NEW YORK – If you ask Nemanja Mikic, he probably wouldn’t say that the best part of his game against Fordham Saturday afternoon was the four three-pointers he drained.
They were sweet shots, carving through the air, some passing through the net without so much as brushing the rim. But they left Mikic unimpressed.
If you asked Mikic, he probably wouldn’t highlight any portion of his game as being particularly outstanding, a combination of his quiet, humble nature and his remaining distaste for GW’s 63-58 loss to the Rams. Looking past the final score and examining the forward's aggressive performance in the game, there were signs of an increasingly heads-up play the sophomore has been bringing to the court this season – pointing to a rapidly developing skill set.
“I just pretty much try hard. Just become better, a better defensive player,” Mikic said. “Just a better player in general.”
Against Fordham, Mikic was dominant at the glass, pulling down a team-high seven boards, including six defensive rebounds that clearly point to the time he and GW’s coaching staff have spent working on developing his game. Last season, Mikic averaged 2.7 rebounds per game, a benchmark he's echoed this season. His presence in the paint is tangible, highlighted by a more aggressive nature that often sees the forward swiftly applying heavy pressure as soon as his opponent touches the ball.
Last season, Mikic was known as a hot-handed three-point shooter, pacing all Division I freshmen in three-point shooting percentage. But as scouting reports caught up with him, he found himself increasingly limited from long range. Mikic worked to develop a more varied offensive attack, pushing himself to become a dangerous shooter from all areas of the floor. This year, the demands of a new system have pushed the forward to focus instead on his defense, working to fill the role envisioned by new head coach Mike Lonergan.
Lonergan builds his teams around the post. He emphasizes the importance of being dominant on the glass to execute an offensive attack, and demands his team shut down an opponent’s attack with commanding control of defensive rebounds. One of the most important statistics in a game, Lonergan believes, is the other team's shooting percentage – a statistic GW can limit by flexing its muscles on defensive boards.
Faced with a new coaching style, the Colonials have struggled to implement Lonergan's defense-first method, highlighted by a seven-game slide in December and four straight A-10 road losses. Sitting in Fordham’s press room after dropping yet another game away from the Smith Center, Lonergan was frustrated by his team’s performance, but he identified Mikic's play as a bright spot. The forward's defensive growth is exactly what Lonergan wants to see from the rest of his team.
“I’m also looking with Nemanja and guys to the future, and Nemanja’s the one guy that’s showing improvement. I mean the last eight games, I’d say he’s really become a pretty good defender, when a few months ago he was probably our worst defender,” Lonergan said. “And he’s started to score, which is nice, because we need his scoring.”
Mikic’s scoring is still perhaps the most visible part of his game, his reputation preceding him to the court. Saturday's game marked his third-straight in double-digits, and Mikic said he's focused on furthering his skills at both ends of the court. Mikic wants to be a true threat on the court striving, he said, “to be a better basketball player.” As his performance improves, Mikic takes the court with a greater confidence, using pump-fakes and pick-and-rolls to beat defenders, and setting up chances for his teammates with increasing ease.
“Nemanja’s at that level, but we have to get everybody back,” Lonergan said. “We have to get everybody to a higher level.”
Late in the first half against Fordham, Mikic zipped a hard pass to junior forward Dwayne Smith, who spun, dribbled and drove in for a layup. It was a play crafted by Mikic, who glimpsed an opening and set his teammate up to score.
It was an unselfish move from a player exhibiting an eye for the game. And if you ask Mikic, that was probably one of the best parts of his play Saturday afternoon.