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NBA DRAFT TODAY, 4:30 PDT, TNT

A Piece of Work

No one questions the effort of Dan Gadzuric, but some wonder if, at 24, the former Bruin can get much better. Still, he could be a first-round pick.

June 26, 2002|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dan Gadzuric grew up wanting nothing more than to lie flat on his back with a wrench in his hand as an automobiel werktuigkundige in Den Haag, Holland.

He would learn to repair engines, become an auto mechanic and escape the drug- and gang-saturated neighborhood in his roughhewn oceanfront hometown.

A commendable plan, but one that Gadzuric outgrew. It was clear there was no creeper in his future the first time he stepped onto a basketball court at 15, already measuring bumper to bumper.

Learning the game's nuances has been like mastering a second language, an ongoing and often perplexing challenge. Nine years later, an uneven career as UCLA's center behind him and an NBA opportunity just ahead at the relatively advanced age of 24, Gadzuric remains a work in progress, what the Dutch call a raadsel, an enigma.

Still, he is expected to be drafted today late in the first round or early in the second because along with the risk comes the gift of Gad--an enormously athletic and doggedly earnest 6-foot-11 package of potential.

"There's a wide range of opinions about him," said an NBA scout who declined to be identified. "Everybody knows he works hard and some people believe he will improve quite a bit. Others look at his age and wonder if he'll get much better, no matter how hard he tries."

With his enormous strides and striking athleticism, Gadzuric was a childhood phenom on the soccer field, playing on a Dutch national team with teammates several years older. He was good with his feet, but soon a 10-foot rim beckoned a more breathtaking feat.

"I remember the first time I dunked the ball really hard," he said. "It was in my first year. I liked that a lot. It felt good."

The dunks are still coming, but Gadzuric's best attribute is a blue-collar approach any mechanic could appreciate.

"I work hard on the court every day," he said. "That's all I can do. I'm still learning this game, I know that, but as long as I give 100% effort, I'll continue to improve."

Gadzuric says everything a coach loves to hear, but from him it somehow sounds genuine. He has been guilty of playing out of control, of confusing activity with achievement, but never of giving less than his best.

"He was appreciative and grateful for the opportunity to be here," UCLA Coach Steve Lavin said. "He doesn't have the ego or prima donna qualities of some of the high-level players who grew up in the United States."

All the fine-tuning had his engine humming the second half of his senior season. Gadzuric was UCLA's best player down the stretch, averaging nearly 14 points and nine rebounds in his last 20 games.

He made his biggest adjustment on defense. He blocked only 42 shots as a senior--a drop from the 60 and 52 of the previous two seasons and a concession to committing fewer fouls and playing more minutes.

After fouling out of three consecutive games at midseason and being removed in the first half of several others because of foul trouble, Gadzuric stopped leaving his feet as opposing players drove into the lane, instead raising his arms and staying balanced.

The result was fewer blocks, but fewer fouls too--he fouled out only once in the last 16 games, in the final seconds of a victory at Stanford he'd dominated with 15 rebounds and 12 points.

"He's learned to play under control, move his feet without lunging on defense and develop some effective post moves on offense," Lavin said.

Still, his senior numbers of 11.4 points and 7.7 rebounds were below those of his junior year when he averaged 11.7 points and 8.6 rebounds.

How much better is he than the day he arrived at UCLA from Governor Dummer Academy, a private prep school in Byfield, Mass.?

"Dan improved quite a bit, his entire game is better," Bruin teammate Jason Kapono said. "It's easy to see how he can still improve, but he is a much better player and understands the game better than he did a few years ago."

At Governor Dummer, Gadzuric learned to speak English and majored in elementary basketball, averaging 21 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocks his senior year. He was a McDonald's All-American and the most highly sought center in the nation.

And he was already 20, which added to the expectations when he arrived at Westwood one day before fall classes began in 1998.

"I loved L.A. right away because it is like a Mulligan stew, there is so much cultural diversity, a lot like Den Haag," he said. "I adjusted pretty fast. I'm proud of that."

On the court, however, the expectations of becoming the next Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton nearly crushed him. He'd never heard of those players, but there was no mistaking the boos at Pauley Pavilion. He couldn't understand why his home court could be as hot as a Dutch oven.

A knee injury prematurely ended his freshman season, and as a sophomore he considered quitting after a loss at USC, telling his coach the game wasn't fun.

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