things, over and over, till I got it right," Bogut says. "I'd be doing full-court drills by myself. About four or five months later, one of my other friends started training with us, too, so it was a bit easier with two guys. But when I was by myself, it was hell.
"One time, we couldn't get a court," Bogut adds. "So he just took me to a football field, and just had me run. Just up and down, the day of a game. He just had me running up and down, doing mechanical drills. Getting everything right, high knees, all that sort of stuff."
Often, he felt silly.
Now, not so much.
A hot commodity
By almost all accounts, Bogut is destined for stardom in the NBA, and he eagerly acknowledges that all of those "goofy" drills and tactics helped make it so. They helped him get accepted into the Australian Institute for Sport when he was 16, after all, which started him seriously on his path to worldwide acclaim.
The institute in Canberra is basically a training camp, and Bogut moved from his parents' home in Melbourne to spend his final year of high school there. (Had he not been accepted, he says now, he would have gone to Europe to play for "crap money" - which is to say, nothing like the millions he now can expect to earn in the NBA.)
The days were regimented, with classes interspersed between shooting drills, weightlifting sessions and team practices, and Bogut says he had no social life. But he had attracted interest from Majerus and assistant coach Kerry Rupp, whom he saw as his ticket to the NBA.
"I thought it was the stepping stone," he says.
Turns out, he will be right.
Nobody around the Utah basketball program expects Bogut to stay after this season. Giacoletti won't say that specifically, but he frequently remarks about the rarity of Bogut's talent and how he and Utah fans should enjoy watching such a talented player while they have the chance.
For his part, Bogut does not want to talk about whether he will leave the Utes, even though he's greeted on every road trip by more reporters asking the same question.
"I just don't want to think about it," he says. "That's a distraction to the team and the coaches, and I don't think that's fair to even talk about that in-season. Honestly, even if I knew right now that I was going, I wouldn't tell anybody, just because it would be such a distraction. And we're playing so well, I don't want to take any limelight off us as a team."
Besides, Bogut already has eschewed several chances to leave the Utes.
He was supposed to have come to Utah midway through the 2002-03 season, but the NCAA did not count for full credit some of the classes he had taken in Australia and delayed his eligibility until he took classes that did. In that time, Bogut continued to train at the AIS, and his letter-of-intent to join the Utes expired not long before he led the Australian under-19 national team to the gold medal at the 2003 FIBA Junior World Championships. By averaging 26.3 points, 17 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, he earned Most Valuable Player honors.
And suddenly, everybody wanted him.
"A hell of a lot" of American universities began recruiting him, he says, and scouts from all over Europe tried to sign him to their pro leagues. He could have signed with anybody in the States, because once his letter-of-intent had expired, he was a recruitable athlete again.
But "I stuck with Utah because they stuck with me," he says.
Bogut's return was in question again last year, after Majerus quit midway through the season. But Bogut makes it sound as if he would have had a harder time returning if Majerus had stayed, saying he doubted Majerus would have made the same effort that Giacoletti did, traveling all the way to Australia to see Bogut and talk him into returning to Utah.
"Majerus probably would have just called and said, you know, 'We want you back,' " Bogut says. "But I don't think he would've made that trip out. [Giacoletti] showed me that he really cared and wanted me back. . . . He told me I'd be the centerpiece of the offense, which I liked and didn't have a chance to do here last year. So I thought that would benefit me and the team, and obviously, just the sincerity of him coming out was the main thing, I think."
Citizen of the world
So here he is, on the verge of exploding into one of the world's premier young basketball stars, enjoying every minute of his simple American college experience.
Though he misses the multiculturalism of Melbourne and the cooking he enjoyed growing up - his parents, Michael and Anne Susan, are both native Croatians, who fled their country separately as it leaned toward war in the 1980s, then met and married in Australia - Bogut has grown comfortable around campus and Salt Lake City, having established a circle of friends and even inheriting former teammate Nick Jacobson's Pontiac Grand Am.
"It was great last year," he says. "It was tough, because coach [Majerus] was so demanding and stuff like that. But this year has been so much more fun and enjoyable. Same as the AIS, my second year was just so much more productive and better than my first because, like here, I know my way around. I know my way around the city, I know a lot of people. I know people I can go out with. That just helps being this far away from home."
Some 8,445 miles, to be precise.
But Bogut is a citizen of the world.
Interest in his career is intense not just in Australia, but also Croatia and other parts of Europe, owing to his family pedigree and significant international experience, and Bogut frequently fields interview requests from all over the globe.
Naturally, he possesses a greater awareness of world events than most young Americans, and he finds himself perpetually amused at those who marvel at his good English - some people expect him to speak "Australian" - or who believe that he keeps a crocodile and kangaroo as pets, as he jokingly said in his media-guide biography.
He finds great amusement in indulging Americans' stereotypes about his country, in fact, and has a sense of humor that reflects what he says is the less serious world view of his native land.
After Wyoming's Steve Leven wound up and punched him in the groin during a game last weekend, for example - the videotape caught the infraction, though the referees did not - Bogut returned to the bench, where assistant coach Mike Score asked him why Leven, a fellow Australian, had treated him so rudely.
"He's been in the States too long," Bogut cracked.
Two days later, when razzed by fans at Colorado State's Moby Arena, Bogut studied the scoreboard and counted on his fingers, jokingly assessing the Utes' large lead over the Rams.
"People take that so seriously," he says.
Bogut doesn't mind, though.
The biggest value his father taught him growing up, he says, was being honest - with others and himself.
"Still, even recently, I was somewhat scared to say what I think," Bogut says, "and he told me to 'Just keep saying what you think. If people don't like it, that's that.' . . . I just try to be who I am, I guess. Don't change for nobody. That was the biggest thing. If people don't like who I am, I can't do nothing about it."
About the only problem Bogut has at the moment, then, is trying to keep weight on. He's trying to bulk up another 10 or 15 pounds, and he has found that his metabolism simply tears through almost everything he eats. Bogut stuffs himself with everything he can find - from Subway sandwiches before practice to Big Macs before bed.
"I don't eat like a huge meal, like some guys do," he says. "But I'll eat every hour. There's always something in my mouth."
Yep, that seals it.
Young, worldly, soon to be rich off his prodigious talent, and able to eat whatever he wants? This kid has it all.
Bogut by the numbers
FG FT Reb Ast Bl PPG
.633 .705 12.3 2.4 1.7 19.7
Andrew Bogut, All-American?
The Utah Utes certainly hope so, and they're starting a campaign this week to help promote their 7-foot Australian center. Playing to his heritage, the Utes plan to send paper boomerangs to some 600 media members nationwide, to inform them of Bogut's credentials and a new Web site that's going up next week at http://www.utahutes.com/AndrewBogut.
The site will include statistics, articles, and even an online diary written by Bogut himself, as often as his schedule will allow.