Turkish Airlines Euroleague
December 06, 2013
Dragan Labovic, FMP
by: Aca Ostojic, Belgrade
February 12, 2007
The basketball factory at FMP Zeleznik has been producing high-level big men for some time now. When Ognjen Askrabic left FMP in the summer of 2004, he was replaced with fellow power forward Dusko Savanovic, who arrived from the farm club Borac Cacak. Within two years, after Savanovic had proven himself as a dangerous weapon in the ULEB Cup and Adriatic League, he was on his way to Russia with Unics Kazan. Once more, the FMP management looked to Borac Cacak for a replacement. This time, they came back with Dragan Labovic. Any coach or scout who sees Labovic play knows immediately what a talent he is, just as anyone who meets the 2.07-meter teenager can sense what a happy guy he is, too. He’s a small-town boy who had to be coaxed into trying basketball, and now is considered one of the top prospects in Europe. Labovic takes it all in stride. "My time is coming," Labovic told ULEBcup.com. "Step by step: that is my motto."
Labovic grew up in Prokuplje, one of the few places in southern Serbia without a strong basketball tradition. "I was the tallest kid in the class," Labovic recounted. "I was only seven years old at the time. In the beginning, I was indifferent about basketball. I was playing soccer the whole day, but I wanted to join some of my friends." Soon, Labovic earned the nickname "Labud": translation, "The Swan". When Labovic was 12, a coach named Vladan Stojisavljevic saw him playing for his school team. So impressed was Stojisavljevic that he invited Labovic to move from Prokuplje to Leskovac, another town in southern Serbia, but with some real basketball tradition. Despite his age, Labovic accepted and moved to become a member of the club Zdravlje.
"I stayed there for three years, until 2002 when one man noticed me and called me to come to FMP Zeleznik," Labovic said. "That man was Ratko Radovanovic." And when the man who led Bosna Sarajevo to a Euroleague title in 1979 and helped the Yugoslavian national team to an Olympic gold medal in 1980 came calling, Labovic listened. Radovanovic had an eye for spotting talent. Aside from Dejan Milojevic, Radovanovic also helped find Nemanja Aleksandrov. In time, the duo of Aleksandrov and Labovic would prove to be lethal both for FMP's cadet teams and at the junior national level. Together they won the gold medal at the 2003 European Cadets Championship in Spain, where Aleksandrov was named MVP of an event that has produced a number of players shining with pro clubs today. The heroes in the final, when Serbia-Montenegro beat Turkey 83-68, were Milenko Tepic (now with Partizan), who had 31 points and 9 rebounds, and Labovic, who scored 27. points. Two years later, the same squad won the European Junior Championship in Belgrade. With Aleksandrov injured, Labovic stepped up and earned MVP honors by averaging a team-high 14.1 points, plus 8.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game. Labovic was pushed hard by fellow MVP contenders Luigi Datome of Italy, Cenk Akyol from Turkey and Jose Angel Antelo of Spain. That some of them have risen to national prominence quicker than Labovic, but that doesn't bother him at all. "Yes, some of the guys soon became members of national teams," Labovic said. "They all participated at the World Championship in Japan last year. I am not sorry for that. I don't think I am missing anything."
When Labovic turned 18, he faced heavy competition for playing time with FMP, so Radovanovic decided to send him and guard Milos Teodosic to Cacak to gain more experience. Coaching legend Milovan Stepandic was at the helm for Borac, and under his tutelage, Labovic and Teodosic became a lethal duo, able to find one another with their eyes closed. Labovic posted 18 points and 6.7 rebounds in 22 games at Borac, where he was named MVP of the 2005-06 domestic league. He followed that up by helping Serbia-Montenegro to gold at the European Under-20 Championships in Turkey.
When Australian coach Rob Beveridge saw Labovic in action, he invited him to play on the world selection at the Nike Hoop Summit in Memphis, Tennessee, where they squared off against America's best young talents last April. "There are lot of great players that got their names at Hoop Summit before, like Jermaine O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and others," Labovic said. He also had a chance to work out there with Australian star Andrew Bogut. Labovic's stock soared in Memphis, as he put his great talent on display, scoring 13 points in that game. Everyone was impressed by his gutsiness and great intangibles. His post skills are enhanced by excellent movement, good footwork and ball skills. Labovic also has respectable shooting range and he becomes even better at crunch time. All of which gave Labovic confidence in his return to FMP for the current season.
"I was Dusko Savanovic's back-up on FMP's roster, but when he decided to leave, I became the starter," Labovic says. "I knew that every player got an opportunity at FMP, but I was not hoping it would be so fast. I got the chance to play in the ULEB Cup and I played my first game so cool as it was a routine to me. It was the game with Anwil, when I finished with 11 points. From the first minute I knew everything depends on me. I am a serious guy and real pro. And I was prepared to battle with opponents and with myself."
Labovic played in all 11 ULEB Cup games this season, shining brightest against Besiktas Istanbul, against whom he scored 23 points and amassed a 27 index rating. He has averaged 11.1 points and 4.4 rebounds so far. "There is time to reach star status," Labovic said. "Step by step. I earned a lot, but I know very well what's worth the most and what is memorable for a long time. That is my national team career. When my time comes and I become a member of our national team, I can say that I touched the stars."
While reaching for the stars, Labovic keeps his feet on the ground. "Five years ago, I did not imagine even being here," Labovic says. "I am sure that everything depends on me. Five years from now? Maybe I shall play in some good European team. But I don't hurry. Step by step."