CHARLEROI (FIBA U19 World Championship) - Nikola Jankovic had begun to really emerge into a force for Belgacom Spirou Charleroi before he took an elbow to the face and suffered a broken cheekbone.
Playing as a professional for the first time - and doing so outside his homeland - the 19-year-old Serbian was sidelined nearly three months after he took a blow to the face during a game in early January.
Jankovic just returned to full practice for Charleroi this week.
"It was a difficult place to protect so I couldn't really use a mask. I could not play and had to practice individually. But now I am back with the team and I feel really happy. It's really nice to be back on the court," said the power forward, who arrived in Belgium's top league after playing last season for Red Star Belgrade's junior team.
"I came here to practice and work with good guys on a good team, but also to play. It's really important to work out but it's also very important to play," Jankovic explained.
"I have a good chance here to play Eurocup and the Belgian league. Coach is giving me a chance. The surgery stopped me a little bit, but I am expecting to play again. I will be fighting for my minutes again."
Jankovic is hoping to return to the level he was at prior to the injury as quickly as possible. Not only is he looking to develop his game in Belgium, he's also looking forward to playing for Serbia at this summer's FIBA U19 World Championship.
When asked about Serbia's goal going into the tournament to be held in Prague (27 June-7 July), Jankovic said: "Of course in Serbia, the first goal is the gold medal. And of course we will fight for that. We will be together all summer practicing just to give our best. Of course we need to see how the other teams are. But the first goal is a medal."
Serbia have been drawn into Group C along with Australia, Brazil and Senegal.
"I don't really know too much about those teams. But I know that our coach (Dejan Mijatovic) will say we have to just look at one game at a time," said Jankovic.
The Vranje native already has a lot of international experience, twice playing at the Nike International Junior Tournament (NIJT) for FMP, including reaching the final in 2010.
Jankovic also played for Serbia at the inaugural FIBA U17 World Championship in 2010 and that year's U16 European Championship. He then won silver at the 2011 U18 European Championship and bronze at last year's edition of that same tournament.
He took another step in his development this off-season in moving to Charleroi for his first professional experience.
The youngster proved himself in the Belgian BDLN league, averaging 3.6 points and 1.9 rebounds in 8 minutes per game over seven contests. And he truly excelled in the Eurocup for Charleroi, averaging 8.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17 minutes in five games.
His two best games of the season came in the Eurocup as he collected 15 points and 8 rebounds and then 10 points and 5 rebounds in the two games against Montenegro side Buducnost in late November.
"I'm very happy that coach (Giovanni Bozzi) has given me a chance and I think I have shown him that I can use it. It has been a good experience for me," said Jankovic.
An incredible experience for the 2.02m forward is just practising with Charleroi, as Derrick Allen - a veteran of 10 years in European basketball - has been showing him all the tricks of the trade.
"Derrick is a really good person, he really gives me a lot. He helps me all the time and I learn a lot from him," said Jankovic.
Then there is Charleroi's center Andre Riddick.
"Andre is 40 years old, but he plays like he's 18. When I saw him for the first time it was amazing. He has so much enthusiasm and intensity. It was amazing," Jankovic said of Reddick, who reached the NCAA Final Four with Kentucky in 1993 and has been playing professionally in Europe since 1999 - when his Serbian team-mate was just five years of age.
"That puts everything in perspective."