LOS ANGELES — Milos Teodosic won’t engage in ranking his best works of art. Teodosic is a Serbian basketball legend who has made passing his canvas and wowed audiences from across the globe — in international competitions, in every country in Europe — with his creativity, flare and fearlessness. He’s been making zany, unconscionable passes “from my second day of playing basketball,” he said, and never sat down to chart every bounce pass between an opponent’s legs, sidearm curveball from halfcourt that caught someone in stride or no-look that made defenses spin in search of the ball while it’s being laid in the hoop.
Plus, he’d rather not look back when there are still so many new and exciting ways to deliver the ball that he’d rather explore what’s next than what’s already been done. Before a recent practice at the Los Angeles Clippers’ training facility, Teodosic asked an inquisitor to tell him, “Which pass do you like the most?” Teodosic’s response to the answer revealed another side of how he views his purpose with those passes: to get buckets for his teammates.
While playing the United States in the preliminary round of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Teodosic pulled off easily the most-discussed pass of the tournament, when he came around a screen from Nikola Jokic to split Paul George and Kevin Durant, dipped into the lane where he froze Carmelo Anthony, then left his feet and got Draymond Green to leave his feet to contest a layup. While everyone in the arena was staring at the rim, Teodosic had his eyes locked elsewhere and whipped an over-the-shoulder, behind-the-back pass to a wide-open Bogdan Bogdanovic at the 3-point line. Reminded of that delectable dish, Teodosic shook his head.
“Bogdanovic missed,” Teodosic said. “Not assist. Nice pass, but not assist.”
Los Angeles has been over-the-top excited about the arrival of the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball, but he isn’t the only rookie point guard who will have folks in this town talking this season. Teodosic, a 30-year-old who had long been regarded as the best active player to have never suited up in the NBA, decided this would be the best time to explore the only remaining bucket-list item of his basketball career.
His contract with Euroleague power CSKA Moscow ended last spring and he no longer had to worry about an expensive buyout. So it was time to see if a Euroleague champion and MVP could hold his own in the world’s best league.
“When we start to play basketball as a kid,” Teodosic told The Vertical, “the highest dream, you know, was the NBA.”
When Chris Paul forced a trade to the Houston Rockets last June, the Clippers landed Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, giving them two rotation guards to go with Austin Rivers. What they lacked was a playmaker who could possibly set up Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with the kind of lobs to which they had grown accustomed.
“We targeted him No. 1,” Clippers executive vice president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank told The Vertical of Teodosic. “The skillset that we lost with Chris and looking at free agents, trade targets, we thought, by a wide margin, that he was the best fit because his passing is off the chart. Everyone loves playing with Milos. Why? Because he’s a giver. He’ll pass up open shots to get someone else a shot. Even if it costs him a turnover, he’s willing to do it, to send a message.”
Frank said the Clippers used footage of Teodosic’s passing during their free-agent meeting with Griffin. Amazed by what he saw, Frank said Griffin asked, “You think you can get him?” To which Frank replied, “We’re going to go all out to get him.”
Fabrizio Besnati, the Clippers’ director of international scouting, has lived the past nine years in Belgrade, Serbia, where he developed a relationship and shared mutual friends with Teodosic during that time. Teodosic, as a friend, had come to Besnati for advice previous times he considered moving to the NBA. After winning a Euroleague title with CSKA in 2016, Teodosic had a greater desire to make the leap. Besnati was not aware the Clippers had used Teodosic in their meeting with Griffin but felt no extra pressure to close the deal. “I was pretty honest,” Besnati told The Vertical. “We needed a point guard, a playmaker. He would play with a great team, great coach and pass the ball to very athletic bigs that want to be fed that way. Knowing Milos, he loves to play. He didn’t want to go to a situation where maybe his position would be clogged up. It was very important that the basketball situation was going to be right and we had a very good fit. That’s pretty much how it went down.”
Chicago, New Orleans and Miami also expressed serious interest, but Teodosic went with the Clippers because they made the most sense. “For my game, it’s important to have good bigs, and I think we have the best four and five in the NBA with Blake and D.J. You understand how this game can be even easier, and I like the type of game that my teammates are playing. That was the biggest reason that I came here.”
The Clippers also had Beverley, one of Teodosic’s former teammates at Olympiacos, where Teodosic won Euroleague MVP in 2010 and two Greek League titles in 2009 and 2010. Beverley leaned heavily on Teodosic in his only season in Greece, asking for pointers on how to perfect his passes and about the nuances of European basketball. He reached out to Teodosic the moment he heard that his new team had interest, even though theoretically they played the same position.
“He’s a friend. Before basketball, before all else. So our friendship is bigger than ball,” Beverley told The Vertical. “I’ve always been a Milos Teodosic fan. When it comes to basketball, when it comes to passing and playmaking, he’s up there with the best of them. You guys are going to see that if we’re fortunate to make a playoff run.”
The only downside to being back with his old teammate is that Beverley will need to find a new hotel alias; Milos Teodosic won’t work anymore. “It’s no problem. Small thing to a don,” Beverley told The Vertical. “I’ll make up something, some other little crazy name. It’s funny now that he’s on the same team I’m on.”
Teodosic credits Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Jason Williams as his NBA influences, but grew up admiring Serbian guards such as Sasha Danilovic and Dejan Bodiroga, the basketball wizard credited with popularizing the dribble move known in America as “The Shammgod.” Though he had a decorated career, which included leading Serbia to silver medals in the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Teodosic doesn’t expect that success to provide him any extra capital in the NBA. It’s OK to call him a rookie.
“Because I am,” Teodosic told The Vertical. “Because this is my first year here. Maybe I don’t feel like this, but by the rules, I am rookie. Basketball is basketball. If you know how to play basketball, you’re going to play good in China, in Europe, or here.”
Teodosic isn’t looking to replace Paul, only to keep the Clippers competitive and maintain their entertainment quotient. The former will be difficult in an improved Western Conference and the latter will come instinctively. He produced a solid highlight reel in the preseason, drawing immediate notice when he tossed an underhand pass 70 feet ahead to Beverley for a layup. Passes like that might appear risky, but Teodosic doesn’t view his audacious work as taking chances. “I’m trying these passes all my career. I’m very confident in them,” Teodosic told The Vertical. “All this is practice and if you do something all your life, of course, you have confidence.”
If he has the occasional turnover, so be it. “You see a pass, you try,” Teodosic told The Vertical with a grin. “You just remember the good passes.”