These days, the USC basketball program rarely has to leave the region to find top talent. But as Andy Enfield was beginning to build the Trojans into a competitive team in 2015, he found himself looking at a gangly, rangy big man from Westchester, Ill., who wasn’t a blue-chip recruit but had fluidity to his movement that set him apart from more highly touted prospects.
For Nick Rakocevic, that wasn’t really by design. The kid just loved to run.
Even after he sprouted up from about 6 feet 3 to about 6-9 after his eighth-grade year, he wanted to spend most of his time playing on the wing. Before his senior season at St. Joseph High, legendary coach Gene Pingatore had to force Rakocevic to start playing more like a traditional big man so he could evolve into the type of player he would one day be at the college level.
“I’m gonna be the fastest big in the gym,” Rakocevic said. “I just work at that all the time. I’m a fan of running … sprints, suicides … I like running in the gym. That’s been my M.O. since I started here: beat every big up and down the floor. Even if you don’t get the ball, you’re in position to do something.”
Through a month of his junior season, Rakocevic is doing it all for the Trojans, and he’s positioning himself as an All-Pac 12 candidate, putting up numbers USC hasn’t seen from a center since Nikola Vucevic roamed Galen Center. Rakocevic is averaging 15 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game as well as 1.6 assists and one steal.
His performance in tallying five double-doubles has been one of the few bright spots for the Trojans, who are 5-4 and have lost all of their marquee games — the latest an embarrassing 96-61 shellacking against Texas Christian at Staples Center on Dec. 7.
Rakocevic’s actions on the floor match his words. He was one of the few Trojans who played hard against the Horned Frogs once the game had gotten out of hand. He has been one of the Trojans’ most vocal players as well, saying after USC’s loss to Nevada on Dec. 1 that the Trojans can’t use talented freshman wing Kevin Porter Jr.’s extended absence because of a bruised quad muscle as an excuse for their poor start to the season.
USC’s last chance at a nonconference win that would help it build an NCAA tournament resume comes Saturday night against Oklahoma at the BOK Center in Tulsa, and Rakocevic will be counted upon to continue his consistent play as the Trojans’ anchor inside.
“His advantage is he’s very fluid for someone who’s 6-11,” Enfield said, “and he’s a terrific offensive rebounder, one of the best you’ll ever see. He has great anticipation. He tips balls to himself. He’s becoming a better defensive rebounder. That has been a big weakness of his the last two years.”
During his first two seasons at USC, it was Rakocevic’s job to spell starters Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu. He took pride in being an “Energizer Bunny” off the bench, going full bore to the offensive glass and making hustle plays. He didn’t need to slow down with a low ceiling for minutes, but that led to him constantly battling foul trouble even with limited floor time.
The most important stat of all for Rakocevic this season is that he’s logging 30 minutes a game, which shows he is playing with much more control as a junior.
“I’ve always played with a ton of energy,” Rakocevic said. “That’s how I thrive in games, off the crowd, off my teammates, getting loud. Then I’ve slowly gotten a bigger role, and just knowing how to have that same energy but still being composed was kind of the tough transition for me.
“But I think this year I’m staying focused, not getting in foul trouble, learning to play with my feet and not with my hands. That just comes with maturity and age.”
When: Saturday 6 p.m. PST.
Where: BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.
On the air: TV: ESPNU; Radio: 1110.
Update: Oklahoma ( 8-1) is coming off an 80-48 blowout of Wichita State. The Sooners also boast wins over Notre Dame, Dayton and Florida. They are led by wing Christian James, who averages 19.2 points a game.