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Behind the talent, leadership of men’s basketball star Lazar Stefanovic

(Photos by Ella Greenberg Winnick/Daily Bruin staff and Myka Fromm/Daily Bruin senior staff. Courtesy of fiba.com. Photo illustration by Lindsey Murto/Design director and Helen Park/Illustrations director).

By Lauryn Olina Wang

June 10, 2024 3:40 p.m.

The Bruins filed in for a drill on the baseline: three minutes, 20 touches across the court.

The whistle blew.

Newcomer – Utah transfer Lazar Stefanovic – wouldn’t be caught slacking.

The junior guard went coast-to-coast for 25 touches.

“I could just tell, man, he’s in shape,” recalled sophomore guard Dylan Andrews. “I want to be like him.”

Andrews – whom UCLA men’s basketball coach Mick Cronin once tabbed as the fastest ball handler he’s ever coached – logged 23 touches.

Stefanovic’s agility made an immediate impression on his teammates, who would grow to refer to him as “the soldier.”

“I was always really good with conditioning,” Stefanovic said. “Adem (sophomore forward/center Adem Bona) giving the example of me being a soldier, it’s like – I did the work, and I try to do the work every day and show up every day.”

After two seasons at Utah, Stefanovic entered the transfer portal in 2023, searching for a new home that would prepare him for a professional career.

“Once UCLA reached out to me, I pretty much knew that was it,” he said.

(Myka Fromm/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Stefanovic became an immediate staple for a Bruin squad that welcomed seven freshmen. He secured the start in all 33 contests – also continuing his Utah-established tradition of never missing a game – and averaged 11.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game.

But beyond contributing a valuable stat line, Stefanovic quickly slotted into a leadership role.

“He’s a charismatic type of guy, (and) you just want to be around him,” Andrews said. “His work ethic and everything about him. … He’s a person you want to follow.”

Deep-rooted rivalries and a rise to the professional ranks

Former assistant coach and fellow Serbian Ivo Simovic recruited Stefanovic to UCLA.

But Simovic likely knew of Stefanovic long before he took a peek into the portal.

Bruin assistant coach Nemanja Jovanovic – Simovic’s successor after he accepted a job with the Toronto Raptors – said word travels in the Serbian community.

“We are coming from a country with six million people, and it’s a big basketball country,” Jovanovic said. “You know about all the good players.”

Since Jovanovic joined the coaching staff last August, a friendly competition sprouted between himself and Stefanovic. The two hail from rivaling clubs in Serbia, with a rapport and devotion mirroring that of many UCLA-USC fans.

“As soon as you’re born, you pick your side,” Stefanovic said. “You usually go with who your parents cheer for, and my dad was a big Partizan (Partizan Belgrade) fan. … We were at the stadium all the time, in arenas all the time watching all the games. That’s how I fell in love with Partizan.”

In 2020, Stefanovic was promoted to Partizan’s most elite squad, leading it to the national cup and helping Partizan Under-18 win the Adidas Next Generation Tournament in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

(Courtesy of fiba.com)

Stefanovic’s first points representing Partizan were nothing short of electric.

His teammates outletted the ball off a steal to Stefanovic, who raced up the court with seven seconds on the clock.

He crossed half court and pulled up on the right wing before the Partizan bench.

Swish.

Buzz.

“I never really doubted that he was going to make it,” said Marija Stefanovic, his older sister, in a written statement. “That moment kind of sealed the deal in my head.”

Lazar’s early experience in professional environments and on the Serbian national team contributed to his vision of the future: signing a professional contract in Serbia and climbing the totem pole.

“I never thought I was going to play college basketball,” Lazar said.

But his American teammates – most of whom were playing professionally abroad after their NCAA basketball tenure – familiarized him with the idea.

The resources, lifestyle and coaching all appealed to Lazar. Listed as a three-star recruit, he officially signed with Utah in November 2020.

Utah Runnin’ Utes vs. UCLA Bruins at Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, UT on Thursday, February 23, 2023. (Courtesy of Hunter Dyke/Utah Athletics)

Trusting in the transfer and settling in as a shooter

When Lazar returned to the Utes’ Huntsman Arena in January 2024 – this time donning the blue and gold – the Bruins suffered their second-largest loss in program history.

However, Lazar isn’t one to be shaken.

“When he is on the court, his mind is only on the court,” Marija said. “The fans, the critics – they are never what he focuses on, and that I feel is an important trait for a leader.”

Andrews attested that Lazar didn’t dwell on negative emotions after the 46-point loss. A highly motivated player and important source of leadership, he was far from demoralized.

“It happens,” Lazar said. “You’ve got to just keep moving.”

Before the Utah game – marking the regular season’s midpoint – Lazar was shooting 32.9% from the field.

Afterward, he averaged 45.5% in the remaining 15 games before the postseason – helping UCLA win eight of its next nine.

(Courtesy of Jan Kim Lim/UCLA Athletics)

In many ways, the game at Utah proved a microcosm of Lazar’s approach to the entire season. Despite UCLA going 16-17 on the year and relinquishing the opportunity for a March Madness bid, Lazar assured the Bruin contingent of his return. And hunger.

“I wanted the next season to start the day after our last game ended,” Lazar said.

Leadership perspective and a new-look roster

Whereas Lazar was the sole transfer last year, six have committed to UCLA since March.

Jovanovic said Lazar embodies many of the values UCLA seeks in potential Bruins, adding that he is confident Lazar will emerge as an important source of leadership again.

“His human characteristics should be the best, the most important for us (to find in new recruits) – someone who’s ready to adapt and change and keep getting better for the future,” Jovanovic said.

Regardless of the shifting team composition and influx of new faces, a soldier never shies away from a challenge.

“I know what I can do, I know what the guys coming in can do, I know what this program can do,” Lazar said. “I want to fight for that.”

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Lauryn Olina Wang | Sports senior staff
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
Wang is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women’s basketball, men’s basketball, NIL and football beats. She was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women’s basketball, men’s soccer, men’s golf and track and field beats, reporter on the women’s basketball beat and contributor on the men’s and women’s golf beats. Wang is also a fourth-year history major and community engagement and social change minor.
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