Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis welcomed a relatively unknown 6-foot-8 Serbian power forward to the fold in February. If Veritas Christian coach John Jordan is correct, Sasa Borovnjak won't be an unknown for long.
BWI recently caught up with Coach Jordan. In our exclusive interview, he reflects on Sasa's emergence this past season and what lies in store for his career at Penn State.
BWI: Sasa seemed to come out of nowhere this year. He didn't play AAU ball right?
Jordan: He did not play AAU. He went home to Serbia for the summer. In fact he would have probably played on one of their national teams except he broke his arm just a couple of days before he was leaving to go home last summer.
BWI: How exactly did he wind up with you?
Jordan: He came in his junior year. The way he wound up with me is I was in pro ball for nearly 10 years before I got out of that to come back to the high school level. I had made a lot of contacts in professional ball.
When I came back, these guys that I dealt with in Europe started trying to send me players for my high school teams. A gentleman knew about Sasa and sent me some information on Sasa and asked if we'd be interested and we were.
We have something called the Matthew 28 project where we're allowed to take up to two kids per activity if they're from a war torn or impoverished nation and Serbia certainly qualified for that. That's how he came to us. When we first got him, when he got off the plane he could hardly speak any English at all.
BWI: What was his ability like when you did finally see him on the floor?
Jordan: Well, it was kind of funny. We play a national schedule and play a lot of the top teams in the country - Oak Hill a few times a year, Mt. Zion, Patterson... so we go up against big guys. Our team name for him at first was Sushi because he was about 205 and was a little squeamish at first. But then he just got tougher and tougher.
He was in the weight room, he worked his butt off. In fact, he's up to about 230 now and lives in the weight room. He just really turned himself around and turned into a really tough player.
BWI: Coach DeChellis was saying where Sasa is now as opposed to even a few months ago was an incredible transformation. Is he a kid that can still get bigger?
Jordan: He's a kid that can still grow. But, like I said his work ethic in the weight room is... he wants to be good. He wants to be a pro and he's willing to pay the price to do that.
I think being in a program such as Penn State's is going to do nothing but enhance that. He brings quite an arsenal with him. I think he's going to give Penn State some weapons they don't have right now.
BWI: Can you tell me a little bit about his demeanor as a kid? Has he acclimated himself to this culture and that kind of stuff?
Jordan: Oh, most definitely. He speaks fluent English now. He's a favorite of the students. He's real outgoing, a very good teammate. Very respectful and looks out for his teammates. He carries himself very well.
BWI: When you say he's going to bring some weapons Penn State doesn't currently have right now, I assume you mean he's a player that can sort of bruise down low? The Nittany Lions don't have a whole lot of that right now.
Jordan: Oh well that's the beauty. He's got a lot of strength with his back to the basket. He finishes well inside and he can score on anybody. But he has versatility. He's able to step out and take bigger guys off the dribble.
I've been very blessed and had some great players. I had Donnell Mack who is at Memphis now and who was a prolific scorer in high school and a top fifty kid. And I had a 7-foot-2 kid, Catalin Baciu here, who just finished up his freshman year at Clemson. He was a top fifty kid. But I'm telling you, Sasa scores better than either one of those guys. He can score on anybody, anywhere, anytime.
BWI: I guess he had a couple of pretty bigtime performances against Oak Hill this past season right?
Jordan: Yeah, I think he went 25 and 33 on Oak Hill. But he went over 40 two or three times this year.
BWI: What is it about his knack for scoring? How does he typically get his points?
Jordan: The thing is he's just a tough kid to guard. Number one, physically, it's hard to match up with him. If you put a bigger guy on him, he's going to step out and take him off the dribble or take a jump shot. If you put a smaller guy on him, he's going to post him and have his way with him. He gets to the foul line well, he draws fouls. He just has a lot of finesse to his game.
BWI: Is there a reason he didn't get the national exposure that a lot of other kids got?
Jordan: Yeah, I definitely think so. He really started coming into his own about February of his junior year. He really started coming into his own. In fact, he played Al-Farouq Aminu (Wake Forest sophomore forward) and that was a good breakout game for him. He took it to Farouq pretty well and it was kind of a breakout game for him.
Then he didn't really do anything with AAU because he was going to go back for the summer and it's hard for those guys to stay on that national scene because so many of these recruiting sites count on that AAU circuit. But, we play a good enough national schedule that when we got back in the fall and we got into our season, enough people started seeing him that it didn't really hurt him.
But yeah, it's a shame because in my opinion he was a kid who probably should have been up for quite a few All-American honors and that type of thing. But because he didn't do the summer circuit and that type of thing, he didn't get those types of offers.
BWI: What was the situation like with Penn State? How did that come about?
Jordan: Quite honestly, what happened was I was trying to generate more interest in him because he had some Big South schools and Southern Conference schools on him, that type of thing. N.C. State had offered him early but he decided not to take it. Then they rescinded on their offer because they were in the John Wall sweepstakes.
Coach DeChellis had recruited one of my kids before a little bit... so I sent him a video on him, an email and that type of thing. I sent it out to quite a few schools and Penn State, coach Kenaskie got back to me right away and said he really liked the film and wanted to fly in to see him.
Once he came in and saw him, he really liked him. Then he ended up seeing him against Oak Hill and that was against the kid that went to Syracuse and that was what sealed the deal.
BWI: With his commitment to Penn State then, was it much of a decision process? What did he express to you?
Jordan: It was a little bit of a decision because Bobby Cremins had been on him real hard. Once Bobby Cremins got on him, he really liked him and really wanted him bad at the College of Charleston. And he took an official to Charleston and it's a beautiful place.
They have a brand new arena and coach Cremins is a pretty compelling guy. But then when we talked about style of play, we talked about how he fit into Penn State's system, we talked about coach DeChellis.
When we looked at all those factors, plus his aspirations of wanted to play pro basketball, over in Europe most likely, I said Look, you really can't go wrong with the Big Ten and Penn State. And that's what he came to be part of an institution like Penn State. Once he took a visit there and saw academically what they're about and those kinds of things, he got real excited.
BWI: Do you happen to know off-hand some of his numbers from this past season?
Jordan: He was right at 26 points a game. He led Western North Carolina in scoring and I think he was fourth in the state in scoring. He averaged 12.1 rebounds a game and he averaged 2.1 assists per game.
BWI: Any post-season awards and accolades?
Well of course he was a first-team Western North Carolina selection. We thought he should be player of the year but Mason Plumlee is just a mile away from us and he's going to Duke so that took that out. He was an NACA All-American candidate, I'm sure he'll make their team. He flew under the radar a little bit but I think next year I think he'll really show people how they missed the boat on not covering this kid more.
BWI: Is he a kid that's ready to contribute right away or do you think he needs a redshirt year?
Jordan: I think the way he scores with his size he'll be able to contribute right away. I really do and I say that from a standpoint where I just had a 7-2 kid go to Clemson and hardly played this year and he's a top fifty kid. But Bobo wasn't ready. He physically wasn't ready for the ACC and that type of thing. Sasa is a different story. Sasa is ready and like I said, I think it's going to be hard to keep him off the court just because he's such a scoring threat. I know one of the problems Penn State had this year during the season at times was the ability to score. They had a lot of games where they were in the 40s and 50s and I mean, Sasa, he's a kid who's going to give you points.
BWI: Coaching at Veritas, you've seen some kids go D1.
Jordan: Since I came back from pro ball in the last six years I've had 25 kids go to the college level to play and I've had 15 go D1, so I've seen my share of kids. I also run a recruiting Web site myself called BoysHoopScout.com.
BWI: Any favorite stories about Sasa?
Jordan: Two quick ones, when he got off the plane he couldn't speak a word of English and the first words were...
I said, How was the flight? and he said, My name is Sasa.
I said, Well, did you get anything to eat on the flight? and he said, My name is Sasa.
Then when he went up to visit Penn State, he was sitting there watching the game and somebody had signs up for Sasa like, We want Sasa or Go Sasa or something like that. So after the game he asked Coach Kenaskie, he said, I didn't know you guys had somebody on your team named Sasa. He didn't know that the signs were for him.