A change of scenery is sometimes required in order to grow. Sometimes the opportunity you need doesn’t materialize where you call home, and, at times, the only way to grow into what you believe for yourself is to leave what is familiar and step into something new.
20-year-old Serbian center Tristan Vukcevic was buried deep into the Real Madrid rotation, with little opportunity to showcase his talent on a top-tier Euroleague side having signed for Madrid back in 2020. During the 2021-22 season Vukcevic transferred from Madrid to current side Partizan, and the 2022-23 season has been Vukcevic’s most productive season to date starring in a larger role on a strong Euroleague team that includes notable players such as James Nunnally, Dante Exum and Yam Madar.
However, ‘most productive’ is relative — this ‘larger role’ for Vukcevic only saw his minutes per game increase from 8.4 in 2021-22 to 11.6 in 2022-23, though he did average 14.8 minutes per game in the Adriatic League, his average being pushed down by the 6.2 minutes per game he featured in Partizan’s Euroleague campaign (a campaign that ironically ended in defeat against eventual champions Real Madrid).
For the 2022-23 season across all competitions, Vukcevic averaged 5.5 points per game on 55% shooting from the field on 3.7 field goal attempts, 37% from three on 1.48 attempts, 80% from the line on 1.1 attempts, 2.4 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.3 blocks, 0.7 turnovers and 1.9 personal fouls in 11.6 minutes per game in 40 games played, per RealGM.
Not exactly mind-blowing stats, but this is a strong team and it can be difficult for young players to play a ton on Euroleague teams, and Vukcevic did only turn 20 in March, so he is still young with a lot of development still to come. That’s exactly how I’d describe Vukcevic immediately off the bat: he’s a bit raw still right now, marred still by somewhat of a lack of opportunities as an offensive focus.
Let’s go through some footage and see what is what from Vukcevic, who wears number 1.
Nearly half of Vukcevic’s total field goal attempts came from the perimeter, which is where Vukcevic was stationed on offense for the most part. He would set some screens but rolling to the rim isn’t the thing Vukcevic looks to do, he looks more so to get to the perimeter and work from there, be it on drives or launching a three himself.
Let’s have a look at some of these three-pointers.
Here, Vukcevic relocates from the weakside corner to above the break, and when he receives the ball he shows little hesitation rising into the three which he sinks:
In the weakside corner, Vukcevic receives the ball and hits another catch-and-shoot three:
In the same corner, Vukcevic receives the ball following the drive and hits the contested three in the corner, plus the foul:
Again above the break, Vukcevic hits the catch-and-shoot three:
Vukcevic isn’t really going to operating off the dribble and pulling up into a three but he should some semblance of pulling-up as he does so here on this transition possession where the defense hesitates:
Vukcevic also uses perimeter to create opportunities on drives too.
As he catches the ball on the perimeter, Vukcevic springs into a drive and extends in traffic before using the glass to convert near the rim:
On the catch, Vukcevic shows a brief hesitation before driving from the perimeter and uses his long arms to shield the ball on the way by the defender before extending to finish at the rim:
Another nice drive from Vukcevic on this next possession before he fakes the pass before finishing at the rim:
I wouldn’t call Vukcevic an elite slasher but for his size he moves pretty well in situations like these, with varying degrees of success at times and I wouldn’t call him completely comfortable with contact or with his weak-hand yet:
His dribble, too, can be a little inconsistent and high as it was here, leading to the turnover:
Vukcevic’s work in transition can be good too and can lead to some easier baskets.
Here, Vukcevic collects the loose ball and lead the way in transition, getting to the free throw line before rising into the jumpshot:
After a missed shot from the opponent, Vukcevic sneaks in behind the defense in semi-transition and Dante Exum finds Vukcevic for the alley-oop, beating the defender to the ball:
When shots are as limited as they can be for Vukcevic, any opportunities like this he has to be ready for:
Vukcevic showcases a lack of elite explosiveness on that dunk but alas...
Vukcevic does pretty well at times to work himself into second chance opportunities on the glass and can get another shot or two a game in this way.
Here, Vukcevic skies high to guide the missed shot back home, timing his attack to perfection:
On this play, Vukcevic does well to spring a trap and helps force the turnover in the backcourt. When his teammate attacks the rim, Vukcevic slips in front of his man and one-arms the offensive rebound home, plus the foul:
After some weak screen-setting it must be said, Vukcevic follows the missed shot, beating the defender to the rebound and finishing with his left-hand at the rim:
With an average of 0.8 assists per game there’s not a ton to say about Vukcevic’s passing but we’ll run through some clips of some of his moments.
A nice heads-up play here from Vukcevic as he runs the floor in transition and when he receives the ball he immediately throws it up for the alley-oop:
Another moment of flair from Vukcevic as he whips out a behind-the-back dime in transition after a turnover:
Here, Vukcevic drives from the perimeter, is halted by the defense but delivers a nice bounce-pass in behind for the assist at the rim:
The vision is decent here, as Vukcevic makes the quick chest pass to the weakside corner for an attempt from three:
Look, the bar isn’t super high right now but there’s enough to like given his role: 0.8 assists in 11 minutes isn’t the return thing in the world and he does show the occasional highlight play and heads-up play/awareness. There’s really little more to say than that.
There’s quite a bit to say here, however.
For the most part I thought Vukcevic’s defense was lacking. I think he struggles to move quick enough/react quick enough to drives or help defense/hedges.
On the hedge here he ends up behind the play and it leads to a shot at the rim:
Again, he ends up behind the play trying to recover back and ends up fouling his man on at the rim on the made basket;
On the first attempt on this defensive possession, Vukcevic does well, forcing the pass after the unsuccessful drive but on the second effort on the perimeter when the reset comes he’s completely wrong-footed and left for dead, eventually leading to a basket on the second attempt:
When left on an island, Vukcevic can be vulnerable as he was on these two drives:
There are also moments defensively where decision-making is still lacking a bit from Vukcevic.
Off of a full-court push after a made basket, Vukcevic bites a little too soon on the fake and it leads to a basket at the rim:
A bad rotation to the ball when there is already another defender here leaves his man open on the baseline where the ball is directed to and it leads to a basket:
Here, at the bottom of the picture you can see Vukcevic get caught in two minds as to where to be defensively and he makes the mistake of leaving the open man at the rim, choosing instead to head to the perimeter threat. Realizing his mistake, after the miss, he mistimes his rebound and commits a foul on the play:
In the pick-and-roll, Vukcevic doesn’t quite read the coverage and he ends up getting in his teammate’s way, leading to a basket after the dump-off:
However, for all of these foibles there were good moments from Vukcevic defensively as well.
Here, Vukcevic does well to step into the gap to plug the driving lane and help force a tough pass which leads to a turnover and a transition basket:
A simple move to his right here off of an inbounds pass stops the ball-handler in his tracks and between this and Vukcevic’s teammate they force the turnover, off of which Vukcevic would score the second chance points after the miss:
I liked Vukcevic’s activity on this play — two solid shows on pick-and-roll before the pass inside results in a turnover:
Vukcevic produced some solid blocks too, despite averaging 0.35 per game.
After losing ground in transition, Vukcevic catches up to block the shot at the rim from behind:
Tristan Vukcevic is an interesting player but in my view a bit raw right now — something you could probably expect from someone who just turned 20. The hope would be he continues to shoot threes at the percentage he currently is at a higher volume and improve defensively. I really just want to see Vukcevic with a larger role, even 20 minutes a game just to see more of him.
Offensively, it is mostly perimeter based between his three-point shooting and drives from the perimeter — these are solid but not spectacular right now. He doesn’t feature in a lot of pick-and-roll, nor would I call him the most enthusiastic screen-setter. Defensively it’s naturally a mixed bag: there are some good moments but you can really see the inexperience/sloppiness at times. He’s a bit slow on his feet and that’s a worry. He’s not foul prone in his time on the floor which is a good sign but really I think overall he just needs time and the opportunity to grow.
Let’s see where some draft outlets have Vukcevic ranked and what they say about him and...well, accounts really do vary here...
For transparency when I write these, I watch the player first and then look at what other outlets/draft experts say about said player and where they mock said player so I’m not swayed by their own view and make my own. However, when I went to check these on this occasion there was quite a contrast between one outlet and the rest.
ESPN have Vukcevic at 37th among their Top 100 Best Available list with an addendum from Jonathan Givony from 2021, prior to his move to Partizan so it’s really of little use other than this note that is slightly relevant still:
Still, there are question he’ll have to answer defensively when projecting to the NBA. He’ll have to show he can move his feet and cover ground a little better than what we’ve seen thus far.
We looked at some of this, but I still think in 2023 Vukcevic still struggles at times to move efficiently defensively, so in this aspect what Givony has said in 2021 still stands.
The Ringer nor CBS have Vukcevic mocked in their top-30, nor top-40 on The Ringer’s big-board as of May 25th here as I write this. Sam Vecenie of The Athletic similarly does not have Vukcevic mocked in his top-30, nor in his top-58 (post-lottery but pre-combine). Vukcevic does finally feature in Vecenie’s most recent big-board from May 2nd ranking at 82.
However, there was a particular focus on Vukcevic prior to the Draft Combine, where Vukcevic was the only international player who took part, and Jeremy Woo of ESPN focussed on Vukcevic as one of the players to watch ahead of the combine with this to say:
Vukcevic is the only internationally-based prospect scheduled to play 5-on-5 at present (Barcelona’s James Nnaji was a late combine opt out with his season still ongoing), and should have a valuable platform in Chicago. A majority of scouts have not seen him live recently (or ever) due to his inconsistent role and minutes at Partizan. The Serbian center is among the more offensively gifted bigs in the draft class, but projects as a potential second-rounder due to concerns about his defensive viability and NBA readiness.
A productive day or two could cement Vukcevic as someone worth drafting, particularly due to how thin this class is up front — only two true centers, Nnaji and Duke’s Dereck Lively II, currently rank inside our top 40, and neither will scrimmage. NBA teams will be hoping to see some of these bigs separate themselves from the pack as guaranteed deal caliber prospects, and the 20-year-old Vukcevic will play head-to-head against many of the top bigs in college basketball, with a chance to impress due to his offensive fluidity and skill level as a potential stretch five. He’ll be an intriguing curiosity and a newer face for scouts to get a feel for, and while it’s always difficult for ball-needy bigs to thrive in this environment, Vukcevic has an opportunity to better establish himself.
Clearly there was quite a lot riding on Vukcevic heading into the combine and he seemed to deliver, with Vecenie reporting on Vukcevic and his seemingly improved stock after the combine, even going so far as to sitting out the second day after a strong showing:
Vukčević made shots at the combine, and that’s going to get you noticed. In the first game, Vukčević was 8-of-10 from the field, including 3-of-3 from 3. He was the most efficient offensive player in the first day of scrimmages and decided to sit out the second day after putting up such a performance.
This is definitely the kind of positive momentum Vukčević needed. He’s mostly been in the rotation of EuroLeague power Partizan’s games in the Adriatic League this year, posting solid 58/40/81 shooting splits in limited shots. A few scouts mentioned to me that they have some worries about his overall movement skills and whether he’ll be able to slide his feet enough to defend on the perimeter or anchor his spot enough to consistently hold his ground at the center position. He was a bit of a mixed bag in that regard defensively even in his standout combine performance. The good news is that he came in at 6-11 1/4 without shoes, so he’ll be a 7-footer with shoes on with a 9-3 standing reach. That puts him in strong company as a potential floor-spacing center.
I’d bet Vukčević ends up being a priority stash candidate in the second round this year. Teams with multiple picks in the second round like Charlotte (the Hornets have Nos. 34, 39 and 41) make a lot of sense. I don’t think he has done enough to climb into the first, but if you don’t have an available roster spot, he’ll be one of the best options.
From someone who was projected by many to fall outside the draft entirely, he seems to have bumped himself very much into it now. I do ultimately think — and agree — Vukcevic is a stash prospect: we just need to see more from him in a more consistent role.
There’s enough to like to take the gamble if there’s absolutely no one who enamors you in the second round. I think 30’s is probably a bit high for him, 40’s is more acceptable and if he’s available in the 50’s then that’s ideal. I’d be reluctant to spend a pick in the 30’s based on what he’s shown so far.
Atlanta has a selection at 46th overall, so it’s conceivable they could use it to select Vukcevic should he be available — should they choose to keep the pick of course, which has not always been a guarantee in the second round of late. It would be also be handy way of making a selection and not have to worry about having to roster him immediately.
Time will tell when it comes to Tristan Vukcevic: we just need to see a little more.