Jan Vesely's outlook didn't always look as promising.
Projected as a lottery pick in the 2011 draft and recently named FIBA Europe's Young Men's Player of the Year, the 21-year-old from Czech Republic has been hailed as the
But to Vesley and his family, this has been the plan since he learned to walk. Literally.
Having grown up in the small town of Pribor (then-Czechoslovakia), Vesely was surrounded by sports since day one. Standing 6-foot-2, Vesely's mother was a two-time professional volleyball champion. At 6-7, his father was pro basketball player and coach. And at 6-foot-2, Vesely's sister is following his footsteps, with aspirations of joining her bother in the States to play basketball. She's only 15 years old.
"I've been in the gym since I was nine months old," Vesely said. "My parents would hand me off to each other as one went to practice and the other returned."
But in November 2008, roughly seven months after he signed his first pro contract with Serbian powerhouse Partizan Belgrade, no one outside of his family would have predicted that the 6-foot-11 kid would emerge into the sensation he is today. A rail-thin, unpolished power forward, Vesely was buried at the end of legendary coach Dusko Vujosevic's bench. He played just 44 minutes in the first 12 games of the season, and did little to justify additional playing time behind 2007 NBA draft pick Stephane Lasme and Serbian national team player Novica Velickovic, who would be named the Euroleague's Rising Star by the end of the 2008 season.
"Partizan signed me as a power forward," Vesely said after a recent win over crosstown rival Red Star. "That was the plan. There was an injury to one player (Cedomir Vitkovac), and we had a big hole at the '3,' so coach decided to put me there. After that I got a chance to play small forward I showed I can handle it. From that time I stayed at that position."
Vesely was inserted into the starting lineup for a pivotal game against defending Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow and was matched with arguably the best player in the world outside the NBA, Lithuanian swingman Ramunas Siskauskas.
The 18-year-old Vesley fared well, holding the defending Euroleague MVP to 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting and forcing three turnovers in 32 minutes. Vesely also grabbed nine boards in Partizan's win. A perfect showing? Hardly. But the potential behind his skinny frame and raw game was obvious.
Vesely received 21 minutes per game over the next 34 contests, often as a starter, helping Partizan win the Serbian and Adriatic league championships, and coming up just one round short of qualifying for the Euroleague Final Four. NBA scouts started to flock to his games, intrigued by his defensive versatility and his rapidly growing catalog of
"I've never been in any dunk contests," Vesely said. "Of course I would love to. My friend [Tomas] Satoransky from Czech makes fun of me that I can't win a dunk contest. He won three already."
But as his NBA to-do list may grow, Vesely's priority remains just getting there, especially as scouts now have varying opinions on his potential in the league.
Over the past year or so, Vesely's game and body haven't changed much -- he's still the same oversized small forward who runs the floor, hustles the entire game and can make an occasional three-pointer. Some NBA scouts remain extremely positive about his abilities, but others aren't nearly as enthusiastic.
For the most part, NBA evaluators agree that in an up-tempo system, without significant pressure to create his own offense, Vesely could thrive. They like the energy he brings to the floor, and drool over his ability to finish around the basket in the wide-open NBA. Others worry about his slight frame, inconsistent ball-handling skills and perimeter shooting (he's averaging 33 percent from deep this season), and his quickness when guarding the NBA's athletic swingmen.
Vesely was expected to enter the draft last year as a projected as top-10 pick, but he surprisingly elected to stay in Europe. "I thought I needed another year. I still think I made a good decision to stay here, and play more," he said.
In what is expected to be a weak draft this year, Vesely stands out from the pack with his experience playing in the Euroleague for the past three years. The only question is how a potential NBA lockout will affect his future plans
"I don't know anything about the lockout. I don't want to mess my head about what will happen. The season will finish and we will see.
"It's my dream to play in the NBA. I would do anything to go there."