WINCHENDON - Imagine if a Fortune 500 company hired you while you were still in high school and said, "Just finish up school and continue to improve your skills. Then, when you think you're ready to work for the company, give us a call."
Bruno Sundov is a 7-foot-3-inch Croatian senior center at the Winchendon School and the envy of many a scholastic basketball player in the country. He turned 19 Feb. 10. He has been in this country less than a year. And he already has his postgraduation job lined up.
The Dallas Mavericks made sure of that when they selected him in the second round of last year's NBA draft, making him the 35th pick.
The team has set no timetable to summon him and opted to get him acclimated to the style of play in prep school before calling on him. Sundov signed with local agent Frank Catapano, who referred him to the Winchendon School and coach Mike Byrnes. That is where he has been since last summer, honing his skills for the NBA while he works on obtaining his diploma.
Sometimes, the wunderkind is reminded of the primary difference between the game he left back home and the one here. As he put it, "Players in Europe come easily up the court and here they're very fast." Early in the first half of Friday night's Winchendon-Milford Academy game, Sundov jogged up the court while every other player ran like a gazelle in lion country.
Byrnes had seen enough, and during a break in the game, he summoned Sundov to the bench.
"Bruno, sprint back," bellowed the 6-4 coach, leaning forward on his tiptoes to yell directly into the center's ear. As first impressions go, Sundov didn't make a good one. Those watching him for the first time undoubtedly wondered how he would fare should the Mavericks summon him, seeking a return on their investment.
Moments later, however, the first impression faded, lost in a flurry of grace, skill, and athleticism that served notice that someone in the Mavericks organization did his homework.
Sundov played every position on the floor except point guard, and finished an 8-point, 1-assist 5:04 surge by faking left on the high post, then driving right for a layup in traffic. He led Winchendon to a 90-87 victory, finishing with 29 points, matching his career high against Maine Central Institute.
Sundov's overall numbers are impressive. He's averaging 19.7 points per game, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks while shooting 53.5 percent, including 41.7 on 3-pointers and 83.4 percent from the line.
"He's 20 pounds away from being a superstar," said Milford Academy coach Brad Shapiro. "He shoots the ball well, like most European players do. But he has a knack for the game, knowing when to take his man to the basket and bring him away from the basket. I hope he's not coming back next year."
Next level can wait
Whether he will is anyone's guess. His season ends this week, but he can return as a postgraduate student. Until he decides, Sundov said he will hone his skills as much as possible to make certain the gamble he took to leave his country pays off.
In Croatia, Sundov played for Split, one of the most prominent teams in Europe. Last season, on the second-division team, he averaged 13 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 87 percent from the line, 66 percent from the field.
He was on his way to becoming the next star on a team that has fielded such NBA players as Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, and Zan Tabak. In the International Junior Tournament early last season, he scored 18 points as Croatia defeated Greece, 87-79, and he scored 13 as Croatia defeated France, 67-38. That prompted many to implore him to sign a six-year contract with Split's top team.
But Sundov did not want to commit himself to a six-year deal, and when the NBA came calling he jumped at the opportunity.
"It was a situation where I had to sign a contract for six years or come here right now," said Sundov. "It's a risk in the draft, but I made the decision of what's best for me, and six years was too much that I would spend in Europe."
Mavericks coach Don Nelson said he had seen Sundov only on film before drafting him but added, "My son [ Mavericks assistant Donnie Nelson] saw him play; he knew about Bruno. We like his skill level a lot. He's 7-2 and he can shoot and pass. That's why I like him.
"We wanted to wait a year, we wanted him to play over here and get accustomed to it," said Nelson. "His agent suggested prep school, and we thought it was a fine idea."
That's when Byrnes, a member of the 1990 University of Massachusetts National Invitation Tournament team, got a call. The school admitted Sundov, who spoke very little English, on his recommendation.
One of the reasons Sundov came was that Winchendon fielded four players from other countries, including Ivan Kartelo of Split, with whom he had played back home.
"When they first got here, Bruno was a little bit nervous of where he would fit in," said Byrnes. "In Europe, he played so much out on the floor, whereas in America, with big guys they stick them under the basket and that's where they play. Ivan is more apt to do that.
"So when they first got here they thought Ivan was the better of the two players. Then, as time went along and we became more comfortable with Bruno's playing style, you can really see what Dallas drafted."
Small forward skills
Though he has added 25 pounds since coming to Winchendon, Sundov is still better-suited for the small forward spot. He dribbles well and is an exceptional passer. He has good shooting range and squares up to the basket from practically any angle, often too quickly for defenders to react.
Byrnes said Sundov reminds him of former UMass national player of the year Marcus Camby because of his ability to run the floor and his perimeter skills.
"Few guys his size can pass the ball the way he can," said Byrnes.
"In Croatia, everybody works on your shot - everybody, not just point guards," said Sundov. "Every Saturday, everybody goes out and takes 300 shots, and by 16 years old, you start to perfect your shot."
Sundov will be much better when he is stronger.
"We've played some teams this year who have put big, strong bruisers on him to take him out of his game," said Byrnes. "If you bang him, he will battle back, but if you give him 15 feet, he will go out 2 feet and shoot the 17-footer.
"Not many players that big can hit the 17-footer the way he can. But in the NBA he will have to be stronger because those big guys will push you into the third row and the officials won't call anything."
Nelson said the team has not told Sundov how much weight he should gain, adding, "I don't like people to bulk up just for any reason. If it's natural it's one thing, but I don't want him to become a football player. We feel he will naturally fit in."
The coach was vague about the Mavericks' plans for Sundov, and did not confirm speculation that the team will summon him after Winchendon's season ends.
"It's totally up to him," said Nelson. "I'm happy to let him play [ at the prep school level] and join us later. And if he wants to join us earlier, that's OK, too."
Sundov could have benefitted from a year of college ball here, but the fact that he signed with an agent prohibits him from doing so on scholarship. Had he known what he knows now, he would have gone to college.
"One thing in Europe and Croatia - everyone told me nonsense about college," said Sundov. "They said, 'That's not for you. That's bad. You can play here now. It's better you stay here four or five years and after that go to the NBA.'
"If I knew college was like this, I definitely would have gone to college."
Catapano said he signed Sundov after hearing about him from Dave Maravalla, an agent who works exclusively with European players. He said Sundov would have had to go from the Split development league to the top-level team when he turned 18.
"He would have been paid around $300,000 for six years," said Catapano.
Catapano, who represents David Wesley of the Hornets and Dana Barros of the Celtics, said that after Winchendon's season, Sundov will fly to Dallas to meet with the team "on an informal basis."
He added that Sundov will head to Orlando March 20 for seven days to train with a group of international players who will square off against an American team in a Nike-sponsored game to be held in Tampa on the Sunday before the NCAA championship game. Sundov will return to Dallas before heading to Tampa, possibly to sign a contract with the Mavericks.
According to Catapano, under the current bargaining agreement between NBA players and owners, Sundov will become a free agent July 1 if he signs a one-year deal, but the Mavericks will have right of first refusal for three years.
"We hope we can get something worked out with Dallas because I like Nellie," said Catapano. "I'm loyal. But I'd be a fool not to try to free him up to get offers from other teams and then see if Dallas can match that offer.
"I've got a kid who has great character, tremendous work ethic, and the kind of tools I've never seen. If he were in the draft this year, he'd go in the top 10."