Filip Petrusev was sprawled out on a locker-room chair inside San Francisco’s War Memorial Gym, not unlike the postgame scene two nights before at Santa Clara’s Leavey Center.
“Whew, crazy,” responded Petrusev, when asked how his body was feeling. “The last time I played like this was the Bahamas and the third game (vs. Michigan) I was just dead. If I had to play tomorrow, I would not be able to.”
Petrusev probably didn’t mean that literally, but more as an expression of how taxing the most productive two-game, 60-minute span of his young career had been on his 6-foot-11, 235-pound frame.
He has become an iron man and paint presence, both essential ingredients in No. 2 Gonzaga’s surprising 23-1 record. The Serbian has anchored a frontcourt depleted by Anton Watson’s season-ending shoulder surgery and Killian Tillie (knee, ankle) missing seven games.
Petrusev has made a huge leap from last season, in part by embracing the physical nature of post play.
“This year I’m the biggest, tallest guy on the team,” said Petrusev, after posting 23 points and 11 rebounds against USF. “That’s the kind of role I was given and I accept it. It’s all part of being a good post player and being hard to guard.”
He’s not immune from the physical toll. He returned from a sprained ankle against BYU to score 15 points against Pacific five days later, but operating effectively against large humans in confined spaces requires the right mindset.
“I know coming into the game I need to hit and I know I’ll get hit,” said Petrusev, who torched Santa Clara for a career-high 31 points. “If you embrace the contact, I think you’re better off because if you just wait for people to hit you and bully you, it’s not the way to be.”
Petrusev has become more a bruiser, but he’s still nimble enough to make one- or two-bounce moves from the 3-point line or even bring the ball downcourt after grabbing a rebound.
Petrusev averaged 6.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 11.4 minutes last season as the fourth big, the third when Tillie was injured. He showed flashes of what was to come with 11 points versus Duke and 15 against Saint Mary’s.
“He’s just getting more and more confident,” coach Mark Few said. “He has great hands and can deliver over either shoulder. I think now he’s playing to his size, realizes how big he is.
“We kind of thought he’d be able to have this kind of year last year, but he was playing behind some really good players (first-round NBA draft picks Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke), but you could see it at practice sometimes.”
Petrusev is arguably the favorite for West Coast Conference player of the year. He is showing up on national player of the year watch lists and he’s on track for All-America honors.
A closer look at Petrusev’s stats shows his transition as a force inside. He’s attempted 166 free throws, fourth nationally. He launched 30 3-pointers last season in 366 minutes. He’s tried 10 3s this season, just three in the past 17 games, in 603 minutes, despite opponents constantly leaving him alone beyond the arc.
Petrusev is shooting 56.4% from the field with only one game below 44.4% (against Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship).
“In Serbia, it was kind of like it is this year,” Petrusev said. “In high school and last year, too, I was stepping out a lot, but we have some really good shooters. I just think I’m better off being inside and delivering in there.”
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