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Rollercoaster Season Ending on High Note for Brooklyn Nets' Bojan Bogdanovic

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2015

Brooklyn Nets' Bojan Bogdanovic (44), of Croatia, makes a 3-point basket as Milwaukee Bucks' Jerryd Bayless, right, yells at him from the bench during the overtime period of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 20, 2015, in New York. The Nets won the game 129-127. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Bojan Bogdanovic was supposed to be a shooter, but he wasn't shooting. 

Such was the problem with a 25-year-old rookie who the Brooklyn Nets expected to have an immediate impact this season, tossing him into the starting lineup instantly upon his arrival. But Bogdanovic struggled early for the team that currently owns a half-game lead over the Boston Celtics for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Eventually, he fell out of coach Lionel Hollins' rotation altogether.

That didn't last long, though. Right around the start of February, something clicked for Bogdanovic, who played last season with Fenerbahce Ulker Istanbul after being drafted by the Miami Heat in 2011. He's been trending upwards ever since.

There's a natural transition coming over from Europe. 

"Getting comfortable" is a phrase we hear all the time for young guys coming over to the NBA for the first time. Obviously, there's the uptick in talent. It's a faster game with better players. You have to think quicker, act quicker. Everything happens a split-second before you expect. But there are parts of basketball beyond the cliché.

"There are many adjustments," Bogdanovic said of the changes he had to make upon first entering the league. "For example, the ball is different. I couldn't adjust to the new type of ball."

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The rock isn't the only element. He also had to adapt to a deeper three-point line than the 22-foot one with which he's used to playing (The NBA uses a 23'9" line from above the break with shorter corners that are closer to the European distance).

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Bogdanovic's numbers back up his theory, too. 

He started his first NBA season slowly, shooting just 41 percent from the field and 30 percent from three over his first 45 games. It was odd coming from someone who was so touted as a shooter before entering the league.

"In Europe, the ball has a much better feel," Bogdanovic explained. "[In the NBA,] I always feel like my hands are struggling to catch the ball in the right way."

Early on, it was obvious, and the team's offense suffered because of it.

The Nets need all the floor-spacing they can get from their wings. Brooklyn's sub-33 percent three-point accuracy ranks them in the NBA's bottom five. Outside of Joe Johnson, there aren't wings who scare a defense without the ball.

Alan Anderson doesn't get many touches and rarely ever has opportunities to shoot. Thaddeus Young has been superb from long range during his month-and-a-half in Brooklyn, but—given his history and reputation—defenses still don't close out hard on him when he's around the perimeter.

Knowing that, Bogdanovic's role becomes essential, especially now that Brook Lopez has returned to his role as the focal point of the offense. Big men need that space to maneuver around the paint, and "Boggy," as they call him, is starting to help with that.

But then there's that comfort. All of a sudden, Bogdanovic, as Dennis Green might say, is who we thought he was.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

He's shooting 48 percent from the field and 38 percent on treys in 25 games since Feb. 2. And he's taking shots, too: 3.2 long balls per game to be precise. 

Comfort isn't just coming with the material, either. There's a mental side of this. That speedy NBA game we hear so much about is becoming just a tad slower for the 25-year-old.

He's getting open in more intelligent, consistent ways. Even if he's not making shots, he's doing his minimum job as a floor spacer, attracting the defense to the open spots. 

The Nets need Bogdanovic to create gravity on the perimeter. Early in the year, he was Pluto, but over the past couple of months, he's actually become a real planet.

"I know if I cut and go after the ball, my numbers and shooting percentages are going to go up," Bogdanovic said.

Simple, but accurate.

It's not just the shooting that has come to form over that time, too. He's far from perfect, but the Croatian is starting to understand defense just a little better.

First, a caveat: Bogdanovic has a long way to go as a defender.

There's no doubt about that, and there's not greater evidence of his struggles than the fourth quarter of Brooklyn's game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, when the rookie manned a fellow first-year player, Cleanthony Early, and got torched as if the New York Knicks thought he was Frankenstein's monster. But "better" is a relative term, and Bogdanovic has certainly been better than he was early in the year.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Just like with shooting, there are moderations to be made on the defensive end. European defenses are simply different, operating under separate styles and principles.

Head to a European league and you'll find far more zone. You'll see guys helping off the first pass. It's a more aggressive form of guarding, something he's had to change playing inside Hollins' schemes. And while doing it, he has to forget habits he's spent his entire basketball life developing.

"The defense is different," Bogdanovic contrasts from his time overseas. "It's different rules, too, like defensive three seconds."

With all that, Bogdanovic is getting more playing time than he was when Hollins had him in the doghouse back in December.

"He's just aggressive," Hollins said of his small forward's recent play. "When you're aggressive, and you go out, you play like you're supposed to play, good things are going to happen if you have the talent. Good things have happened for him."

Even of late, with Bogdanovic's playing time dwindling over the past three games due to some foul trouble and the true emergence of Markel Brown, the rookie is sustaining his high level of play. Making shots isn't always the most important part of the game. Sometimes, merely making the right play can be all the difference.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

At the start of the year, the potential was there, but the consistency wasn't.

Bogdanovic would make a timely basket cut. Then, he'd zone out in the corner for too long on the next possession.

He'd make a proper defensive rotation, but he'd follow that up—more often than not—with a mental mistake on D, something we'll still see.

The on-ball defense may never come. Bogdanovic isn't the best athlete on the court (though he's more active than his reputation says), and he's not as long as your usual lock-down wing. When you aren't stretchy and you lack obvious lateral explosion, you may struggle guarding certain types on the perimeter.

Still, we're starting to see a more dependable Bogdanovic. Between Johnson, the occasional Anderson hot streak and their newly hot rookie, the Nets finally have some much-needed floor spacers, and Hollins has to be pleased with that.

"He's shot the ball with more confidence. He's attacked with more confidence. He's coming along."

Follow Fred Katz on Twitter at @FredKatz.

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of April 2 and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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