Milko Bjelica grew up watching a who’s who of great players from the former Yugoslavia.
The Alvark Tokyo big man mentioned former NBA standouts Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic plus longtime Europe-based player Dejan Bodiroga among those who’ve helped him shape his game.
Now, in the latter stages of his pro career, Bjelica, 34, looks back on the influential figures from the formative years of his career and pays homage to them.
“I learned from them, watching them and I grow like that, too,” Bjelica told The Japan Times on Sunday. “That’s helped me a lot.”
Asked to elaborate on his present and former compatriots’ success in the NBA and European basketball, Bjelica gave a thoughtful response.
“Yugoslavia has a big history in basketball. It means a lot to me,” he added, referring to its overall success. “I’ve had the opportunity, like, all my life since I started to play basketball I’ve had the chance to watch the best players in that time.”
The Montenegrin veteran power forward/center also expressed pride in the success of the former Yugoslavia national team on the global stage, including Yugoslavia’s 1996 Olympic silver medal in Atlanta, where it faced Team USA’s Dream Team II. (Serbia claimed silver at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games; Yugoslavia was the runner-up in 1988, followed by Croatia in 1992.)
“Many of them, plenty of the players were (competing) at the highest level,” said Bjelica of his compatriots and others from the former Yugoslavia.
Starting in the early 1990s, wars led to the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, which splintered into Bosnia, Croatia and other nations. Serbia and Montenegro, meanwhile, split up in 2006 based on an independence referendum, with Montenegro becoming an independent nation.
The Belgrade-born Bjelica is averaging 11.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in 13 games (one start) for the Alvark. Primarily, he splits time at power forward with fellow veterans Jawad Williams and Joji Takeuchi.
Fellow Montenegrin Luka Pavicevic, in his second season as the Alvark bench boss, is quite familiar with the 207-cm Bjelica’s game. He led the Montenegro national team from 2012-14, and their careers have also intersected in European pro leagues and various regional and continental tournaments.
Pavicevic aims to keep Bjelica, Williams and Takeuchi fresh and avoid bouts of fatigue throughout the long season.
Frontcourt mates Alex Kirk, 27, and Williams, who turns 36 in February, have also competed on top-level European clubs, perhaps giving Pavicevic a slight edge in strategy over some coaching peers in the B. League.
Bjelica considers the camaraderie and competition in the frontcourt as being beneficial for him and the team.
“With Coach Luka, we have excellent work in the practices and still, you know, even now Jawad and me at this age, we are still learning and improving our game,” Bjelica said. “And that’s helped us and Joji and Alex as well.”
In other words, Pavicevic believes Bjelica’s skill set could benefit Tokyo in its quest to defend its title this spring.
“What his qualities are he can play inside and he can play outside,” Pavicevic said. “Of course if he gets himself out every couple of weeks it hurts his rhythm and then he can’t look good consistently. Especially in the game where the opponent is aware that they have to mix the defenses in order to, let’s say, establish some kind of defensive edge against us.
“Basically, he’s a combo center that should helps us on both inside and outside situations.”
Bjelica scored a season-high 22 points on 10-for-14 shooting against the Sunrockers Shibuya on Dec. 26 in a 77-74 Tokyo triumph. The game, he said, was a reminder of the team’s scoring depth.
“It’s just one game. . . . One game, Alex; next game, Daiki (Tanaka) and the rest of the team, you know? It’s always like that,” he said. “Nobody can focus on one player.”
Injured against the Kyoto Hannaryz on Oct. 28 (pulled left calf), Bjelica missed two weeks of games and one week of practice. He then returned to the rotation on Nov. 18 and contributed 10 points against the Ryukyu Golden Kings. He confirmed he’s in good condition now, and likes the Alvark’s chances to be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason.
“I think that we lack a couple of wins maybe, but still our goal is to make the playoffs and after that everything is possible,” Bjelica said. “I think we are capable and we have a roster to attack the championship again.”
Bejelica began his pro career in the 2001-02 season with Serbian club Crvena Zvezda and went on to play in Germany, Lithuania, Spain and Turkey before returning to Crvena Zvezda in 2016. As a pro, he’s tasted success numerous times over the years, being a part of teams that have won EuroCups and national cups in Serbia and Montenegro, Turkey and Lithuania, as well as Baltic and Adriatic League crowns. While playing for Lietuvos Rytas, Bejelica helped the Lithuanian club capture the 2008-09 EuroCup and back-to-back Lithuanian national titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10. What’s more, he contributed to Crvena Zvezda’s 2016-17 Serbian League title. (Pavicevic also played for the Belgrade-based team in 1998-99.)
Bjelica suited up for Basket Zaragoza in the Spanish League last season. He returned to a country that made a big impression on him for its basketball competitiveness during his first stint there as a pro from 2011-13.
“Spain is the most tough league, where you are facing teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia . . . ,” he said.
Last year, Bjelica had a pair of impressive first-round performances for the Montenegro national team in 2019 FIBA World Cup European qualifiers. He scored 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting, including 3 of 3 from 3-point range, against Belarus and added 17 points and 11 rebounds against Slovenia.
Up next: Ukraine vs. Montenegro on Feb. 22 and Montenegro vs. Latvia three days later, and Bjelica said there’s a possibility he’ll be called up to the national squad.
“We are in a good position (way to qualify) for the world championship next summer in China,” Bjelica noted without stating Montenegro’s 3-3 Group A record, trailing only Spain (6-0).
“I hope I will have the chance to play again for (the national team for) the first time in my career in the World Cup and after that the Olympics maybe.”
Veteran guard Makoto Hiejima has left the Brisbane Bullets of the National Basketball League in Australia. Hiejima played sparingly for Brisbane after making a highly publicized move Down Under in the offseason.
Hiejima is now back with the Tochigi Brex, the team he signed a deal with after leaving the SeaHorses Mikawa following the 2017-18 campaign. His return coincides with the ongoing All-Japan Championship, aka Emperor’s Cup, this week.
With the Bullets (10-9 through Sunday), Hiejima appeared in three of 19 games, playing less than a minute in each appearance.
Before his subsequent move to Brisbane, his Tochigi contract included the stipulation that he could rejoin the Brex at any time. (He was freed from his contract to join Brisbane.)
The 2017-18 B. League MVP’s return happened sooner than some hoop observers had predicted, but Hiejima joins a title-contending team — Tochigi is 25-6 through Sunday — and is back in a familiar setting as the Japan national team gears up for its next set of FIBA World Cup qualifiers next month.
“I want to play for Tochigi with all my body and soul,” the 28-year-old Hiejima said on Wednesday, according to published reports. “I’m looking forward to the second half of the league.”