Lazar Nikolic and his tantalizing, if as yet untapped, potential are gone.
The Serbian guard wasn't the first European player to leave coach Tad Boyle's program early. Chances are he won't be the last.
That's not meant as an indictment on the Colorado men's basketball program's collective ability to assimilate talent from overseas. When Boyle discussed Nikolic's departure earlier this week he offered the belief that Nikolic was well-liked by his teammates, and that the feeling was mutual. From what I observed out of the team throughout the 2017-18 season, there is zero reason to believe otherwise.
Nikolic's situation was not unlike that of Thomas Akyazili, who returned to his native Belgium last year after spending two seasons with the Buffaloes. Almost every European player who embarks on a collegiate career does so with visions of NBA glory dancing in their heads. Once they realize how difficult it is to conquer the Pac-12 Conference, let alone the NBA, suddenly the idea of playing for a paycheck closer to home becomes far more attractive than sloughing through the snow to get to an early class on cold January mornings.
While it is easy to dismiss the failure to retain European players as a shortcoming of Boyle's program — they also lost little-used Bosnian forward Kenan Guzonjic two years ago after just one season at CU — Boyle readily admits there is an overlooked incentive for himself and his coaching brethren to target foreign players. Since the NCAA instituted the Academic Progress Rate (APR) as a metric to measure schools' combination of academic success and retention rates, foreign players have become more attractive.
When a player leaves CU for another program, Boyle's APR takes a hit. When he leaves to play pro, it doesn't. Forward Jakub Dombek out of the Czech Republic, one of two players the Buffs added during the spring signing period, is probably just the latest link in what probably will be an ongoing overseas recruiting excursion for Boyle's staff.
"One of the metrics we have to meet as college basketball coaches, or any coach, is the APR standards," Boyle said. "Let's use Laz just as an example. As long as Laz leaves here eligible, which we believe he will, and he signs a pro contract, our APR is not affected in a negative way. But if one of the other guys...let's say Laz came back for his sophomore year and we lost a transfer that left Colorado and went to some other school, we would lose the retention points for that player.
"Most international players, if they leave they're going to go back to play professionally. Not all of them, but by and large most of them will go back. You're taking less of an APR risk by signing an international kid than you are by signing a domestic kid. That APR is a real number you always have to be aware of."
Nikolic's departure was the eighth early exit by a CU player in Boyle's eight-season tenure. That figure does not include Tory Miller-Stewart, who will play elsewhere next season as a graduate transfer. Miller-Stewart still put in four years in Boulder and will graduate next month. He wasn't part of the original plans for 2018-19 anyway.
Averaging one transfer per year sounds alarming, but that rate actually is slower than what the national average has evolved into for Division I college basketball. After the 2016-17 season there were roughly 700 transfers out of 350 Division I programs. That current rate is double the attrition rate for Boyle's program.
Sometimes the moves work. Jaron Hopkins enjoyed a solid career at Fresno State, and this past season Tre'Shaun Fletcher was named the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year. On the other hand, Dustin Thomas immediately ran into legal trouble after transferring to Arkansas three years ago, and at the end of his senior season this past year he was kicked off the team before he could take advantage of an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.
Moreover, Boyle generally has done a reasonable job of using the sudden departures to reinforce the long-term depth of his program. The loss of Thomas and Hopkins turned into the addition of Akyazili and Guzonjic. While neither of those players worked out, Guzonjic's departure a year later cleared a spot for Lucas Siewert. When Akyazili and Bryce Peters left a year ago, Boyle made a clear upgrade by adding Nikolic and McKinley Wright. The guess here is that junior college guard Shane Gatling, Nikolic's replacement, will fill a bigger need next season than Nikolic would have.
Transfers simply are part of the game now. Coaches can't be blamed for working the system as advantageously as possible. So get a good look at the 6-foot-10 Dombek when he arrives. When he signed last week Boyle lauded his NBA potential, with an emphasis on potential. If that potential doesn't flourish, chances are he'll be back in Europe well before his projected graduation day.
And if that happens, it will be no harm, no foul for all involved.