LANGLEY — It’s one thing to be big, which Victor Radocaj most certainly is.
It’s another to truly see the big picture.
Spend any amount of time talking to one of our nation’s most elite Grade 10 basketball talents, and you realize pretty quickly that there is a scope and a level of understanding here that seems to go beyond the level of your average 15-year-old student-athlete.
When you’re the youngest player to crack the roster of Canada Basketball’s Under-16/17 team, when you spend a part of your summer in Argentina helping your country to a silver medal at the FIBA Americas championship, and when you tour the U.S. throughout the summer AAU season with Drive Basketball, adding a demanding academic workload in the fall is often times an equation for disaster.
Yet ask anyone in his basketball family, and they will tell you that it’s a path the 6-foot-9 Radocaj has navigated because of his well-grounded values and his constant sunny nature.
“At the beginning of this season, I looked at all of the things he was going through and it would be overwhelming for most kids,” begins Max Pacarsky, his co-coach with Richmond’s R.A. McMath Wildcats, B.C.’s No. 2-ranked AAA senior varsity squad which opens its four-day run Wednesday in the province’s premier Triple-A in-season tournament, St. Thomas More’s Chancellor Invitational in Burnaby.
“From his camps, to playing in the U.S., to school, sometimes I’ve looked at him and said ‘You have to have something else in your life besides basketball.’ But he loves it that much,” adds Pacarsky. “It’s not easy for a 15-year-old to handle all of this, and he makes mistakes just like any other kid. But he handles all of this like a man and he might be the easiest kid we have on the team to coach.”
DEFINING VIC’S BIG PICTURE
It’s an early December Saturday afternoon between games at the recently-completed Tsumura Basketball Invitational, and both your author and Radocaj are sitting in the stands at the Langley Events Centre.
The topic of discussion? Understanding how to grow as a player and a person within the pressurized environment brought on by success and its resulting expectations.
Yes, it’s not a discussion you can engage most 10th graders in, but like we said, Radocaj is not your average Born-In-2002 kid.
A day prior, he and his teammates looked ready to buckle under the pressure of an in-game collapse to Port Moody’s Heritage Woods Kodiaks before they discovered their resolve and pulled out a win.
And then the next day, just before we sat down to chat, the same scenario unfolded again, this time in a comeback win over the AAAA honourable mention Kelowna Owls.
“My coaches (Pacarsky and Ricky Hernandez) have told me that there is a target on my back,” begins Radocaj. “Players will say ‘He was on the national team, I should have been on the national team.’ It’s a lot of pressure, and when we opened against Burnaby South, I didn’t play the way I wanted to.”
That’s Radocaj referencing his team’s 87-60 opening-round loss to a Rebels team at the time ranked No. 1 in Quad A.
“I thought my defence was good but it was disappointing,” he continued of the loss. “After the game I was sad. I was thinking ‘Am I really that good?’ I am supposed to lead this team, but I failed to do so, and when that happens you can get into all kinds of head spaces. But my coaches are so supportive and I have to thank them for that. They help me and I can say to myself ‘Tomorrow, I am going to bounce back.’”
ON VIC, KELLY AND GRANT
As a student of the game, Radocaj is interested to hear the story of the growth spurt that South Kam’s Kelly Olynyk went through over his youth before Gonzaga and the before the NBA.
When told that Olynyk had a huge box full of hardly-worn clothes sitting in one room of his Kamloops home, which he could no longer wear because of one of his rapid spurts, he offered his own story.
“Mine has been more gradual,” says Radocaj, who nonetheless grew from 6-foot to 6-foot-4 over the summer between his Grade 6 and 7 years. “Maybe that is why I am able to move a lot faster than a lot of people my height. Still, I was a pretty tall baby and I just kept on growing.”
Of late, he has slowed yet that’s not say that he has stopped growing.
Yet watch him play the game and he is an absolute natural with the ball in his hands facing the basket, both from the standpoints of his instincts and his actual movements. If his growing stopped today, and he had seven seasons to define his physique, any potential he might then have to play professionally would recommend him as an athletic swing forward.
And when you bring that kind of package, it goes without saying that you leave a trail of first impressions.
“When I first saw him in Grade 8, I was amazed,” says Pacarsky, who along with co-coach Hernandez are themselves fellow McMath grads. “He was 6-5 and he was hitting threes for us in Grade 8. We literally ran plays to get him open jumpers and how often do you see that happen for a kid his age and with that kind of height?”
Although the team’s competition has not been blue-chip game-in and game-out this season, assistant coach Tony Wong-Hen estimates Radocaj is sitting at at least a 20-10 points-rebounds average as a 10th grade senior varsity player.
His size, his coachability and his pedigree within Canada Basketball stoke thoughts of another B.C.-schooled big man, who over the summer helped lead his country to a FIBA U-19 world title: UBC freshman forward Grant Shephard, the former Kelowna Owl.
While both are effective in the paint, Hernandez correctly pegs them as so-called ‘similar opposites’ in their approach.
“Grant was a much more physical player,” begins Hernandez, who has coached Radocaj since the fifth grade. “Grant has always been all-in in the paint. Vic is more outside-in. He likes to establish his jumper and once it starts to go, he will come at you.
“Grant goes inside-outside. He will start out posting you up with that big move, and once he gets that nice, easy touch on the inside, he will start hitting those jumpers on you. They are similar in that they can both play inside and outside. They just start from different places.”
AGILITY, DEXTERITY… AND HUMILITY
In a lot of ways, the 2017-18 season has been a whirlwind for Radocaj, a first-generation Canadian whose parents left the strife of Bosnia for a better life in North America.
He not only played on his Grade 8 team despite the gifts which would have enabled him to get his feet wet at senior varsity, he even played last season on a Grade 9-only team at McMath.
“Everything has happened so quickly,” he confirms of his subsequent climb, humbly adding his surprise to be playing senior varsity as a junior-aged player despite his summer accomplishments. “We have so much talent on this team with Bryce (Mason) and Jordin (Kojima) and Rohann (Balaggan) and everyone else, but I wasn’t sure how fast it would all come together.”
“Last year, our Grade 9 team lost to St. George’s in the (B.C.) quarterfinals, then the summer happened,” he continued. “I went to Argentina, then came back and went to the states with Drive, then I spent a month on vacation in Croatia. It all happened within a space of months, but it felt like hours.”
Bottom line, Victor Radocaj has time on his side.
In fact if McMath delivers on its potential and advances to the B.C. tournament March 7-10 at the Langley Events Centre, it will end five days shy of his 16th birthday.
“We’re all just lucky that he is a pretty mature kid,” says Hernandez. “Playing world-class competition and getting world-class coaching (Canada’s team was coached by Victoria Vikes head coach Craig Beaucamp) has pushed him to a new level.”
And in the end, like we said, it’s the rare talent that makes the best first impressions.
“When I first saw him, it wasn’t his height that shocked me,” said Pacarsky. “It was his dexterity, his agility and his touch at that height. We see a lot of kids at that height but they are awkward, still trying to figure out how to use their bodies.”
And through all of it, Radocaj has not lost sight of the bigger picture.
“When I was younger, I looked at how players finished layups, and how they could shoot at such a high rate,” he says. “But now when I look at them, I try to imagine what they are thinking.”
Yup. Just your average 15-year-old.
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