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Dragovic enjoys getting a shot

January 13, 2009|David Wharton

Things were not going well for Nikola Dragovic -- his shot wasn't falling -- but his teammates had a simple message.

"They told me to keep shooting," Dragovic said.

Good advice.

The forward's clutch points in the final minutes not only helped UCLA defeat USC on Sunday night, they also offered a glimpse of what could be.

The ninth-ranked Bruins need Dragovic to become an outside threat. They also need the 6-foot-9 Serb to acclimate to the rigors of playing defense and rebounding in the American game.

A few good minutes do not a season make, but as guard Darren Collison said after the USC victory: "Nikola was our X factor tonight."

It was the high point of an occasionally rocky three seasons at UCLA.

The Belgrade native arrived in 2006 with impressive international credentials, having led three Serbia-Montenegro national teams to junior championships. The NCAA discovered he had also played with professionals on a club squad, so his first college season was hampered by a 10-game suspension.

In 2007-08, the Bruins used him only about nine minutes per game because, well, no one plays much for Coach Ben Howland without working at defense and rebounding.

"I never played much defense in Europe," Dragovic said. "Maybe we play dirtier, but not harder."

Dropping 25 pounds over the summer, the junior began training camp stronger and quicker, working on staying low, putting more leg muscle into his jump shot. But with his game shaping up, more trouble was on the way.

Hours before the team's final exhibition in November, the normally soft-spoken Dragovic got into an argument with a former girlfriend and was arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor battery, accused of pushing her to the ground. The case stretched through early December.

"It was always around in my head," he said. "I tried to keep it to one side and not let it affect me."

The city attorney's office decided not to file charges after meeting with the player and the alleged victim, though prosecutors can revisit the case at any time for up to a year.

"I was told by my lawyer not to say anything, so I can't really tell you about it," Dragovic said. "I'm just glad everything is settled."

Glad the focus can return to basketball.

Through 15 games, his accuracy from the field is a less-than-sterling 39%. But his four-for-eight shooting and 12 points against Oregon on Jan. 4 caught Howland's attention.

During the walk-through for the USC game, something was up. Howland broke the news: Dragovic would get his first start as a Bruin.

The coach wanted an outside threat if USC chose to play zone. Even when the Trojans went man to man and Dragovic struggled, shooting two for six in the first half, the Bruins stuck with him.

His long-range jump shot with 3 minutes 42 seconds remaining turned a tight game into a five-point lead.

"That was a big shot," Howland said.

As the clock ticked down, Dragovic made three free throws and grabbed two rebounds.

That gave him a career-high 14 points and four rebounds in 27 minutes on the court. It also renewed hopes that he can fill a role similar to the one that another Eastern European, Vladimir Radmanovic, plays for the Lakers.

With key games against Arizona and Arizona State this week, Howland has yet to commit to a starting lineup. UCLA might go back to James Keefe, who had started every other game at power forward, but Dragovic remains optimistic.

"It helps that I have a lot of support from my teammates and coach," he said. "They believe in my shot."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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