End of Year Player Review: Nik Popovic

End of Year Player Review: Nik Popovic

By Evan Gray 

First posted on Bostoncollege.247sports.com

Next up on Boston College 247’s season review of the BC men’s basketball team: Freshman Nik Popovic!

2016/2017 Stats (29 Games):

13.8 MPG, 6.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.3 BPG, 1.0 TOPG, .491 FG%, .294 3FG%, .531 FT%, 13.8 PER, .511 TS%, .506 EFG%

Coming into Boston College, expectations for Nik Popovic’s freshman season were unclear. On one hand, Popovic was 6’11”, 230+ lbs., and was touted as having solid post skills. On the other hand, his conditioning was weak, he only averaged 8.0 ppg in one season at the Sagemont School in Florida, and his performance at 2015 U18 European Championship was a mixed bag at best

Popovic at 2015 U18 Euro Championship https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMz6qAcwAN4

After a rough performance in his first collegiate game against Nicholls State in which the big man looked lost in the offense, Popovic bounced back for a 6-7 shooting performance against Stony Brook and 3-3 shooting against Towson in only 27 combined minutes. From the get go, Pop showed a lot more offensive skill than we initially expected, and his elite size made him a player that the defense had to account for at all times. Five games into the season, Popovic looked like a homerun for Coach Christian. I was also thrilled with Popovic’s performance, writing this about the big man:

“At times, Popovic looks like an offensively polished, Euroleague superstar. With a technically sound jumper and a willingness to shoot from deep, Nik has quickly established himself as an offensively gifted, big man. Shooting 54% from the field and 67% from 3 (2 of 3), Popovic has shown more offensive polish than you would expect from someone who only averaged 8.0 points per game in high school. The footwork and body control are certainly there, but the soft touch still has some ways to go before Nik figures to be an elite interior presence.
On the defensive end, the Bosnian has shown some struggled closing out on defenders, and most of his shot contests are based on his gargantuan size rather than his effective defensive skills. The effort is certainly there, but his lack of mobility will be concerning if he ever has to match up on an elite ACC center such as a Kennedy Meeks. And while his rebounding numbers are decent—10.3 per 40 minutes—Popovic has yet to show a strong ability to box out his opponents, relying only on his size to secure rebounds, which, much like his defense, will need to change when going up against guys bigger than him.
Overall, Nik has shown more skill than I could have ever imagined this early in his career. He may be a little rough around the edges, and he may still be learning how to play in his huge body, but the flashes of elite potential and his high basketball IQ make him the best freshman on BC one month into the season.”

As non-conference play winded down and ACC play began, Pops effectiveness began to slip dramatically. Shooting 53.2% from the field in non-conference play, the superior size of the ACC made it hard for Nik to find a rhythm on the offensive end. Playing only 14.7 minutes per game in ACC play, Popovic certainly wasn’t afraid to shoot the ball, as the freshman took 16.2 shots per 40 minutes in ACC play, second only to Jerome’s 18.2. Unfortunately, Popovic’s style of offense slows the pace that BC likes to play at significantly, and the advanced statistics weren’t kind to Popovic’s offensive impact, as the Eagles’ offensive rating while Pop was on the floor was 93.9 points per 100 possessions, the worst of any rotation player except for Garland Owens.

Unfortunately, it was hard to see much development in Popovic’s game because he simply couldn’t stay on the court very long due to his ridiculous foul rate. Averaging 7.1 fouls per 40 minutes—easily the highest on the team—Popovic saw his effectiveness slip dramatically simply because of an inability to play extended minutes. Fouling out four times this season, all in under 12 minutes, Pop found himself unable to play in games that he really could have made a difference in on the offensive end—including two close games against Wake Forest.

Best Games

When looking for the best games Pop played this season, two games immediately came to mind, December 12th vs. Auburn and January 3rd at Wake Forest.

Discussing the game at Wake Forest first, Pop flashed his unique ability to make a huge impact on the offensive end in a very short amount of time. In a first half where the rest of the team shot 11-29 from the field and 3-15 from 3, Pop was 4-4, leading the team with 9 points in only 9 minutes of playing time. He demonstrated an ability to come off the bench and immediately draw the attention of the defense, in part due to his sheer size and also his soft touch around the rim. Pop went deep into his bag of tricks in this game, displaying an ability to finish with the left hand and making a ridiculous hook shot at one point—doing all of this against one of the ACC’s best centers in John Collins. Unfortunately, Pop’s knack for fouling reared its ugly head in this one, as Pop picked up 4 second half fouls and a technical foul that saw his night cut short at just 17 minutes of play time.

The most notable game for Popovic was undoubtedly the win against Auburn on a buzzer beater by guess who…Nik Popovic. In only his second game back from a shoulder injury and playing limited minutes, Pop didn’t look himself in the first half, playing only 4 minutes and missing his only shot. In the second half, though, Pop was a completely different player, going 4-4 in 9 minutes including the game winning tip-in off a missed layup from Ky Bowman. More than anything, Pop showed that simply having a 6’11” player in at the end of games with an offensive skillset is a luxury that the Eagles have to be excited about moving forward. Because of his constant fouling, Popovic was rarely able to play at the end of games, but in this one, Pop had just one foul and was able to actually play in the clutch, winning the game at the buzzer in Madison Square Garden—a play that no other Eagle would’ve been able to make.

Popovic Game-Winner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdMu2EpAIds

Moving Forward

Heading into his sophomore season at BC, Pop just needs more time polishing out almost every aspect of his game. Defensively, the two things Pop needs to work on are being able to contest a shot without fouling and positioning on the defensive boards. With regards to the former, if Pop can’t stop fouling, he will never be able to 1) develop on both ends of the floor and 2) simply be in at the end of games. In terms of his defensive rebounding, Pop seems to rely more on his sheer size rather than actually boxing players out, which works for the most part in non-conference play, but can lead to some poor rebounding efforts against bigger ACC teams.

On the offensive end, Pop has to improve his free-throw shooting and his decision making. Nik shot just 53.1% from the free-throw line this season—a terrible clip—and even worse, only got to the free-throw line 32 times this season—absolutely unacceptable for a player of his size. A lot of times we would see Pop shying away from contact on the offensive end, meaning that A) he is making it harder for himself to score by taking a tough, fading shot and B) eliminating all chances of him drawing a foul. In terms of decision making, Pop is essentially a black hole when receiving the ball on the low post, racking up just 13 assists this season to 29 turnovers. A solid passer when he wants to be, Pop must be aware when it is a good time to shoot and when it is a good time to pass—as an ability to find open teammates would significantly improve his poor offensive rating.