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Gonzaga Basketball

Filip Petrusev maintains NBA ambitions as former Zag returns to Europe for third professional season

Tyrell Terry of the Mavericks drives against Filip Petrusev during the NBA Summer League on Aug. 9, 2021, in Las Vegas.  (Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – More than a year after he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, Filip Petrusev still has ambitions of checking into his first NBA game. Two years into a complicated, circuitous professional basketball career, the former Gonzaga big man is learning ambition is only one part of the formula.

In late May, Petrusev wrapped up a chaotic season with the Anadolu Efes of the Turkish Super League.

In early July he was on the move again, returning to Las Vegas for another audition with the 76ers.

Less than two weeks removed from his second NBA Summer League stint, Petrusev was sent back to Europe, signing a contract to play for KK Crvena Zvezda in his hometown of Belgrade, Serbia.

Petrusev’s pro career has spanned three seasons with three different teams. None of those is part of the National Basketball Association, however, and the 76ers haven’t offered much in terms of how they plan to use the 6-foot-11 forward/center .

Philadelphia still holds the player’s rights after selecting Petrusev with the 50th overall pick of the 2021 draft, but the 76ers haven’t vacated a roster spot for the Serbia native, using a conventional NBA move and “stashing” him overseas.

There’s still a path to the NBA for Petrusev, even if he’s not called back to Philadelphia this season. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Tiago Splitter, Nikola Mirotic and Dario Saric were stashed for more than one season before making their debuts in the NBA. Bogdanovic and Petrusev both hail from Belgrade, and Saric forged a path that could be relatable for the former Zag, playing two seasons with Anadolu before signing a contract with the 76ers.

“I’m doing whatever they ask me to do,” Petrusev said after his first Summer League game earlier this month. “So if they ask me to set screens and roll, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just doing whatever they say.”

Petrusev arrived at Summer League hoping to give Philadelphia’s front office reason to offer one of its 15 roster spots, or possibly a two-way deal, to the 22-year-old.

“I signed a one-year deal so I can be available,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Then if not, I’ll just sign one more year in Europe. So I will try to be available after every year.”

Upon arriving on American soil, Petrusev had virtually no time to get up to speed with Philadelphia’s Summer League squad, playing eight minutes in a loss to the Toronto Raptors before he had a chance to practice with the Sixers. He missed his only field goal attempt, but made both of his free throws and grabbed four rebounds while recording one block and one steal.

“It was the first game. I had no practices, no nothing, so I tried to play with energy out there,” Petrusev said. “I tried to get into place and run the plays. I just tried to play hard and impact the game somehow.”

Dwayne Jones, Philadelphia’s skills development coach and the Sixers’ head coach in Vegas, said Petrusev played adequately considering the circumstances.

“I thought Filip was okay. Coming from overseas, he got here like four days ago,” Jones said. “So I think he’s still trying to get adjusted to that. We haven’t been able to have a real practice with him, so I think that’ll help him when we’re able to do that in a couple days. But I think overall he contributed solidly, he was able to show what he can do. Even last year, he was able to protect the rim.

“I think he showed that a little bit this year and as this week goes on, two weeks goes on I expect him to continue to grow and get in the mix with our guys.”

Petrusev’s role expanded throughout the Las Vegas event and he closed it with an encouraging 14-point performance against the Chicago Bulls. Petrusev played 16 minutes in his only Summer League start, made 5 of 7 from the field, knocked down his only 3-point attempt, blocked three shots and grabbed two rebounds.

In total, Petrusev averaged just over 12 minutes in four Summer League appearances. He scored 5.5 points per game while shooting 53% from the field and 33% from 3-point range. He also averaged 2.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.

“I think part of Filip’s development is being able to be a role player, be able to roll hard, grab rebounds, but also at some point hopefully he’ll be able to spread the floor a little bit,” Jones said. “I know that was his game early on, I think he’ll be able to show that at some point, but I think for right now we just want him to roll hard, be a presence in the paint.”

Petrusev left college after a sophomore season in which he was named the WCC’s Player of the Year, telling ESPN he’d be able to “showcase some skills I wasn’t able to at Gonzaga” while playing for Serbian club Mega Bemax.

He feels he’s been successful in that regard, averaging 23.6 points and 7.6 during his first pro season in Serbia before scoring 15.2 points to go with 6.2 rebounds last year in the Turkish Super League. After attempting only 41 3-pointers in two seasons at Gonzaga, Petrusev felt he could improve his draft stock by showing teams he could stretch the floor and play on the perimeter.

“I shot 3s 45% and played inside-outside (at Bemax),” Petrusev said. “I just feel like they remember me more as a back to the basket kind of guy when I was at Gonzaga. I was able to showcase it so it’s from now on whatever teams need me to do.”

Petrusev encountered turbulence last season in Turkey, where he was a fixture in 13 Turkish League games but saw his 3-point percentage dip to 16%.

He played only 9.3 minutes in EuroLeague competition, averaging just 5.2 points and 1.6 rebounds.

Petrusev didn’t play in EuroLeague semifinal or championship games against Olympiacos or Barcelona, and Anadolu coach Ergin Ataman suggested the team made an error in signing the ABA League’s top scorer during a postseason interview.

“We took a risk with Petrusev,” Ataman told Milliyet, a daily newspaper in Istanbul. “The young player was named MVP in the Adriatic League. The fact that he came to such a high-level team for the first time and that he could not reach that level physically was a bit of a mistake for us.”

Petrusev responded to those comments after his opening game in Vegas.

“How it works over there, they brought me in with a lot of expectations,” he said. “I was doing OK in the beginning, and then they benched me. So they got to find an excuse why they benched me and all that. So I really don’t care what he says.”

Hardened through his experience in Turkey, Petrusev returns to the ABA two years after he was crowned the league’s MVP. The former Zag says he’s turned his physicality up a notch over the last two years and believes he’s ready for his opportunity in the NBA, whenever the Sixers are ready to give it to him.

“If people watch the games,” Petrusev said, “they can see it.”