Greendale basketball player Vlado Zrnic has unique Serbian heritage, uncommon work ethic and eye-popping stats 06 Jan 12:40
The stands were mostly empty, having filtered out considerably after the preceding game featuring Whitnall and Waunakee at the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook Shootout in Mequon on Dec. 27.
Greendale needed to manufacture its own energy for the battle with Port Washington, and Vlado Zrnic provided. His putback dunk served as a highlight when the Panthers scored a 57-48 victory.
"I wouldn't call it 'LeBron James crazy' or anything like that, but it was cool," the Panthers senior said. "We knew everyone was going to clear out (of the gym). We had to figure out a way to bring our own energy, so we were hyping each other up in warmups and stuff, whatever we could to get going and flowing."
The earlier game had featured Whitnall standout Tyler Herro, committed to the University of Kentucky, and undefeated Waunakee. Played between the holidays at Concordia University, the event usually features impartial crowds, and thus the energy isn't always optimal, anyway, so a 9 p.m. game in the aftermath of the night’s signature battle was a tough sell.
It meant not many people took the opportunity to watch Zrnic, who averages better than 20 points and nine rebounds per game for Greendale (6-4). The 6-6 senior has emerged as one of the area’s top scoring threats after scoring 12 per game last year.
“He came in over the summer to work on ball handling and shooting drills with some of our incoming freshmen,” Greendale coach Ryan Johnsen said. “I think that is very rare for a senior to do.
“Also, after practice, most kids get up some shots, but Vlado will get out cones and be working hard by himself when nobody is watching, working on moves and game speed, every single time. Most kids don't have that own individual work ethic to push themselves like that.”
Zrnic averages 20.3 points, 9.7 boards, 1.7 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. He’s the team’s lone returning scorer among its top four last season, and he knew it.
“I knew this year, I was going to have to be the leader and scorer,” he said. “A lot of teams are coming to double me, and then I’m looking for that guy on the wing to pass out for a three. It’s helpful when there’s more attention for me to distribute.”
Johnsen said Zrnic has improved everything, from his 3-point shooting to his post moves.
“He really has turned himself into an all-around player by his work ethic on the court, as well as dedication to weight room and speed workouts,” Johnsen said. “He not only loves to get better on the court but wants to get stronger and more explosive. It has paid off nicely so far for him.”
Ties to Serbia
Zrnic’s father and maternal grandparents were all born in Serbia; his father and mother met vacationing in Greece. Zrnic’s first language was Serbian before his family moved to Greendale when he was 5, and his family is deeply involved in the culture. He’s made four trips to Serbia, including once last summer to visit his aunt and grandparents.
“We always go at least a week, and usually two or three weeks,” he said. “My grandparents live in an apartment in Belgrade … and they have a weekend house about an hour outside the city in a mountainous area, with a nice forest their and their own garden. Everything is fresh there.”
Zrnic said Belgrade, the capital city surrounded by the Danube and Sava rivers, will see major new construction coming to the downtown area and riverfront by 2022.
“There’s a lot of development happening there right now,” he said.
He still understands Serbian well and can speak it when called upon.
“It’s a huge community (in Milwaukee),” Zrnic said. “I wouldn’t say it’s as big as the Italian or Greek community, but it has a large presence. I can name 10 other people at my school alone who are Serbian, and a lot of them are my friends.”
Zrnic said even though he isn’t a member of the Johnsen family, he still took the loss personally last year when Greenfield, coached by then first-year coach Kyle Johnsen — Ryan’s younger brother — defeated Greendale.
There wouldn’t be a repeat. Greendale handled Greenfield on Dec. 22, 66-43, and Zrnic was the only player on the floor in double figures, with 23.
“I definitely think we’ve shown we can beat anybody or lose to anybody,” Zrnic said. “The Woodland West is such a tough conference to play in. We came so close to Eisenhower, within 2 points, and we came out on top against Pius, which has some super solid players.”
In a division featuring Pewaukee, Eisenhower, New Berlin West and Wisconsin Lutheran, the Panthers could still be a fly in the ointment when the star-studded Division 2 postseason rolls around, even as powerhouses like Whitnall, Milwaukee Washington and Pewaukee are seen as local favorites for the same state berth in Division 2. The Panthers have done it before, making eye-opening runs to state in 2014 and 2015.
It would be a perfect platform for Zrnic, who came out of the gate firing with 33 points in the first game of his junior season and duplicated the feat with 33 to open this year — although this time, he’s sustaining a high scoring average.
“I’m talking to a couple D3 schools and starting to get some D2 interest, with a possible walk-on opportunity at the D1 level,” Zrnic said. “I’m really excited to see what happens.”