Nikola Jovanovic shoots for the NBA dream

Ever since Nikola Jovanovic first touched a basketball in Belgrade, Serbia, he knew he was going to play professional basketball in the NBA.

Two weeks ago, the forward took the first step towards achieving that dream, announcing on Twitter his decision to explore newfound career options by declaring himself eligible for the 2016 NBA Draft.

Growing up a Sacramento Kings fan, the 8-year-old Jovanovic was inspired by fellow Serbians Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic’s performance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, which Jovanovic and his father streamed via satellite.

“At that time, I didn’t quite understand everything, but what I did understand was that we are waking up at 3 in the morning to cheer for the Kings,” Jovanovic said. “A week later, my dad and I met Vlade and I was able to shake his hand. Ever since that moment I was addicted by basketball, and it has been the thing I have loved the most throughout my entire life. I have always dreamed to play in the strongest league in the world. That desire had the biggest impact on me to decide to test the waters in the NBA Draft.”

According to new NCAA regulations, players will be allowed to enter the draft multiple times and participate in the combine and one NBA team tryout per year. They will also be allowed up to 10 days to withdraw from the draft after the combine.

The NCAA’s new regulations replace a rule which stood from 2009-2015 that dictated that once a player declared for the NBA draft, he would immediately lose his college eligibility.

Under the 2016 conditions, players can “test the waters,” giving them the freedom to pursue an education and their final years of college eligibility or a potentially lucrative contract in the NBA.

Praised as a “win-win” for the NCAA, its players and the NBA, Jovanovic is quick to credit the change of rules as an important factor in his decision to declare to the draft.

“We can explore our options and see what’s going on and be able to come back next year,” Jovanovic said. “[Junior guard Julian Jacobs] is doing the same thing. I think it’s a good thing because I’m obviously really excited to work out with the NBA clubs and I’m going to get the feedback from them to see what I need to work on and where I can improve; the whole NBA experience is amazing.”

In terms of Jovanovic’s NBA potential, the 6-foot-11 power forward-center combination has fierce competition with top prospects such as Israel’s Dragan Bender, Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, Cal’s Ivan Rabb and Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis.

Jacobs is rated as the 16th-best point guard in the draft by CBS Sports’ Sam Vecenie. Jovanovic is not listed in the top-25 of power forwards.

Jovanovic remains hopeful, however, that with his current training regime, improved post play and rebounding abilities, that he will garner some attention.

“Summer is the time when you can improve the most,” Jovanovic said. “As with every previous summer so far, I plan to work hard, run everyday, go to the weight room and work on ball handling every single day. Coaches worked really hard with me, just trying to be defensively better and offensively productive and working on every aspect of my game. Right now [the strongest part of my game] is my face-up game and close to the hoop shooting.”

While Jovanovic says his 3-point range and jump shot abilities need some work, he believes he is at a good pace and will evaluate his options and draft projections 10 days before draft time.

During his three-year career with USC, Jovanovic was as consistent as they came, averaging over 51 percent shooting from the field. After an above-average freshman campaign that featured 8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 20.8 minutes per game, the junior forward stepped up his game in his sophomore and junior seasons, averaging over 12 points, 27 minutes and seven rebounds per game.

A big body in the paint, Jovanovic went to the line more times than anybody on the team, sinking 98 of his 150 free-throw attempts during the 2015-2016 season.

And though 11 of Jovanovic’s 34 games played featured sub-40 percent shooting percentages, the Serbian forward knocked down 60 percent or more of his shots 14 times in 2016.

If Jovanovic decides to come back to USC next fall, he is confident in the capabilities of a team which will be welcoming four highly touted recruits, particularly forward Nick Rakocevic. In response to a season without the likes of Darion Clark, Katin Reinhardt, Malik Marquetti, Malik Martin and fellow Serbian Strahinja Gavrilovic — who are all either transferring or graduating next season — Jovanovic was somber, but excited for what the future holds.

“It’s their decision and they probably have good reasons to [transfer],” Jovanovic said. “They’re going to be my best friends for the rest of my life and I really wish them the best. I think we’re going to have a great group of individuals. Everybody’s going to have a lot of experience from this year. It’s really nice to keep some of that Serbian tradition at USC.”

With the NBA Draft on June 23, Jovanovic will be preparing in the meantime for the NBA Draft Combine on May 11 in Chicago. According to NCAA rules, Jovanovic can attend workouts for an NBA team as long as it’s before the June 13 deadline.

Even though he has the potential to be drafted by a NBA team outside of California, Jovanovic said he will keep USC and Los Angeles close to his heart.

“I am proud to be a part of the Trojan Family,” Jovanovic said. “I have always been fascinated by the West Coast, and I would be honored if a team such as Lakers would even consider me.”