VANCOUVER — Ask Nikola Guzina to talk about his rise to prominence on the hardcourt, and the standout incoming recruit of the UBC Thunderbirds proceeds to do so with a nod of thanks to the basketball gods.
“I was lucky to get the height,” says Guzina, who between his Grade 9 and 10 years with Vancouver’s King George Dragons, sprouted almost five inches, to the height of 6-foot-6.
“People who hadn’t seen me in a year or so, they would come up to me and tell me they could not believe how much I had grown,” the now 6-foot-7 1/2, 205-pound Guzina laughed in remembrance Thursday afternoon. “Me, I didn’t even notice it. I just felt the same. My coordination was the same. My dribbling was the same. I was lucky.”
And therein lies the absolute charm to Guzina, a player who over his final two seasons of high school with the Dragons showcased what it meant to be a multi-positional player, combining his physical gifts with a love and understanding of the game to see time as the Dragons’ go-to-guy at the 1-2-3-4-5 spots.
“He has got the European body and he plays the European style,” says UBC head coach Kevin Hanson. “He wasn’t just plugged into the 4-5 through high school. He can bring it up against pressure, he can beat you off the dribble and get into the paint, he has a proven three, he can finish left or right at the rim. I am really excited about his diversity.
“He is not Conor Morgan right now,” continues Hanson of Guzina who confirms that he is still growing. “But he reminds me a lot of a young Conor Morgan.”
Of course the 6-foot-9, 225-pound Morgan, a 2018 grad who has gone on to a professional career overseas with Spanish top division club DKV Joventut (Rickey Rubio’s first pro team), set the blue-and-old bar over his six seasons on the Point Grey campus when it came to the melding of guard-forward skills.
FINDING HIS ROLE MODEL IN A PAST UBC GREAT
Nikola Guzina found himself with the perfect high school coach in King George’s Darko Kulic, a Dragons’ alumnus who remembers all too well the moment he was watching a player with the potential to be the sport’s version of a blank Scrabble chip.
“When we see a tall kid in B.C., we always want to put him in the post but I like to just let them scrimmage, just watch and see what they can do,” Kulic remembers of observing Guzina in the summer before his Grade 9 year.
“I could see this was a kid who could play any position, and then I remember when he was in Grade 10, we went to UBC to watch a game. I sat with him, I pointed to Conor and I said to him ‘You remind me of that guy.’”
The moment was not lost on Guzina, who over a senior year of high school in which he led the Dragons to their second appearance in the B.C. Double-A championship final in three seasons averaged an eye-popping 28.7 points, 15.9 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game.
“It was a packed gym, and watching Conor, that was someone I felt I could try to look up to, and try to play like. He has always been someone who I’ve felt I would always be able to learn from.”
And when the tempo of recruiting picked up, and the ‘Birds began to get close to landing their first King George recruit since forward Aaron Point in the mid-1980s, Guzina sent off a highlight tape to Hanson which confirmed to him that he was picking the right school.
“As soon as I showed him the tape, he messaged me back and told me there were lots of similarities to Conor,” adds Guzina. “That was a cool thing to me, that he realizes I can play multi positions and that understands that.”
HE FILLS THE LAUNDRY LIST
Darko Kulic can remember sitting alongside one of his best friends in basketball, former Delview Raiders head coach Vlad Nikic, and the pair watching Guzina during his Grade 10 season.
“He hit 11 threes in one game,” Kulic says. “We both looked at each other and said that this was potentially a high-end player.”
Guzina can’t remember the opposition, only the fact that the game was played in the Killarney Secondary gym, then adds “In Grade 10 I was only a three-point shooter.”
That’s a humbler misnomer.
Yet there is some truth to it, if you examine how many more layers the young Dragons’ star, who played a sixth-man role in 2017-18 on a King George team which lost to a generationally-tough Brentwood College team in the B.C. final, would add to his game over his final two high school seasons.
In Grade 11, Guzina averaged 32.7 ppg, along with 12.2 rpg and 5.5 apg. His senior season saw his points dip, but the rebounds, assists and blocks all climb.
And besides all of that, the attention Guzina received from opposition defences over his senior year was so comprehensive as to be almost laughable.
“What was most scary about all of that was that he was putting up all OF HIS numbers while being triple-teammed,” Hanson says with incredulity.
UBC’s full-court recruiting press came just as the ‘Birds where back east for the U Sports Final 8 national championships in early March.
“We are in Ottawa, 3,000 miles away, and everyone is telling me ‘Kevin, you have to get this guy.’ There is so much upside. He has a great basketball frame on him right now, but he still hasn’t grown into his body. He’s only 17 years old and that body is going to change a lot.”
And Guzina is thankful to even get the chance to step onto the practice floor next season against UBC’s rising fourth-year 6-foot-10 forward Grant Shephard.
“He has never practiced against that before but I am excited about where he is going,” says Hanson of how much Guzina’s game will improve battling the ‘Birds full compliment of U Sports veterans each day. “And I have to give Darko full credit for letting him develop as player one through five.”
For his part, Guzina is doing the best he can during this time of pandemic to keep his touch around the irons, not an easy task he says, with all of the hoops having been taken down to promote social distancing.
But he’s making the most of a couple of dumbbells and a chin-up bar as he finishes his senior year of high school in ways none of the Class of 2020 could have ever imagined.
Next season? To him, being a student-athlete with a place like War Memorial Gym to call home, is a dream come true
“Going to games at UBC was so cool, but it was special just going to War Memorial… just walking into the gym,” he says. “The atmosphere made me feel so inspired. I can remember saying to myself that this was the place I wanted to end up at.”
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