Men's Basketball: Gonzaga's Petrusev spins the competition away

Gonzaga sophomore forward Filip Petrusev drives to the basket against USD on Feb. 27.

No one in sophomore forward Filip Petrušev’s family played college basketball. His parents only played in high school. His grandfather was a boxer. There was nothing that prompted him to take up basketball besides his height and desire to be athletic.

“I was just really tall,” Petrušev said. “I just wanted to do any sport, really.”

At a young age, he chose to play basketball because it made the most sense. Just five minutes from his house in Serbia was a heralded youth program, which helped him to tone his athletic ability and basketball skills. As a kid, he looked up to players like Kobe Bryant because of his basketball mentality and mindset in life. More recently, he admires Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets, primarily because he also hails  from Serbia.

After playing through high school in the United States at the prestigious Montverde Academy in Montverde, Florida, Petrušev joined Gonzaga men's basketball in 2018.

It wasn't just the community that everyone admires that led Petrušev to GU. It was also the way the team plays, the way it uses post players and makes international players feel so welcome as part of a diverse team.

As a freshman, Petrušev averaged 11.4 minutes per game. Though he didn’t start any of them, he played in 32 of  37 games and averaged 6.5 points per game.

Flash forward to this season, when Petrušev played and started in all 33 games for a total of 853 minutes. He averaged 25.8 minutes per game and 17.5 points per game, earning West Coast Conference Player of the Year and multiple All-American honors.

“That’s been the whole key to this season is guys like this … their growth,” head coach Mark Few said. “They’re the guys that we count on, the guys that we want to take big shots, the guys that we want to have the ball in big moments.”

Last year, Petrušev wasn’t a top scorer. As a sophomore, he understands his role better. He recognizes his power in playing under the basket and attacking the rim, but he also isn’t afraid to move around.

Senior forward Killian Tillie, junior forward Corey Kispert and Few all agreed Petrušev has stepped up after his first season as a Zag. 

His confidence has increased. His scoring has improved. His technique in the key has evolved. He has become one of the team’s go-to offensive players.

“Filip’s delivered time and time again inside, and so now, we’re starting to see the rewards,” Few said.

However, if he could improve on anything, Petrušev said it would be shooting consistently.

“Obviously, he’s a great player on the court,” Tillie said. “He’s doing great finishing down low, giving us an amazing presence down there.”

Not only has his basketball performance progressed, but his personality has begun to shine through as the guys become more acquainted with him. Tillie described him as someone who is not extremely talkative but is a genuine and funny guy once you get to know him. Kispert agreed he was more introverted last year but has opened up this year to show his personality.

“He’s grown on all of us this year, especially,” Kispert said. “He’s opened himself up and he’s a really fun guy — loves to joke, loves to have fun and, you know, I didn’t really expect that out of him when he got here, but I’m seeing a new side of Filip and I’m lovin’ it.”

When the basketball standout is not playing, he takes every chance he gets to talk with his family, who resides in Serbia. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all stay up past midnight to watch him play and text or call him afterward. His little brother, who lives in New York, also watches and his father attends a game in person every month or so.

Besides catching up with family, Petrušev likes to relax and find time to himself among his busy schedule.

Though he simply watches movies or TV shows on Netflix during the week, he socializes on the weekends, so he can meet new people.

“He’s really fun to play with,” Kispert said. “When he gets going, you feed it into him and you can just kinda run down to the other end because you know he’s gonna score and it’s really a luxury for us to have that.”

Samantha DiMaio is a staff writer.

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