Lazar Stefanovic still misses the homemade meals prepared by his mother, Radmila, back in Belgrade, Serbia — particularly her savory soups.

Other than that, the 6-foot-7 sophomore guard who has been a steadying force for the Runnin’ Utes has found life in Salt Lake City and at the U. enjoyable, comforting and a great place to get an education and further his dream of playing professional basketball for a living some day.

“As soon as I got here, I just thought about fighting for a spot. I was just trying to get some minutes, and get a coach to trust me when I am on the court, because that is essentially going to get you minutes.” — Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic

“I really like it here,” he said.

It also helped that Stefanovic discovered orange chicken.

“I had never had orange chicken before,” he told the Deseret News last week. “There is a Chinese place where one of my teammates took me, and I tried it and I haven’t been able to stop eating it ever since.”

A member of the All-Pac-12 freshman team a year ago, Stefanovic has evolved into one of the Utes’ best players this year on a team that was picked to finish 10th in the league but sits in a tie for fourth place entering the last three games of the regular season.

“He makes a lot of winning plays that don’t always get noticed,” said coach Craig Smith, who put Stefanovic back into the starting lineup a few weeks ago when Gabe Madsen sustained a high ankle sprain that has sidelined him since late January.

Without Stefanovic, who would have been a candidate for the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year, the Utes (17-11, 10-7) would be in a world of hurt. That’s even more true now that point guard Rollie Worster turned his left ankle early in the second half of last Saturday’s 67-59 loss at Arizona State.

It’s a big role for a guy still getting over a little bit of culture shock.

“Food was the biggest (adjustment), that’s for sure,” Stefanovic said. “I wasn’t used to eating at so many restaurants, as they do (so much) here. … I miss my mom’s cooking. I had soups almost every day. Here, I probably ate more hamburgers my first two months than I ate in my whole life before that, because you have burgers everywhere here.”

While Belgrade isn’t a lot like Salt Lake City — some 1.68 million people reside in the capital of Serbia and most folks live in flats and apartments instead of houses — Stefanovic says both are friendly, industrious places that enjoy basketball.

The southeastern European country of Serbia is probably more basketball-crazy than the U.S., all things considered, he said.

Stefanovic said he does a video call with his family — his mother, his father Goran and his sister Marjia every day.

Flourishing on the court

Despite arriving in the U.S. for the first time in August 2021, just weeks before classes began at the U., Stefanovic quickly earned a role as a freshman last year and played in all 31 games. He became a starter in December, started in 18 games and finished the season averaging 7.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists.

The highlight of his freshman season was an 18-point performance against No. 9 UCLA, when he was 4 of 7 from 3-point range.

He started in the Utes’ first five games this season, then came off the bench until Madsen was ruled out for four to six weeks on Feb. 2. He said either role is OK with him.

“I don’t really care much about it,” he said. “I just want to be on the court, help my team win games. That is all that matters. If it is coming off the bench, so be it. If I am starting, it is great. But no matter what, if coach trusts me I am going to be on the floor and have enough minutes to show what I can do and help the team win games.”

Stefanovic is now third on the team in scoring (10.4 ppg.) and second in assists (2.6). He’s shooting 37.8% from the field and 38% from 3-point range (46 of 121).

Utah Utes guard Lazar Stefanovic drives on Stanford forward Max Murrell (10) in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. The sophomore guard has been a steady performer for the improved Utes this season. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Did he see the success coming? It isn’t something he even thought about when he picked Utah over the only other scholarship offer he had when he committed early in the fall of 2020 — from Toledo. He said other schools such as New Mexico, Stanford, USC and South Florida showed interest.

“As soon as I got here, I just thought about fighting for a spot,” he said. “I was just trying to get some minutes, and get a coach to trust me when I am on the court, because that is essentially going to get you minutes.

“I wasn’t thinking about any stats, or accomplishments or anything,” he continued. “I was just fighting for my spot and trying to help the team win games. And that is where my head is at right now. I just don’t think about those accomplishments at all.”

Analysis: Runnin’ Utes bedeviled by point guard’s injury, turnovers in loss at Arizona State

Smith said that when Madsen went down, inserting Stefanovic into the starting lineup was a no-brainer, because of the sophomore’s experience starting in 2021-22 and at the beginning of this season.

“Stef is a really good player. Stef is so versatile, so skilled, so intelligent,” Smith said. “I mean, I have said this many times: He is brilliant. He has a borderline photographic memory. You tell him something one time, it gets done. He is very hard on himself. He really cares. He really works hard at taking care of his body, things that a lot of (young players) don’t always value.”

Earning the familiar nickname

Yes, Smith refers to his prized sophomore as “Stef,” which might turn some heads considering that moniker is usually reserved for one of the best basketball players in the world, Golden State’s Stephen “Steph” Curry.

When the player got to Utah before Smith’s first season at the helm, Stefanovic told teammates and coaches to call him “Stef,” perhaps unaware of what that name meant in the U.S.

Smith told him he had to earn that title, even if the 18-year-old arrived with plenty of professional experience — at least 34 games worth — playing for two teams in the top division of Serbia’s premier league.

Stefanovic also played for Serbia’s under-19 national team, helping it finish fourth at the FIBA U-19 World Cup in Latvia the month before arriving at Utah.

Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic (20) grabs a loose ball against Jacksonville State at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“Stef and Luka (Tarlac) have played against some grown men,” Smith said. “Stef started most of the year last year, so when Gabe (got hurt), we knew he would be confident in that starting role. Stef was like a sixth-starter, if you want to phrase it like that.”

Utah’s new problem has been finding an adequate replacement for its sixth man; freshman Wil Exacte and veteran Jaxon Brenchley have stepped up, but neither has been as good as Stefanovic was in that role.”

Outgrowing the beautiful game

Like almost every athletic kid growing up in Europe, Stefanovic wanted to be a professional soccer player. But one day when he was 8 or 9, a friend invited him to a basketball practice at his school.

“I showed up with my dad that evening and started playing basketball, I guess, and I haven’t stopped since,” he said.

Stefanovic’s dad is only 5-foot-11 and his mom is only 5-5, but when a doctor told him he would be at least 6-4, his interest in basketball only intensified.

“That was the moment I stopped playing soccer and just committed to basketball,” he said.

He prepped at Sportska Gimnazija in Belgrade, and averaged 19.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists with the Partizan U16 squad in 2018.

Stefanovic believes it was at a Euroleague tournament in Europe where he first caught the attention of then-Utah assistant coach Andy Hill, who was sort of the international recruiting guru on Larry Krystkowiak’s staff. 

Runnin’ Utes to raise Huntsman Center curtains for final two home games

Conversations with Hill, Utes assistant Tommy Connor and Krystkowiak followed, and, after plenty of long talks with his parents and coaches in Serbia, Stefanovic decided to put his pro career on hold in Europe and pursue a college degree in the U.S.

“Utah was the first school to reach out, and I started to see the big picture,” Stefanovic said in a Zoom call with reporters in 2020. “College is a one-time experience.”

Stefanovic is now majoring in business, most likely in business management, but would really like to stay in basketball, even when his playing days are over.

“I really love basketball, and would love to stay in it as long as I can,” he said.

And what about that photographic memory of which Smith alludes frequently?

“He may be exaggerating a little bit. I do remember things pretty well. When I see something, I usually associate it with something, and that’s how I understand things,” Stefanovic said. “And once I understand it I usually don’t forget it.”

Staying loyal to Utah

Stefanovic, Branden Carlson, Brenchley and walk-on Eli Ballstaedt are the only remaining players on Utah’s current roster who were recruited by Krystkowiak and his staff. 

When Krystkowiak was fired in the spring of 2021, Stefanovic could have probably requested a release from the national letter of intent he had signed in 2020. He acknowledges he could have done that successfully and either move on to a different school or return to the pro ranks in Serbia.

But after a Zoom call with Smith and his staff, and some lengthy conversations with his family that included making a “pros vs. cons” list, he stuck with his commitment and remained a Runnin’ Ute.

Runnin’ Utes on the air

UCLA (23-4, 14-2)
at Utah (17-11, 10-7)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
At Jon M. Huntsman Center
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: ESPN 700

“When (Krystkowiak) was released, I was shocked,” he said. “But I didn’t want to do anything or make a decision until the new coach was hired. I honestly didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know if (Smith) would still want me to come here.

“So I just waited around three weeks, and when coach Smith got hired, I talked to (former Utes assistant Eric Peterson), who is now at South Dakota. … I found out they still wanted me, and I still wanted to come here, so I just decided to stay.”

And now a big role with the Utes — and plenty of orange chicken — are keeping him here.

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) and Lazar Stefanovic (20) celebrate at the Huntsman Center.
Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) and Lazar Stefanovic celebrate after Carlson made a 3-point basket in the game against Washington State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Both players remained committed to Utah even after Larry Krystkowiak, the coach who recruited them, was fired. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News