College Sports

Adjusting to college life in U.S.? Why it’s no big deal for Davidson’s star freshman

Freshman Luka Brajkovic (35) averages 11.6 points and 5.7 rebounds for Davidson this season.
Freshman Luka Brajkovic (35) averages 11.6 points and 5.7 rebounds for Davidson this season. TIM COWIE -

Davidson basketball coach Bob McKillop spent enough time recruiting Luka Brajkovic to come away with an appreciation of the local cuisine in Feldkirch, Austria.

Desserts whipped up by Brajkovic’s mom Sanja especially come to mind, McKillop said.

So McKillop smiled and raised a quizzical eyebrow recently when he heard what Brajkovic said he most liked to eat now that he’s a student at Davidson – and a rising star on McKillop’s team.

“Probably Chipotle,” Brajkovic said.

“Yeah, how about that?” McKillop said a few minutes later. “I’ve been to his house two or three times and there are great restaurants in his town. How he likes Chipotle, I don’t know.”

Culinary choices aside, McKillop is otherwise thrilled at how the 6-foot-10 Brajkovic has taken to campus life and quickly developed into an inside force for the Wildcats (8-1), who play Temple (8-2) Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J. Brajkovic has shown a deft shooting touch around the basket that allows him to average 11.6 points on 59.1 percent shooting, in addition to pulling down 5.7 rebounds per game.

With those nine games as evidence, it’s not a stretch to say Brajkovic is already Davidson’s best back-to-basket post player since Jake Cohen, a former Wildcats star who was honorable mention All-America in 2013 – and perhaps with more potential.

“Just nine games in, and he’s a beast,” Wildcats junior guard Jon Axel Gudmundsson said of Brajkovic. “He’s been here six months, maybe, and he’s so tough on offense. He’s learning more every day. When we get to the Atlantic 10 tournament, he’ll be fun to see.”

Brajkovic, a member of Austria’s U-18 national team, has been an ideal complement to the Wildcats’ guard-dominated lineup. With a perimeter offense featuring Gudmundsson, sophomore Kellan Grady, junior KiShawn Pritchett and redshirt freshman Luke Frampton – the presence of Brajkovic gives Davidson a potent inside option.

“He’s also getting rebounds for us, and in traffic,” said McKillop. “He’s getting better at getting vertical. He’s blocking shots and understanding our scheme well.”

College basketball in the U.S. is different than the European style to which Brajkovic is accustomed.

“I’ve been getting real confident every day,” said Brajkovic, who averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds last summer in the FIBA U-18 championships. “In the summer (at Davidson), I had some struggles. The pace of the game is much quicker and faster here. It’s more exhausting to play against players who are so much faster. So I have to be careful.”

McKillop, of course, understands how to coach international players. In his 30 years at Davidson, he has brought in players from 21 countries outside the United States to play for the Wildcats. This season’s roster features six, including Brajkovic: senior forward Nathan Ekwu (Nigeria); Gudmundsson (Iceland); freshman forward Nelson Boachie-Yiadom (England); junior forward Dusan Kovacevic (Serbia); and freshman guard David Czerapowicz (Sweden). The Wildcats also signed Danish forward David Kristensen this week; he’ll be a freshman in 2019-20.

Brajkovic, whose native language is German, speaks English well; he had eight years of the language in school in Austria. That’s helped him as he’s gotten used to life in the U.S.

“It’s not much different than I expected,” Brajkovic said. “I enjoy being around people, so that’s helped me adjust to America.”

Brajkovic, who has an easy-going nature and is quick with a smile, is recognizable around Davidson (as anybody standing 6-10 on a campus of about 1,800 students would be). But he doesn’t’ shy away from his celebrity.

“This is a young man that’s as though he has awakened and it’s Christmas day,” said McKillop. “He has absolutely no sense of entitlement. He treasures waking up in the morning and getting out and around campus. And he is somewhat of a celebrity on campus.”

Back on the basketball court, McKillop sees even bigger things from Brajkovic in the future. There’s a perimeter game to develop, for starters. Although Brajkovic has taken only two 3-point shots this season (making one), McKillop said he will soon have permission to launch from outside the arc when he’s open.

Brajkovic also needs to get stronger and add to his 220-pound frame. That shouldn’t be a problem. He’s not afraid of the weight room and he’s usually the last player to step away from the Wildcats’ postgame spread in the locker room..

And there’s always Chipotle.