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Basketball in any language a smooth transition for CU Buffs’ Lazar Nikolic

Colorado's Lazar Nikolic, right, has shot .563 over his past five games.
Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer
Colorado’s Lazar Nikolic, right, has shot .563 over his past five games.

Adjusting to new situations is just a matter of routine for Lazar Nikolic.

Already taking over a starting role just 11 games into his collegiate career, the University of Colorado guard has traveled a road far more unique than those of his fellow freshmen. As Buffaloes head coach Tad Boyle recently pointed out, Nikolic has already been taught the game in Serbian, Italian, and English — and the CU rookie still is just 18-years old.

Having recently assumed a starting role in the backcourt alongside another freshman guard, McKinley Wright, Nikolic will look to continue building on his solid start Friday when the Buffs conclude the nonconference portion of their schedule against Iowa in Sioux Falls, S.D.

A native of Serbia, Nikolic played club basketball in Italy before drawing the attention of college recruiters in the United States. He credits his mother, Vesna Nikolic, for instilling a will to learn multiple languages that has paid huge dividends in a basketball career that still is unfolding.

“It’s definitely a transition in the beginning with some basketball terms. Every language has different terms for basketball,” said Nikolic, who is fluent in Serbian, Italian, and English. “My team has helped me. If I don’t understand something, I ask. It’s not that big of a deal if you ask.

“My mom, she wanted me to speak as many languages as possible since I was a little boy. I was learning English in high school, but I was also having private lessons outside of the school to learn English. That helped a lot.”

Nikolic, who says he also knows “a little” Spanish, has been perhaps a surprise revelation for the new-look Buffaloes, particularly given his late start this fall.

A variety of NCAA clearinghouse issues kept Nikolic off campus throughout the summer and also kept him sidelined during CU’s run of four exhibition games in August in Italy — one of which was played at Nikolic’s club, Stella Azzurra.

While Nikolic endured a slow start from the field, he nonetheless displayed some of the all-around skills first touted by Boyle and his staff when they signed the 6-foot-7 Nikolic in the spring. He posted two six-rebound efforts off the bench in his first three games, and over his first seven games (81 minutes) Nikolic was charged with just three turnovers.

Those turnover numbers have increased somewhat alongside his minutes lately as his role has expanded, yet Nikolic continues to showcase versatile skills. He recorded a season-best eight rebounds in a win against New Mexico on Dec. 6, and last Friday he didn’t flinch when asked to guard South Dakota State offensive powerhouse Mike Daum.

Going into Friday’s game against Iowa, Nikolic has shot .563 (9-for-16) over his past five games.

“I was always the guy that played many positions,” Nikolic said. “It’s also maybe that I haven’t felt totally comfortable, so I haven’t wanted to force anything. I just want to play with the team. I’m happy with my role. Coach wants me to be more aggressive and I’m working on that, especially at practice.”

Unlike the rest of his teammates, Nikolic did not get to spend the summer working alongside his new backcourt mate, Wright. The duo has started together just three times, and while collectively the Buffs continue to say their youth will not be an excuse for any shortcomings during the 2017-18 season, the fact remains the guard duo of the future still is learning to play alongside each other.

“He’s a 6-7 player who can play one through five for us,” Wright said. “Having a versatile player like that is very fun to play with. I think we’ve figured each other out. We haven’t been playing together very long but we’re getting a feel for each other.”

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