IN THE SPOTLIGHT
As youngsters — and sidekicks — residing in the same neighborhood in Toronto, Canada, Matej Juric and Vasilije Vukmanovic used rapid transit to get to places.
Emphasis on rapid.
The two of them — lifelong friends who have known each other since they were four-year-olds — lived in the heart of the city. They constantly were making connections to board subway trains, buses and streetcars.
Hustle and bustle.
To get to his school back then, Juric would wake up at 7 a.m. and hurry down to the local transit. Twelve subway stops later, he’d arrive at his destination.
“You learn to go fast,” Juric said.
As basketball players at Lake Forest Academy, fast turned into breakneck fast.
The two seniors, both of Serbian descent, came to the states prior to the 2016-17 season and immediately played the game their way.
Accelerator pushed down.
Pedal to the medal.
They turned basketball courts into superhighways.
Forces. Of. Nature.
In a home game against Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Longwood on Jan. 26, Juric made a steal in the open court and then dashed down court and stuffed a two-handed dunk.
Hang a star on that one. Or, maybe four.
“He’s made multiple plays like that one,” said LFA’s first-year head Kyle Koncz, a former Division I basketball player at Princeton University.
Juric can fill up a basket. He also can fill up a highlight reel (go to YouTube.com and get an eyeful of his junior and senior highlights at LFA). It includes a dunk against Glenbrook South at end of the 2017 season.
“It’s helpful to have a dunk on your highlight tape,” said the muscular 6-foot, 185-pound point guard.
Juric’s multifaceted game is electric.
“Matey really gets after it,” the 6-foot-5 Vukmanovic said. “He always goes as hard as he can.”
“He plays his heart out,” said Koncz. “Loves to compete. Always focused. Always on the go.”
“He’s one of those guys who changes the momentum of a game,” the coach added. “He just makes plays. The rest of the team follows his lead.”
Late last month, Juric got to play the game the Juric Way, when the Caxys hosted their end-of-the-season and highly competitive Prep Showcase.
The shootout had a couple of unique features: 20-minute halves and a 30-second shot clock.
Pick up the tempo? You betcha. Count Juric in.
“Coach wants us to push the ball,” said Juric, in a postgame interview earlier this season. “He wants us to keep defenses on their heels.”
In the opening game of the Prep Showcase — a 79-69 victory over Southwest Academy of London, Ontario — Juric didn’t waste any time pushing the pace.
He was a stormin’ Norman.
On one offensive possession, Juric dove on the floor for a rebound and managed to flick it safely into the hands of a teammate.
A few moments later, he followed up a teammate’s missed shot by flying to the rim and putting down a put-back.
Juric’s three-point shot was a little off in this game, but he still managed to score 12 points and pull down nine rebounds.
And somehow, with just over seven minutes left to play, Juric threw a gorgeous long bounce pass through a crowd of defenders in the lane, setting up a slam-dunk for freshman sensation Brandon Weston.
“I think that the best part of my game is my vision,” said Juric, who ended his senior season averaging 12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game. “You’ve got to get the ball to the shooters.”
That feed to Weston was YouTube good.
All this didn’t surprise the players and coaches of Southwest Academy. They know Juric.
Juric has become a known commodity in Canada. He played his summer basketball with a highly regarded Canadian club team: Northern Lights. He helped them win back-to-back Adidas Invitational titles.
“He’s a highly sought after player in Canada,” said Southwest Academy coach Kevin Barnes, noting that Juric has drawn interest from McGill University of Montreal.
Juric basically leaves an impression wherever he plays.
In late January, he tallied 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a 76-60 setback against host Highland Park.
He didn’t escape the notice of HP head coach Paul Harris, who picked up his 300th career that night.
“While scouting him, we were impressed with his energy on offense and defense,” Harris said. “He’s a strong player. A nice all-around player.”
Juric plays the game in no-nonsense fashion. His fun-loving personality — and he’s got a good one — never seems to seep out during the live action.
He takes the court and immediately turns into Mr. Stone Face.
End-zone celebrations aren’t his deal.
He plays with a killer instinct. Vukmanovic does the same.
“We like to let the other team know that we’re out there,” said Vukmanovic.
Like Juric, Vukmanovic is springy, fundamentally sound and totally engaged in the game.
Like Juric, he puts on his game face.
“Usually, I’m pretty chill,” said Vukmanovic, who also has the frame and skillset to play at the next level. “I’m a happy guy.
“[But] when I take the court, I feel like I have to prove myself,” he added. “I try to bring energy.”
Koncz loves Vukmanovic’s demeanor and versatility.
“He’s mature and real coachable,” said Koncz. “He’s always trying to correct things.
“Vaso has a lot of the traits that you want in a player,” the coach added.
Vukmanovic, who finished the season averaging 7.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, can knock down a three-pointer on one end and knock down a shot on the other.
Midway through the fourth quarter against CICS Longwood, Vukmanovic, in one fell swoop, not only blocked the shot but also raced over to track up the rebound.
“He’s got a real good feel for the game,” said Koncz. “And he’s an incredibly hard worker.
“He’s one of those guys who is dripping sweat in the first minute of practice,” the coach added.