For Vasilije Micic to succeed in the NBA, he needs permission to be himself

Photo by Nikola Krstic/MB Media/Getty Images
Photo by Nikola Krstic/MB Media/Getty Images /

Vasilije Micic has been at his best when afforded plenty of freedom and free reign. Will the Oklahoma City Thunder give that to him?

In the 2014 NBA Draft an unknown well-rounded Serbian prospect was selected late in the second round. His career’s progress was far from linear, but ultimately, he would win MVPs and titles at the highest level, and rack up accolades that few predicted.

That prospect’s name is Vasilije Micic.

Micic was selected with the 52nd pick of the 2014 draft by Sam Hinkie and the Philadelphia 76ers. He would remain overseas because the Process Sixers point guard rotation that season — Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten, and NBA champion Ish Smith — was simply too good for there to be room for the young Serbian.

Instead, Micic meandered along somewhat aimlessly in Europe. After the draft, he joined Bayern Munich for the following season and appeared in only six Euroleague games. The next season he joined Red Star Belgrade, and made one start all season.

He then joined Zalgiris Kaunas who made an underdog run to the Euroleague Final Four and Micic accumulated career highs in games played (36), starts (10), minutes per-game (22.4), and points per-game (7.67).

If you’re thinking to yourself that none of that sounds impressive, you’re right.

If you’re wondering why Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder just signed this guy to a three-year, $23 million contract, that’s fair. So let’s get into that.

How and why Vasilije Micic landed with the Thunder

After Micic’s season in Lithuania he signed with Turkish Euroleague team Anadolu Efes Istanbul, coached by Ergin Ataman.

Two more guards joined Efes that offseason as well, and they’re names that sicko NBA fans will likely recognize: Shane Larkin and Rodrigue Beaubois.

Coach Ataman implemented a system that many likened to the then-James Harden and Chris Paul-led Houston Rockets.

They had plenty of floor spacing and relentlessly ran pick-and-rolls and isolations for their lead ball handlers.

The approach was bold, and not all that common in Europe. The reality was that for a system like that to be effective, you likely needed guys who were as skilled as Harden and Paul. And no players like that existed in Europe, none.

Or at least, that’s what many thought.

Sure, Micic was coming off the best season of his career and Larkin was coming off a strong season with Spanish club Baskonia and a brief NBA return with the Boston Celtics. They looked good, but… Euro Harden and Paul? Unlikely.

Unlikely to everyone, but Ataman. Ataman believed deep down that Larkin and Micic were capable of leading a team this way. To an extent, he thumbed his nose at European basketball norms.

The way the game is played on the old continent has plenty of traits, isolation basketball is not one of them.

But the doubts, the question marks, and general lack of approval only fueled Ataman and in turn, Larkin and Micic.

The two of them were unleashed, and Micic in particular took off. He achieved career highs in points per game (12.41), assists per game (5.49), three-point percentage (37), and three-point attempts per game (4.81) while earning All-Euroleague Second Team honors.

Efes succeeded as well. They made the Euroleague championship game — losing to CSKA Moscow — after finishing dead last in Euroleague the previous season. The loss was crushing, no denying that, but Efes persisted.

Ataman, Micic, and much of the core remained. Micic got better, again, and in the next full Euroleague season (2019-20 had no champion due to COVID-19) Micic won MVP and Efes returned to the Euroleague Final Four.

They got their revenge and defeated CSKA Moscow in the semifinal, and then beat Nikola Mirotic’s Barcelona in the Final.

They went back-to-back the following season, once again, thanks to Micic.

Last season though, Efes fell off. Micic played well but the team seemed to have finally run its course. They missed out on the Euroleague playoffs entirely. Ataman left for Greek giants Panathinaikos, and Micic — whose rights were ultimately traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Al Horford salary dump — has decided to finally cross the pond.

While Micic’s talent is undeniable — he’s shifty, got great core strength, a deft touch at the rim and from beyond the arc, a solid passer, and fearless — he’ll be in a dogfight for real minutes with the Thunder.

Star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Australian Josh Giddey are established leaders in their backcourt, and rookie Cason Wallace, shooter Isaiah Joe, and veterans Victor Oladipo and Patrick Mills are all on next season’s payroll as well.

Should Micic find success quickly, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti will have essentially signed a Tyler Herro-level player for about $22 million less annually.

Should Micic struggle, remember the path his overseas career took, and how it was far from linear.

If he falls out of the rotation a number of teams who could use another skilled offensive initiator with size – the Sixers, Celtics, Clippers, Nets, etc. – should be placing calls ahead of the February trade deadline and remind themselves that when Ataman let Micic be Micic, success followed.

Next. A 3-team Damian Lillard trade that actually works. dark

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