You know who would look good in a Sixers uniform this year? The guy who was in a Sixers uniform last year.
Philly hardly knew Nikola Vucevic. He was here for a year, then he was gone -- shipped off to Orlando during the offseason as part of the deal that brought Andrew Bynum to town. Vucevic recently said he would have traded himself for Bynum, too. It made so much sense at the time.
It makes less sense now. Sure, the Sixers had to make the deal for Bynum, but the move would look a lot better if Vucevic had remained in town and someone else (Lavoy Allen or Spencer Hawes, perhaps) had been traded instead. If only the Sixers could have kept Vucevic. Hindsight can be so cruel sometimes.
“I came to Orlando and I got a chance to play,” said Vucevic, who had nine points and 14 rebounds in 78-61 loss to the Sixers. (Those numbers, by the way, were posted in 31 minutes. The Magic rested him for the entire fourth quarter). “I took advantage of it.”
Indeed. Have you seen what Vucevic has done down in Orlando? The guy has morphed into a monster. Entering Monday’s game against the Sixers at the Wells Fargo Center, Vucevic was averaging 12.1 points and 11.3 rebounds (fourth best in the NBA). In 48 games this season, he has 26 double-doubles.
Vucevic has dominated down low this year. Against the Heat, he had 29 rebounds in one game. You know who hasn’t had 29 rebounds in one game, or anything even close to 29 rebounds in one game? Any of the Sixers. The best performance on the glass this season was by Thaddeus Young, who grabbed 15 rebounds in two different games -- or almost half of what Vucevic managed in one game. (Did we mention what he did in one game)?
“I feel more comfortable now,” Vucevic said. “Last year was a good learning experience for me. I didn’t play as much as I’m playing this year, but it was a good experience. I learned a lot from it.”
How diplomatic. He gave a lot of those answers on Monday.
Vucevic wouldn’t say this, not out loud in front of cameras and digital recorders, but you know what he really learned last year? How to sit down for long periods of time without getting up. He got really good at that.
A year ago, Vucevic averaged 18.7 minutes in February. In March, his minutes dropped to 15.2 per game. In April, he was down to 13.9 minutes per game. And in the playoffs he played three minutes. Not per game. Three minutes total. Three minutes over 13 games in two postseason series. By the end of the year, he was buried so deep on the bench that a priest should have read him last rites.
And now look at him. Vucevic doesn’t just play every night, he plays well. He excels. He said he never doubted himself last year. He said he always knew he could play. Too bad the Sixers didn’t know it, too.
“He’s done a good job of developing himself and improving from Year One to Year Two -- especially after a lockout season, change of scenery, coaching-wise, team-wise, system-wise,” Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn said. “You have to commend the job he’s done as an individual being extremely consistent this year."
Vucevic doesn’t blame Collins. He said he understands why Collins didn’t play him toward the end of the year. But he also said this:
“[Vaughn] gave me a chance to play and he believed in me,” Vucevic added. “He put me in a starting position. I earned his trust and I keep building on it. We have a very good relationship. We talk a lot and he believes in me.”
Vaughn gave him a chance to play. (Left unsaid: Collins didn’t). Vaughn believes in him. (Left unsaid: Collins didn’t). You get the point. Now Vucevic is doing everything Collins always wanted, only he’s doing it for Vaughn instead.
Even though Bynum hasn’t played yet -- and his return remains uncertain -- the Sixers made the right decision by trading for him. It was a gamble that had to be made. It’s just a shame that it required handing over Vucevic, who turned out to be one of their most valuable chips.
The Sixers are 20th in the NBA in rebounds. They’re 26th in points in the paint. Vucevic would obviously help in both areas. If the Sixers were a sitcom, you’d hear the “womp womp” sound effect right about now.
Last year, the Sixers were trying to reach the postseason and win games. That had something to do with Vucevic sitting on the bench. He was a rookie, and that’s how these things go sometimes. Vucevic acknowledged it, and he admitted that Orlando isn’t built to win right now, which is why Vaughn has the luxury of putting Vucevic on the floor and leaving him there. That’s all true, and it’s fine. But it’s also true that the Sixers could use him.
When he was asked what the biggest difference is between this Vucevic and last year’s version, Collins gave an honest answer.
“Minutes,” Collins said simply.
Too bad Vucevic is getting them somewhere else.