It was a tough sight to see.
Just two months removed from winning a state championship, Nick Rakocevic sat at the end of the bench in Minneapolis, the final regular session stop of the EYBL, with a towel over his head and a look of defeat on his face.
The player who was putting up 20 points and 15 rebounds a game his junior season was barely seeing the floor for five minutes a game despite clearly being the most talented big man on the Mac Irvin Fire roster.
College programs had begun to back off of Rakocevic, citing a poor attitude and drastic lack of focus. Rakocevic went on to bounce around to a couple more AAU teams, including the Indiana Elite. But still, his struggles seemed to follow him wherever he went.
Safe to say, it was a spring and summer to forget for the rising senior.
But that's exactly what he's trying to do. Forget.
Rakocevic is the only senior on the roster this year for St. Joe's. The team that won state last year graduated Glynn Watson (Nebraska), Jordan Ash (Northwestern) and other key contributors like Joffrey Brown. Heading into this season, he faced the reality that he could either put his shortcomings behind him and come back and defend the trophy he hoisted in the air back in March, or he could let his past get the best of him.
"I just think that there's more responsibility being put on my back this year," Rakocevic said. "Being a leader, I'm able and accountable to do so many things that I didn't do in the spring. In the spring, I just couldn't find my rhythm. I bounced between a couple teams. But coach has been giving me a lot of motivation and my teammates are great. They're really relying on me and putting a lot of faith in me, so I'm trying to play the best ball I can for them."
Senior year creates a sense of urgency for most players in almost any school sport. It's the player's last year in a program and they want to give their best. Rakocevic knew he would face his fair share of challenges this year, but also knew he had an opportunity to be great and lead his team.
"I would say I know what my role feels like now having more weight on my shoulders," he said. "I had two Big Ten guards helping me out last year, but this year we're 11-0 and off to a great start. I think that when we click together and play like a real team with chemistry, we'll be a good team."
Rakocevic credited his former teammates, specifically Watson and Ash, for helping him prepare for the role he has this year. It would be easy for Rakocevic to want to go out and just get his to improve his reputation as a player, but he recognizes what last year's guard tandem did for him and wants to pay it forward for the next group, too.
"There's a lot more weight now that I'm the only senior on the team," Rakocevic said. "I learned a lot from those guys and I hope they're doing well in college. I'm just trying to be a leader here. And at the end of the year when I graduate, I want to end up being a good role model for the next guys."
Perhaps Monday night's game against Larkin at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament was one of Rakocevic's best opportunities to prove himself this year. The senior center spent much of the game matched up against 2017 forward Christian Negron, who holds a handful of high-major division one offers himself, and is another high-motor guy with great length and active defensive play. Rakocevic knew he had to bring his best to be productive against Negron.
And he did just that. Finishing with 25 points, 16 boards, 5 blocks and 5 steals, Rakocevic continued his strong play this season and proved he could compete against quality opponents.
"Christian is a great player. He's long. He's athletic. He's skilled," Rakocevic said. "But at the end, my motor was just so high, and I wanted to win so bad, that my motor just kept me going all game. I wanted to get every rebound. I wanted to score every point. I wanted to block every shot. The last couple minutes against him in the overtime, I just focused in on winning the game."
One of the big knocks on the court for Rakocevic this spring and even at times at the end of last year was his tendency to gravitate toward the perimeter and settle for three point shots. Now that he better understands both his body and his abilities, he more consistently battles in the post, while still utilizing his skills to take defenders off the bounce, too.
"I think a lot of my points will be off the boards and off of offensive rebounds," he noted. "I know one thing I'm doing a lot better this year is driving to the basket. I was able to make some good drives and finish a couple times. My teammates got me the ball, and I tried to keep it versatile as much as I could."
After the recruiting process really took a big step backwards for Rakocevic in the spring after a torrid start last season, he is starting to reacclimate himself to the flow of recruiting, vowing to be more deliberate and patient this time around. He noted that he wasn't in any hurry and will likely make a decision in the spring.
"It wasn't overwhelming really, but I'm just going to be more patient and wait until I have some more time," he said. "I'm going to do a few things differently. More schools are starting to jump in this time around, a few that I think could be a great fit."