Utah Runnin’ Utes ink Serbian guard Lazar Stefanovic as early signing period begins

(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics) Utes men's basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak

Lazar Stefanovic is not unlike other European teenage basketball players in that he had a decision to make about his future.

An 18-year-old Serbian shooting guard, Stefanovic made his professional debut for the team he grew up rooting for, KK Partizan, during the 2018-19 season and saw regular rotation minutes last season for Mladost in KSL, Serbia’s top league, but American colleges were now calling, including the University of Utah.

“That’s what every kid from Europe probably dreams about, playing in the EuroLeague first, but then colleges showed up,” Stefanovic said on a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon. “Utah was the first school to reach out, and I started to see the big picture. College is a one-time experience.”

The remainder of Stefanovic’s professional career is officially on hold after he signed his National Letter of Intent Wednesday morning to attend Utah. This, after he garnered interest from Toledo, Stanford, New Mexico, UC Santa Barbara, USC and South Florida among others.

Stefanovic represents Utah’s lone commitment in the class of 2021. With the NCAA having frozen the eligibility clock for winter-sport athletes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stefanovic’s addition technically puts Utah one over the NCAA scholarship limit of 13. The Utes' only senior for 2020-21 is Alfonso Plummer, who could opt to return in 2021-22.

“We’re excited to have Lazar join us next season,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said in a statement. “Lazar is a tremendous player with high-character and an elite student, so it’s a great fit both for him and our program. His experience playing in some of the top leagues in Europe and FIBA will be a tremendous boost and brings maturity to both ends of the floor.”

In 26 games for Mladost last season, Stefanovic averaged 7.0 points in 20.7 minutes per game. The numbers might seem modest, but the bigger point is that, as a teenager, Stefanovic has already seen extensive action against grown men. As Krystkowiak noted, Stefanovic has FIBA experience after playing for Serbia’s junior team at the Under-16 European Championships in 2018.

With assistant coach Andy Hill doing much of the heavy recruiting lifting, Utah is increasingly leaning on Europe to make recruiting hay. When Stefanovic debuts next season, the Utes will have four European players with professional experience, FIBA experience or both.

The other three are Mikael Jantunen (Finnish national team), Pelle Larsson (Swedish national team, BC Lulea) and Norbert Thelissen (Netherlands national team, Den Bosch).

Ute women sign two recruits

The Utah women’s basketball team on Wednesday morning announced it has signed a pair of recruits, 6-foot-2 Minnesota forward Jenna Johnson and 5-foot-11 guard Gianna Kneepkens, both of whom are from the state of Minnesota.

Johnson is rated as a four-star, top-50 national recruit via ESPN, while Kneepkens averaged 31.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.8 steals and 4.6 assists per game as a junior for Duluth Marshall High School.

“Jenna and Gianna are awesome additions to our Utah family,” Utes head coach Lynne Roberts said in a statement. “They are incredible students from incredible families who can really make their presence known on the court. They are total ‘fits’ to our program — long, athletic, tough, competitive, and versatile players who can score. Ute fans are going to love them.”