Primoz Brezec's first lucky break was his neck. In 1991, while riding a bike in the hills of his native Slovenia as a 12-year-old, he rocketed off a cliff and--an hour later--landed in a hospital with a spinal fracture. Brezec (whose full name is pronounced PREE-moh BREZ-itch) spent a month in traction and five more in a body cast. "The doctors told me, 'Don't worry, things could have turned out a lot worse: You might have been paralyzed,'" he recalls. "In Slovenia, we have an expression: SreÀáca v nesreÀác. Which means, Luck in the accident."
Brezec's latest bit of accidental luck came last June when the Charlotte Bobcats picked him in the NBA expansion draft. The 7'1", 255-pound center had spent the previous three seasons on the Indiana Pacers' bench, appearing in just 62 games. His contribution was so negligible (including a career 1.8 scoring average) that the team left him off its 2004 playoff roster.
As a starter for the first-year Bobcats, however, he was averaging 12.8 points on 51.1% shooting and had 7.2 rebounds per game through last weekend. "You never know what will happen in the NBA," he says. "This league is about sudden change and quick opportunities." Even before joining Charlotte, Brezec figured this would be his make-or-break season. "If I had stayed on the Pacers' bench, I probably would have quit the NBA and joined a club in Europe," he says. "No one wants to be a project forever."
In the parlance of the NBA, a project is a big guy (usually a 7-footer) with big potential (usually unrealized)--and a big problem (usually insurmountable): He needs experience to develop, yet his game action is often limited to garbage time. "You can't get better if you don't play," Brezec says. "But if your coach does not see you getting better, he does not play you."
Brezec came into the league with too much talent to fit the accepted definition of a project. He could pass, he could dribble, and he was a decent face-up shooter who could score, outside and inside. "Primoz still needs to get stronger down low and learn to play with his back to the basket, but he's a fast learner," says Bobcats coach and general manager Bernie Bickerstaff, who in September signed Brezec to a two-year, $5.5 million contract extension. "He's not yet a presence on the floor, but he will be. His level of effort is the same every night: all out."
Indeed, Brezec's career is practically a hymn to the work ethic. In November, Brezec woke up with a strained muscle in his rib cage. Though he could barely lift his right arm, he didn't miss a minute of practice. "I will not cry for every hurt," he says. "I want to know what it is like to play all 82 games." (At week's end he had missed just five games, to injury.) During pregame suicide drills he has been known to run 11 "17s," sprinting the width of the court 187 times. "He always came to practice early and always stayed late," says former Pacers teammate Reggie Miller. "And he never took a day off."
Primoz started playing organized ball at age seven in Postojna, his hometown near the Adriatic. (His father, Hilarlj, played center for the Slovenian national team.) By 15, Brezec was in the pros. He wound up on Olimpija Ljubljana, which played the top clubs in Europe. "Primoz's competition was the best outside the NBA," says Indiana CEO Donnie Walsh. Brezec's coach was exceedingly exacting. "The players would work on a single defensive set for six straight hours," Walsh says. "They weren't allowed to argue or complain."
Despite limiting Brezec's playing time, the Pacers still had hopes for him and wanted to protect him in the expansion draft. But if they did, they faced the prospect of losing Miller, the greatest player in team history. An hour before submitting the draft list, Indiana president Larry Bird called Brezec in Slovenia to relay the bad news. "My shock turned to happiness when I realized Indiana did me a favor," Brezec says. "My goal has been to play in the NBA. Charlotte would give me the opportunity."
These days Brezec, who picked up the nickname the Llama in Indiana, isn't so much a project as he is an inspiration for other 7-foot bench jockeys around the league. "I'm very happy for him," says Walsh. "I think he'll be a 15-year player in the NBA." ‚ñ†