Milos Teodosic Is for Real, Even if That Cheeseburger Story May Not Be

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If that spoils some of the most savory Milos mythology in circulation, don’t worry: Copious amounts of YouTube footage of his audacious passing is only a click away. A quick internet search will likewise confirm that, for all the fears about how he’d cope with the length and athleticism he’s now seeing daily as the N.B.A.’s oldest rookie — especially given his well-chronicled defensive shortcomings — there is no shortage of Teodosic highlights in a Clippers jersey.

“He still has his razzle-dazzle going,” Dekker said.

Not long after the Clippers saw their All-Star point guard Chris Paul force his way to Houston last June, they signed Teodosic to a two-year deal worth $12.3 million. On a Basketball Without Borders junket in Israel on behalf of the league in August, Dekker found himself being regaled by Israeli reporters with tales about the uncommon vision and flair he was about to be exposed to.

“My immediate reaction,” Dekker said, “was that I better go look this guy up.”

It’s a true shame that N.B.A. assistant coaches overlooked Teodosic in the voting for the annual Rising Stars game featuring first- and second-year players that gets All-Star Weekend underway in earnest next Friday night. The All-Star festivities are in Los Angeles this season and Teodosic belongs in that game not only as a showman supreme who sports the bonus of local ties but because of his impact for the better-than-expected Clippers, who are 17-8 when he’s in uniform and 11-18 when he’s out. Heading into Monday night’s game in Brooklyn, L.A. is also a meaty plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions better this season when he is on the floor compared to when he sits.

Teodosic, though, doesn’t feel slighted in the least.

“Being in All-Star any way is something big and good,” he said. “But I’m 30 years old. Maybe some younger guys should go there and feel this feeling.”

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Teodosic, left, in action during a Euroleague playoff game in May 2017.

Credit
Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

When he was 26, Teodosic was courted hard in free agency by the Memphis Grizzlies. He came close to accepting their offer in the summer of 2013, only to decide he couldn’t bear to leave for the United States until he won a Euroleague title. He never expected that it would take another three years, but his European critics were finally hushed when Teodosic led CSKA Moscow to the second-most prestigious club basketball championship in the world in 2016.

The expiration of his second three-year CSKA contract after the 2016-17 season then set him up, at last, to make the leap to sample N.B.A. life and try to quiet the critics on both sides of the Atlantic who would have branded his résumé incomplete without a stint on U.S. shores.

Teodosic said it felt “weird” to be branded a rookie, after winning Euroleague Most Valuable Player honors as far back as 2010 and unexpectedly steering Serbia into the gold medal game against the mighty United States at both the 2014 FIBA World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. “But I am happy they don’t treat me like a rookie,” Teodosic said of his fellow Clippers.

That means no fetching bagels or doughnuts to bring to practice. No transporting of the veterans’ luggage or singing on teammates’ birthdays with the other first-year players. He arrived with too much hoopla to be assigned rookie chores, especially when, as Dekker put it, Teodosic “knows the game better than most of us.”

“I will feel sorry if I didn’t come here,” Teodosic said, admitting that he, too, felt something was missing in his career without an N.B.A. adventure. “I want to show myself I can play here with all these guys. I just feel sorry that I didn’t win Euroleague earlier and came here earlier.”

Yet he’s the first to say that they are largely two different games. In Europe, Teodosic capitalized on the smaller court, shorter games and lighter schedule, relying on his pick-and-roll guile to deal with all the bodies in the paint. In the N.B.A., there is more space to cover, far more nuance in the defensive assignments and, most crucially, less time to get shots off.

The superior quickness he encounters on the perimeter as a Clipper has surely contributed to Teodosic’s shooting struggles (38.2 percent from the floor), but health has been his biggest issue so far. Teodosic has started all 25 games he’s played, earning an unforeseen spot in Coach Doc Rivers’ first five in place of Patrick Beverley, who was his former teammate at Olympiacos in Greece and is not expected back this season after recovering from November knee surgery. But Teodosic, himself, has missed 28 games because of a nagging case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

Still, he’s shown enough to vindicate those who have vouched for him over the years. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski was so entranced by Teodosic’s floor leadership during multiple battles while Krzyzewski was guiding Team USA that he declared during the Rio Games: “I love him. We’re friends.”

Ettore Messina, now an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs after coaching Teodosic at CSKA Moscow for two seasons, said he used to call the point guard Vincent van Gogh in their CSKA days.

“He is creativity, he is fantasy, he is an artist,” said Messina, who went on in the same conversation to refer to Teodosic as “the Pete Maravich of European basketball.”

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Teodosic rarely shaves, and came to the N.B.A. with a reputation for poor conditioning, but he earned a starting spot and has only missed time because of a lingering foot injury.

Credit
Brandon Dill/Associated Press

“I think more like a coach, of course, more rational. So we had our clashes,” Messina said. “But he can see things most of us don’t see. As a coach, you are used to anticipating the play — you know where the ball will go most of the time. Teo is one of the few players that can surprise you.”

The Clippers stunned Teodosic and the rest of the league when they dealt the star forward Blake Griffin to Detroit on Jan. 29, but the departure of the most potent and decorated assist target on the roster came with a consolation prize: Teodosic’s longtime national-team colleague and former roommate, Boban Marjanovic, was one of three Pistons acquired in the trade.

Marjanovic is a fast-talking, 7-foot-3 fan favorite whose hulking presence can only increase his fellow Serbian’s comfort level. Griffin and Teodosic, meanwhile, will always have their memories of that September car ride with Dekker in San Diego, when they pulled into McDonald’s on the way to a team-bonding workout in search of some morning sustenance.

As Dekker tells it, Teodosic asked for two cheeseburgers when it was their turn in the drive-through and was disconsolate when informed that the full menu wasn’t available at that hour.

“The person in the speaker was like, ‘Yeah, we don’t serve those yet,’ ” Dekker said. “Milos was so confused. He wanted cheeseburgers so bad.”

Teodosic insists it was “like a joke.”

The idea of cheeseburgers for breakfast, mind you, fit in well with the narrative of lazy defense and suspect conditioning that dogged Teodosic throughout his European career. But Teodosic, according to Dekker, has never complained once about Dekker’s tweet and how it didn’t exactly enhance his reputation for off-court discipline.

“He did not care,” Dekker said. “That’s the type of guy Milos is. He doesn’t care what people think about him. He’s going to go out and do his thing. He’s going to come out with the beard and the floppy hair, looking like a Beatle.”

It wasn’t always that way. Teodosic said it took him “a long, long time” to learn how to tune out unflattering gossip.

“I used to feel sad,” Teodosic said. “Then you realize that people are there to talk and talk and talk.

“I don’t think about things people are talking about me outside of the court — good or bad.”

He also rarely interacts with the American news media after spending so long in a world in which reporters are never granted locker-room access, which made the opportunity to spend a morning with him even more intriguing. We talked soccer; Teodosic loves A.C. Milan and Liverpool. We talked Serbian basketball history; Dejan Bodiroga, who could never bring himself to give the N.B.A. a shot, is one of his all-time favorites. And we talked about why he’d rather pass than score.

“Because you make two people happy,” he said.

And it should be noted for posterity that Teodosic held up his breakfast sandwich a bit like a trophy when it arrived. “You see? No cheeseburgers,” he announced with a smile.

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