“I don’t want to sound cocky, but I’m pretty much popular around campus. Everybody wants to talk to me when I go to the Den, so sometimes it can be overwhelming,” Petar Kutlesic said.
This is the type of quip that has endeared the basketball team and many around campus to the freshman forward from Serbia.
“I’m 6-foot-8, Serbian and have red hair — so I understand why. You don’t see that every day,” he clarified.
The freshman is averaging 5.3 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game. His rebounding number leads the team.
“I have an American team. I’m a 6-foot-8 European and I love to shoot and I love to pass. They find it weird,” Kutlesic said.
Kutlesic is the tallest player on the team but plays a European style rather than in the post like the other big men, Will Ward and Christian Katuala. He models his game after Dirk Nowitizki of the Dallas Mavericks. Kutlesic is shooting 34 percent this season from beyond the arc.
“He’s a good fit for us because we play a five-out motion, so we need players who can stretch the floor and can play both inside and out,” head coach Justin Leslie said.
The freshman has made an immediate impact with the Cougars, joining the team’s deep rotation and playing over 15 minutes a game coming off the bench.
“He’s really blossomed coming off the bench. He’s our leading rebounder and he’s found his niche for this team. We all recognize that, and he’s good at it,” said Robert Sandoval, senior guard for the Cougars.
Coach Leslie does see improvements that Kutlesic can make in his time at APU. The freshman is still new to APU’s system, and there’s room for the forward to grow and learn to take advantage of the places in the system where he can excel. Additionally, the team wants the Serbian to work on his post game.
“In the future, I would expect that he would be an equal mix of inside and out,” Leslie said.
In 40 minutes of play spread between the last two games, Kutlesic has recorded 17 points, 16 rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. The efficiency he has shown is why the Cougars are optimistic about his future.
Kutlesic has also found favor with the Zu and APU fans, who have taken to chanting “Serbia!” after the forward makes a basket.
Over winter break, Kutlesic stayed with Sandoval. “I kind of regret it because my family loves him more than me now. But it was cool to go deeper and hear his story,” Sandoval said.
That story begins back in Serbia. “I was a chubby kid and a little bit shorter than everybody, so my parents were like, ‘You should go play something because you’re a little bit chubby,’” Kutlesic said.
He started with soccer, but switched to basketball on the recommendation of his coach and stuck with the sport through his childhood and into high school.
“When I realized I’m a little bit better than everyone at basketball, I decided that that was my dream,” he said.
This dream came at a price. In Serbia, it’s either college or basketball — you can’t do both.
Kutlesic got in contact with a manager who promised to find him a place to play collegiately in the United States. The manager told him in early February of his senior year that he had found him a place to play. However, the manager went out of contact until June and came back with no opportunity for Kutlesic.
During that time, Kutlesic needed to take his SAT and make other preparations for the difficult jump from Serbian high school to a college in the U.S.
However, his father became very sick and could no longer work.
“It was a serious disease. My mom did everything she could for me. She had three jobs,” Kutlesic said.
He was ready to give up on his dream and just stay in Serbia.
“I couldn’t even go to university [in Serbia] because I skipped the tests, so I was gonna go play low-division basketball somewhere,” Kutlesic said. “It would be some small place and just playing basketball for 300 or 400 bucks a month. It would be horrible.”
Kutlesic got a call from Igor Vrzina, a Serbian coach at Lee Academy, a prep school in Maine. Prep schools offer a place for players to become academically qualified to before moving to a four-year university. The Serbian coach brought over many players from his homeland and found them landing spots at four-year schools. That was exactly what Kutlesic needed.
The team at Lee Academy was made up of players in the same situation as he was: trying to land a scholarship to continue their careers.
“Those who didn’t play just sat on the bench and didn’t cheer when you made a basket,” Kutlesic said. “They actually cheered when the other team made a basket because that would mean they would get to go in and play.”
While Lee Academy served a purpose for Kutlesic, he didn’t find comfort in the Northeast.
“In Maine, I missed my family and I missed my home,” he said. “After the first week, I came to the point where I downloaded a timer and counted the days until I got to go home.”
After becoming academically eligible and having what he called a “decent” year on the court, Kutlesic began receiving interest from schools, including Division I programs.
Azusa Pacific expressed interest after an assistant coach’s contact on the East Coast pushed through some of Kutlesic’s tape to the coaching staff at APU. The player chose APU because Leslie pitched him a different message than he had heard from others.
“I really liked coach Leslie and it’s in LA. I didn’t know I had to go to chapel at the time, but everything else sounded nice and I just went for it,” Kutlesic said.
It’s not hard to understand the appeal of a school near LA to Kutlesic. Lee Academy is in a remote part of Maine in a town with less than 1,000 people.
Last summer, prior to coming to APU, Kutlesic returned to Serbia, where he was invited to participate in a camp for the under-20 Serbian national team leading up to the world championship.
At the camp, he competed with 25-30 of the country’s top young players for 15 days. Although he didn’t make the final cut, Kutlesic says that it was a tremendous honor to be chosen to participate in the camp. The team eventually finished third in the world championship.
“I came back to Serbia to see my parents and be with my parents, and I couldn’t when I was at the camp. It was tough. When I got cut, I was kind of relieved.” Kutlesic said.
He finally found himself on campus at a U.S. university last fall, a 20-year old freshman. “It was a really big concern how the team was going to accept me,” Kutlesic said. “I came here and I was a little bit lonely because they just came back from their Costa Rica [trip] and had bonded while they were there.”
Kutlesic’s fears were quickly put to rest as the team began to take a liking to his sense of humor and affinity for lighthearted argument.
“He’s got a good sense of humor; he’s definitely secure in his personality. He says his opinions,” Leslie said.
It’s apparent that he and Leslie have gotten along as they chase down a humorous argument during the interview about Kutlesic’s play with Leslie offering improvements the freshman could make.
“He’s easy to argue with and fun to banter back and forth with,” Leslie said.
His original plan after graduation was to return to Europe and play professionally. However, he’s found another passion in his computer science major.
“Finally, I’m interested in something so I might stick with it, although I still have a long way to go. But I like basketball, too,” he said. “Although, in order to stay in [the] U.S., I have to get married, and I don’t want to get married. … Don’t write that, because I’m gonna get a lot of offers.”
His witty quips and sense of humor make it no secret why he’s found a home at APU. “When they saw how much I wanted to come, they were really supportive,” Kutlesic said about his family.
Kutlesic is over 6,000 miles and a nine-hour time difference away from his family, but they get to Skype often. His father often wakes up to watch the 7:30 p.m. games tip off at 4:30 a.m. in Serbia.
“I’m here trying to show my gratitude and make them proud,” Kutlesic said.
The Cougars are currently 23-4 (16-3 PacWest) and tied atop the conference standings.
“This is the best team I’ve ever been on, team-wise,” he said. “They did everything they could to make me not feel alone.”
Kutlesic paused before answering what he brings to the team. “I hope I bring something,” he said.
The humility and deference to everything that his teammates contribute is telling of Kutlesic’s heart. It’s apparent that he holds a certain respect for the group that took in the tall freshman from thousands of miles away.
“I’m just hoping we can finish it in the right way. We can go really far,” he said.