Thirty minutes after practice ends for the men’s basketball team, an impromptu dunk contest has a group of visiting elementary school students in an exuberant state. With every gravity-defying between-the-legs dunk attempt by senior guard Devin Fleming and every unexpected 360-degree dunk by sophomore forward Victor Uyaelunmo, the excitement increases for everyone at Galen Center’s practice courts.
Everyone except for junior forward Nick Rakocevic.
“[Nick] is always trying to get in the gym,” junior guard Jonah Mathews said. “He’s a workaholic.”
Two days after a 10-point outing in a loss to Utah in February, Rakocevic works silently on the other end of the court. As he alternates between 15-foot catch-and-shoot jumpers and free throws, his post-practice workout is camouflaged to the eyes and phones that are glued to every dunk on the other end of the court.
It is this level of dedication that has Rakocevic, the Pac-12’s 11th-leading scorer, in the middle of a breakout junior campaign for USC and on his way to receiving all-conference honors.
“If he keeps working, improving and getting better, there is no limit to what he could do,” said Gene Pignatore, Rakocevic’s coach at Saint Joseph’s High School.
Growing from a high school player who Pingatore described as “a piece of work” into one of the best players in the Pac-12 is a testament to the work ethic that the big man has followed since his days at Saint Joseph’s High in Westchester, Ill.
“Back in high school, when the older guys left, I knew I would have a new, bigger role I had to take on,” Rakocevic said.
During his senior season of high school, Rakocevic was the only returning starter for Pignatore and still managed to carry his team — averaging 19.8 points, 14.4 rebounds and 4.0 blocks — to a top-four finish in the state tournament. When asked to pinpoint what motivates Rakocevic to step up to the plate, Pignatore honed in on the qualities that he noticed from the moment they met.
“He always had that chip on his shoulder and knew how good he wanted to be,” Pignatore said. “He worked his butt off to get there.”
Rakocevic’s first two seasons at USC were spent as a role player, but this season, he was tasked with filling the shoes of Chimezie Metu, who was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs over the summer. Prior to his junior year, Rakocevic had scored over 20 points in a game just once.
“I knew I would have this opportunity when Chimezie left,” Rakocevic said. “I just had to work on my game and be ready.”
Thirteen double-doubles and five 20-point, 10-rebound games later, it’s safe to say Rakocevic was ready to take on the extra responsibility. In fact, the breakout star may be ready for more. Rakocevic is the only player in the Pac-12 to be in the top 11 in points, rebounds and blocks — a feat he shares only with 2018 first overall pick DeAndre Ayton and 2016 first round pick Jakob Poeltl since the 2008-09 season.
“There are a lot of other very talented bigs, but I’m just going to keep working,” Rakocevic said. “If the Pac-12 sees me as the best big, then I’m blessed to be that, and I would have to give a lot of the credit to my teammates. It’s fun playing with them. The game comes easy when it’s fun playing with your teammates.”
From operating high-low dump downs with senior forward Bennie Boatwright to finishing off pick-and-rolls with redshirt junior guard Derryck Thornton, Rakocevic has been the target for some of the Trojans’ best offensive looks all season, and he’s working to add even more to his already dependable bag of scoring tactics.
“He keeps working every game to get to the next level, and I’m looking forward to that,” Mathews said.
Rakocevic compares his style of play of hustling and finishing around the rim to the high motor and energy that Chris “Birdman” Andersen used to bring in the NBA, but he can see a future where he adds a few elements of Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic’s game into his arsenal.
“I’m trying to work on my game in the summer, so hopefully I can add that jump shot,” Rakocevic said. “And I like passing, so I’m trying to mimic my game to add some of his flashy passes.”
Although the added elements of a Jokic package seem to be a summer of training away, Rakocevic’s development has become noticeable. One particular highlight, a fastbreak behind-the-back pass to Thornton against Utah that took everyone by surprise sparked a slight smile from Rakocevic, and in the crucial moments of the game against Stanford, he pulled off an underhanded post shot identical to the one that earned Jokic the nickname “Joker” in Denver.
Rakocevic’s consistent numbers, matched with the intensity he routinely brings to the floor, has earned the forward his fair share of nicknames. Rakocevic likes them all, but one nickname given to him by teammates during his freshman season has become a staple of his mentality: Big Dawg.
“‘Big Dawg’ has been like my alter-ego when I get out there on the court,” Rakocevic said.
The confidence behind the nickname is evident every time Rakocevic goes into the painted area. He assertively demands the ball, whether it is against UCLA’s 7-foot-1 Moses Brown or Arizona State’s 6-foot-8 Romello Brown.
Since entering USC, Rakocevic has developed from a scrappy pup to the Big Dawg of the Pac-12 and, according to his former coach, his growth is far from over.
“He [will] fit in wherever he plays, whether it’s overseas or the NBA,” Pignatore said.