Nothing comes simply for Dragovic

If there is one play that encapsulates Nikola Dragovic's career thus far at UCLA, it has to be the ill-advised behind-the-back pass he made to freshman Reeves Nelson with 16 seconds left in the Bruins' 72-70 victory over Arizona State on Thursday afternoon at Pauley Pavilion in the Pac-10 opener for both schools.

With UCLA up by two, Dragovic -- a career 83 percent free throw shooter having his best game of the season (23 points on 7-of-11 shooting) -- whips a pass behind his back to a true freshman who shoots 53 percent from the line.

Nelson, predictably, bricked both free throws, giving the Sun Devils a chance to win on their final possession.

They didn't, but that's beside the point.

Had it not been for that pass, one of what UCLA coach Ben Howland called "some numbskull plays," Saturday's win would have been remembered as the day Dragovic broke out of his season-long shooting slump and led the Bruins to an upset win in their Pac-10 opener.

But nothing much has come simply or easily for Dragovic since he came to UCLA four years ago.

"Coach knows what I do, and sometimes he doesn't like it," Dragovic joked, when asked about that pass to Nelson.

"I wasn't trying to be fancy. It's just that the [defender] gambled and he [Nelson] was open, so I threw it to him expecting he'd dunk it, not get fouled."

Said Howland:

"Nik had a good game, but I always have to find something to improve on."

It's been this way for most of Dragovic's career at UCLA. Two steps forward, then one or two steps back.

A good game undercut by a silly pass. A great shooter unable to get on the court because he did not play defense. A nice kid who runs afoul of the law by trying to help defend a friend at a bar fight.

It was enough to make friends and family back home wonder whether the 6-foot-9 sharpshooter would've been better off staying in Serbia and playing professionally.

For a time, Dragovic wondered, too.

But despite the strange drama that has shadowed his time in Westwood, he says he has no regrets.

"People ask me when I go back home if I would do it again, and I would definitely do it again," he said.

"The past two years I haven't really thought about [leaving]. My sophomore year I thought about it a couple of times because I couldn't really take it.

"But I stayed, I believed in myself and I believed in Coach. I believed that I was doing the right thing."

What convinced him of that is actually kind of ironic.

When he was suspended last year after an incident with a former girlfriend -- no charges were filed, although the city attorney's office reserved the right to revisit the case for as long as a year -- it was Howland who stood behind him.

That meant a lot to Dragovic, a kid who said goodbye to his family and country nine time zones away to play for the Bruins.

This fall, when Dragovic was arrested on an assault charge after an incident at a concert in Hollywood, Howland again supported him.

He suspended him for two games while the school conducted an initial investigation, but reinstated him soon afterward, allowing him to play his senior year while his legal matters played out in court.

On the court, once Dragovic got over his initial frustration with Howland and the low-scoring, defensive-minded system the coach employs, he began to realize that he might just need the tough love more than an extra round of shooting practice.

"When I came here, I had a lot of things to learn," he said. "It was really different and difficult because I never really played defense before. Back home, I would just score 40 and the guy I was guarding scored 30, we would win and I was fine, nobody would ask me anything.

"But obviously it was a part of my game that I had to improve, so I'm really glad I came here."

The question now is: Can he end career on a high note, with nothing discordant to undercut his success?

The Bruins' season might just depend on that answer.

UCLA (6-7, 1-0) looked like a different team with Dragovic shooting and playing as well as he did Thursday.

His electric first-half shooting -- he hit five 3-pointers and finished the half with 16 points -- helped propel UCLA to its best shooting half in at least a decade (15-for-18) and an 11-point halftime lead.

"It just adds another threat," sophomore guard Malcolm Lee said of Dragovic's impact. "It makes the game easier for everybody else."

Which should continue for as long as Dragovic makes things easier on himself, too.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.