How Dejan Vasiljevic is finding success through adversity

Dejan ‘DJ’ Vasiljevic’s time as a University of Miami Hurricane is slowly coming to an end. Now in his senior year, the 22-year-old sharpshooter has become an intriguing talent with a knack for the three-point bomb. Now he is poised to become one of Australia’s most exciting young pros, however, the journey to this point has all been about keeping things simple.

Vasiljevic has enjoyed a constant upward trajectory since his college debut against Western Carolina in November of 2016. After a freshman season as a raw yet highly disciplined prospect, Vasiljevic is now the sturdy anchor of his team and is one of the greatest shooters in the history of the University of Miami.

His improvement and maturation have been remarkable. In four seasons his point production has more than doubled, from 6.0 points to 14.4, and he now leads his team in minutes played with 34.4 per game. And for the cherry on top, he is currently shooting 41.7% from three, making him one of the best snipers in the NCAA.

Yet despite the remarkable growth, Vasiljevic says the secret to his consistent development is nothing particularly fancy or exotic, but instead a simple ethos drilled into him by his parents when he was growing up in Australia.

“I think it’s been about staying the course and trusting and being patient… My freshman year I didn’t play a lot and I had leaders in the team guide me through the whole process. Then as a sophomore I started a few games and then in junior year things really kicked off and I’ve been playing well and playing a lot ever since.”

While a zen mindset has certainly helped DJ’s growth, adversity has also played a big role in his growth as a player.

Physically, Vasiljevic is almost unrecognisably different from the stout teenager that first touched down in Miami all those years ago. The catalyst for his transformation was suffering a stress fracture in his left foot during his sophomore year. It was an injury that forced him off the basketball court for three months to allow his foot to heal.

Yet the setback opened the door for some major changes. In stepped DJ’s girlfriend, a pre-med neuroscience student at Miami University, who crafted him a strict dietary regiment. The new routine paid enormous dividends.

“I think I was carrying around 215 (97kg) pounds back then. When I started getting on the diet and my new routine I got down to 185 pounds to 180 pounds (83 - 81kg). I was hovering around that range and I lost around 10-12% body fat.

“I think I’ve done a great job of taking care of my body since then. I’m always in the physio room getting treatment, I’m always eating correctly and at the right times. I’m hovering around the 190 pound (86kg) range so I think I’ve done a good job over the last two years.”

With his leaner and fitter body, Vasiljevic has been able to take his game to new levels. His improved resilience and stamina has given him the opportunity to exhibit his skills in ways his old body wouldn’t allow.

“Over the past four games I think I’ve played an average of 38 to 39 minutes, which is a lot. There is no chance I would have been able to play those minutes in my first few years with the weight I was carrying.”

It’s perfect timing for a young man looking to maximise his playing college career for life after college. However, right now Vasiljevic is focused on the here and now. Last year Miami missed out on the NCAA tournament after a plague of injuries decimated the lineup.

“The team goal is to get back into postseason play and try to make the NCAA tournament,” said Vasiljevic matter of factly.

“Last year we struggled, we only had six or seven guys so it was really tough on our bodies. Full credit to us, we didn’t give up. We could have said ‘hey the season is over’ but we kept fighting and fighting. Guys were exhausted at the end of the year, but those were the circumstances we were in. So this year trying to make the NCAA.”

It’s a tough battle ahead. The Atlantic Coast Conference is one of the most difficult in the country, featuring the likes of Duke, Louisville and other big programs that result in a daunting schedule. Miami however have so far carved out a 10-6 overall record, in their conference they are 2-4.

The year ahead will require all of Vasiljevic’s focus and drive to help get his team to the promised land. Already he is garnering some high profile recognition for his contribution to his team. The Melburnian is one of thirty finalists for 2020 Senior CLASS Award, a nationwide award for which he is the only representative from the ACC.

A full plate hasn’t stopped DJ from doing what he can for the bushfire crisis back home either. Having spent some of his youth in Canberra at the AIS, it was a confronting sight to see the apocalyptic images of his former home choked by thick bushfire smoke and the flames tearing through New South Wales and Victoria.

For the pragmatic Vasiljevic, helping out in any way he could was the logical thing.

DJ set up a GoFundMe page, pledging to donate $5 for every three-pointer he hit in ACC games. After calling on others to dip into their wallets, the fund has just ticked over $7,000.

“Obviously I don’t make millions or thousands of dollars… [but] whatever I can do to help is what I want to do. I just had it in the back of my mind. This is Australia. This is home.”

Home will be watching closely to watch as a chapter in Vasiljevic’s life comes to an end, and another begins.

(Feature image Credit: Michael DeZarn / Miami Athletics)