The Fordham Rams made news Wednesday with the signing of international guard Nemanja Zarkovic. The 6'3", 185-pound point guard signed a National Letter of Intent and will join Fordham for the 2014-15 season.
"We are thrilled at Fordham University to have Nemanja Zarkovic become part of the Fordham basketball family," head coach Tom Pecora said in a press release issued by the school. "His experience, ability to run the offense from the point guard position and his talent to score the basketball will be a huge part of Fordham's future success."
Thrilled may be an understatement. Pecora hasn't hid from the fact that Fordham was in desperate need of a point guard, and he and his staff have been out trying to recruit one for some time now.
Whether it was Zarkovic, who made an official visit to Rose Hill last weekend, or someone else, the Rams needed to fill the void left at the position due to the departure of senior Branden Frazier.
"We think that that's a key for this," Pecora said on Tuesday about the importance of finding a point guard. "When you put (Jon) Severe or Mandell (Thomas) on one wing and Eric Paschall on the other, and you add a Manny Suarez and then you have an Antwoine Anderson, [it will contribute to] our depth and experience."
Zarkovic is a native of Serbia who migrated with his parents to Canada in 1998. He's currently a senior at Montreal's College Jean-De-Brebeuf—like Fordham, a Jesuit school—where he led his team to the provincial championship on April 6, scoring 34 points in the deciding game.
One week later, he visited Fordham. In a phone interview Wednesday night, just hours after he signed, Zarkovic talked about that visit and, ultimately, his decision to come to Fordham.
"I loved it," he said. "I loved the school. I loved the campus. I loved the people there. A lot of similarities to my school here in Canada.
"It's a very good school in the middle of New York City. I plan on studying business so it couldn't be better for me.
"On the basketball side, I think it's a great opportunity for me to be part of something great if we're able to turn that program around."
Turning the program around won't be easy. For 19 seasons, playing in the ultra-competitive Atlantic 10, Fordham has struggled mightily. Zarkovic wants to change that.
"I know it's been very tough," he said, referring to Fordham's past. "We can't fear to fail. We can't think about that. I don't want to think about the past."
In fact, just about all of the talk around Fordham these days is focused on the future. The Rams would like to have more days like they had on Wednesday, which have been few and far between over the years.
While he's fully aware of the challenges, Zarkovic is optimistic that the pieces are in place at Fordham.
"I know there's a lot of talent," he said. "The main thing will be to find a way to work as a team and to play together. My role will be to help the team play together and play for each other."
If you talk to those who know him best, Zarkovic's strengths are his presence on the court and his ability to lead, important parts of the game that don't show up in a box score.
"He does everything pretty well," Mike Chmielewski, his high school coach, said in a phone interview last night. "He can shoot the ball. He can defend really well.
"His biggest assets are his presence on the floor and his leadership. Any coach who has taken the time to see him live has immediately started recruiting him."
That was a big thing that Chmielewski made sure to mention. He said that if you just watch Zarkovic on tape, you don't get the full picture. You have to see him live to understand the intangibles he possesses.
"He's got the mentality," Chmielewski said. "Everyone overlooks the mental aspect of being a point—leadership, holding your teammates accountable, making sure they're in the right spots or on the same page. That stuff doesn't show up on a sheet, but it's way more important."
Fordham recognized that. In turn, Zarkovic began to recognize that the Rams would be the best fit for him. He could have gone elsewhere, possibly staying home in Canada or instead going to St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights.
Zarkovic credited the coaching staff with being a big reason why he chose Fordham.
"The coaching staff was great," he said. "They were one of the main reasons why I chose Fordham.
"I trust them. They came up to Montreal and told me exactly what they wanted. I just felt that they were honest. I think they're driven and they're committed to winning. I think they understand that the upside of turning this program around would be huge, so they're working toward that."
Chmielewski, his high school coach, agreed.
"I told him it was a big decision," he said. "We had a good feeling about the coaching staff. They were very high on him."
Another thing working in the Rams' favor was that they were recruiting him to play point guard. While Zarkovic said that he takes great pride in his shooting, he said the opportunity to play the point guard position weighed heavily on his decision.
"That's one of the main reasons why I chose Fordham," he said. "That's exactly what I'm looking for. I want to help lead and distribute the ball. I don't need to score. I don't have that in my mind. I just want to help the team win. That's exactly the position I wanted and that's what they offered me."
Now comes the challenge of adjusting to the college game. It's never easy, but some struggle with it more than others.
Zarkovic is confident he'll be able to make a smooth transition from high school to college. A large part of that confidence stems from the fact that it won't be the first time he's on the court with college players, or, at the very least, college-level players.
Last month in New Hampshire, he played against Bridgton Academy and Brewster Academy, two elite prep schools. Last summer, as a member of the Brookwood Bounce Elite, he went up against four Division I college teams and averaged 20.5 points per game.
Still, he expects that there will be some period of adjustment.
"I think it will be hard, especially physically," he said. "The A-10's a very athletic league. It will be a challenge, but I think once I get used to it I will be alright ... I know it's a huge step but I'll be ready for it."
Unless otherwise noted, quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.
Charles Costello covers the Fordham Rams for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CFCostello.
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