Andrew Bogut's off-campus apartment in Salt Lake City isn't much to look at. The main room's walls are stark white, unadorned by pictures or posters. The kitchen counters, also white, have nothing on them. An ironing board and an iron are set against one wall in the dining area, illuminated by a single overhead light. The sanctuary of Utah's 7-foot sophomore center is monastic, except for one detail: the rented big-screen TV that at this moment is showing the Illinois-Michigan basketball game. � Bogut, a 20-year-old Australian, slouches in a wooden chair before the vast box, bathed in its bluish glow. Watching games is not a distraction from his schoolwork, as it might be for other students. It's a critical part of his career preparation. "That's where he lives, in front of the TV," says Tim Drisdom, Bogut's roommate and the Utes' junior point guard. " NBA, college hoops--he watches them every night. He's trying to get ready. Even with everything that's happening, he hasn't lost focus."
What exactly is happening that might distract Bogut from his hoops education? Reporters, photographers, fans and agents' representatives all want a piece of him. Just six months after his surprise star turn on Australia's Olympic team, Bogut has emerged as the best big man in college basketball and a lock to be a lottery pick in the June NBA draft. After a year of seasoning in the controlled system of former Utah coach Rick Majerus, the young center is thriving in the up-tempo game of new coach Ray Giacoletti. At week's end the Utes, fueled by Bogut's 20.0 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 64.5% shooting, had won 16 straight games--by an average of 17.4 points--and ascended to No. 14 in the AP poll, their highest ranking in four years.
"Bogut is an impossible matchup," says New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay, who watched as Bogut dropped 24 points and 20 rebounds on his Lobos on Jan. 22. "He's the best big-man passer I've ever seen in college. He makes everyone on his team better, and that's rare for a post player."
As a post passer Bogut, who can catch, pass and shoot equally well with either hand, has been compared with Vlade Divac, Karl Malone, Bill Walton and especially the young Arvydas Sabonis, the Lithuanian who was one of the best players in the world in his Soviet-era prime. "That's who Bogut reminds me of," says Arizona coach Lute Olson, whose Wildcats were the last team to beat Utah, in a 67-62 squeaker in Tucson on Dec. 11. "Unbelievable hands. Catches everything close to him. Runs the court. Has great moves. And he has unbelievable shot-blocking timing. It's hard to get a shot off against him."
NBA scouts, who almost unanimously project Bogut as a top five pick if, as expected, he gives up his final two years of NCAA eligibility, love his court awareness and his toughness. "What I like is his unselfishness," adds Drisdom. "His first priority is not to be the best but to win."
Bogut does have a few personal goals. The most important is to become the first Australian to dominate in the NBA. "It would be good for the kids coming up, and it might bring more interest to the pro league there," says Bogut, who grew up in Melbourne. In his native country basketball is a second-tier sport, ranking somewhere below Australian Rules football, rugby and cricket. But a lot of Aussies are NBA fans, and even those who aren't have their antennae up for a countryman making noise overseas. "All Aussies love a guy going over there and serving it up to the Yanks," says Australian Olympic basketball coach Brian Goorjian, an American who traveled Down Under in 1977 to play pro hoops and never left.
Five Australians have played in the NBA, but only one, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls teammate Luc Longley, had a career of any length (11 years). Probably the country's most cherished hoops moment was national team guard Shane Heal's shouting match with Dream Teamer Charles Barkley during an exhibition game before the 1996 Olympics. Given the sheer number of Aussies now developing their games in the States (chart, below), new highlights should soon trump that one. Utah, for example, has another promising 7-foot Aussie, redshirt freshman Luke Nevill of Perth, and it was in the running to sign highly touted Ben Allen, a 6'10", 250-pound post player from Melbourne who committed to Indiana in November.
"A lot of good players are going [to the U.S.] to get an education, get great coaching, play great competition and come back and play in the NBL [ Australia's pro league] if they're not good enough to play in the NBA," says Goorjian. "But a lot of Australian players have struggled with the mentality and competitive spirit--the intimidation and the trash talking--in the U.S. Bogut has a different bite to him. He'll fight you for any foot of the court. He reminds me of Drazen Petrovic, who really believed he should be a star. Bogut isn't going into the NBA to sit on the bench."
Not coincidentally, Petrovic, a Croatian who died in a car crash in 1993 just as he was emerging as a star with the New Jersey Nets, is Bogut's hero. In his apartment bedroom, where he has made his only effort to decorate, Bogut has hung a poster of Petrovic and pictures of himself meeting Petrovic's parents in Zagreb in 2003. He often wears the Petrovic number 3 Nets jersey he bought on that trip. But Bogut's identification with Petrovic goes beyond basketball. It includes a shared ethnic heritage: Bogut's parents, Michael and Anne, are Croatians who immigrated to Australia from what was then Yugoslavia as teenagers in the 1970s.
" Petrovic loved the game so much, and that was the difference for him," says Bogut. "He had to play behind Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler in Portland. He knew he was as good as those guys, he just needed a chance to show it. He'd get on a Stairmaster before a game; he'd work out nonstop. People thought he was crazy."