UND freshman Filip Rebraca becoming an emotional spark for the Fighting Hawks
GRAND FORKS — When University of North Dakota center Filip Rebraca argues with officials, he makes sure to do so in Serbian.
“I just don’t want them to hear me complain in English,” Rebraca said. “They can’t call (a technical) if they don’t understand what I’m saying.”
It’s perhaps not surprising this wily move comes from a well-traveled 21-year-old freshman who grew up in NBA locker rooms.
Rebraca, the son of former NBA big man Zeljko Rebraca, has become a key weapon for the Fighting Hawks during his first season in Grand Forks.
The Hawks host preseason Summit League favorite South Dakota State at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.
Rebraca has started 10 of 17 games, averaging 8.0 points per game. He’s shooting better than 55 percent from the field and 38 percent from the 3-point line.
The 6-foot-9 Rebraca, who had 13 points and six rebounds earlier this season against a strong Kentucky team, leads the Hawks in rebounding (5.8 per game) and blocks (16).
Rebraca has quickly become an emotional leader at the Betty, too. In a home win over Western Illinois last Saturday, he had UND’s student section riled up after two emphatic blocks and a powerful dunk. He finished the game with 10 points and seven rebounds.
Rebraca lists his hometown as Sombor, Serbia, a town of about 47,000 near the Hungarian and Croatian border.
However, he bounced around often as his father played for three teams in the NBA (Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers) from 2001-06.
Zeljko, a 7-foot center, was a second round (54th overall) draft pick of the Seattle Supersonics in the 1994 NBA Draft. While he continued to play in Europe, his NBA rights were traded multiple times — finally landing with the Detroit Pistons in 2001, where he started his NBA playing career.
Due to injuries, Zeljko was waived by the Clippers in 2007 and returned to Europe.
Zeljko also became a household name for his play in international competition. As a member of Serbia and Montenegro — alongside former NBA star Vlade Divac — Zeljko won a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
In the gold medal game against Team USA, Rebraca scored four points and added three rebounds and three assists.
Filip was born in Italy and spent time living in Greece. After that, he lived six years in the United States between Detroit and Los Angeles. After his father’s NBA stint, Filip moved back to Italy for one year before settling in Serbia.
Rebraca, who still sends game film and highlights to his dad in Serbia for critiques, said it was cool to grow up in NBA locker rooms, although as a kid he didn’t fully appreciate it.
“I thought it was normal,” he said. “I thought everyone got that experience of being in the players’ lounge. Now looking back, I realize how blessed I was to experience those things.”
Rebraca’s favorite players growing up were Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki.
After one Clippers-Lakers game, Zeljko called Kobe over to meet Filip.
“Kobe was like ‘What’s up, little fella?'” Rebraca said. “I was in second grade but that still sticks in my head.”
Despite the pro basketball bloodlines, Rebraca was under-recruited out of an American prep school — Williston Northampton in Massachusetts.
He didn’t have any scholarship offers.
UND, meanwhile, had just hired assistant coach Dani Mihailovic, a native of Belgrade, Serbia.
“We were looking for an athletic four-five who can score and was skilled … who can execute our pick and roll game,” Mihailovic said. “He’s a great fit for that. He’s exactly what we’re looking for. He can score and do multiple things on the floor and defend.”
Rebraca said he and Mihailovic didn’t know each other before the recruiting process, although Mihailovic said he knew of Zeljko.
“I knew what his dad accomplished playing for our national team,” Mihailovic said. “His dad was pretty famous over there.”
As his only offer, Rebraca came to Grand Forks with low expectations for the city.
“I thought this was going to be a small town and farm land,” Rebraca said. “It’s bigger than I expected, which is good for me because I come from Belgrade, which is almost two million people. I like it here. It’s lively. I have no complaints.”
Mihailovic said Rebraca’s game can be raised to another level.
“That’s going to depend on him,” Mihailovic said. “I think he can still improve a lot. He’s pretty productive right now but it’s all about hard work.”
Mihailovic also recruited UND rookies Davids Atelbauers (Latvia) and Marko Coudreau (France).
UND’s new assistant coach thinks there’s plenty of talent to tap overseas.
“There’s enormous talent over there,” Mihailovic said. “There’s not a lot of people familiar with those players or don’t get a chance to recruit over there. I’m hoping to recruit more international kids. It’ll depend on these guys (Rebraca, Atelbauers, Coudreau). Are they successful? Do they helps us win and do what we ask? But as of right now, we’re really happy with it.”