Surprising ex-Sixer Vucevic returns Monday with Magic

Surprising ex-Sixer Vucevic returns Monday with Magic
February 3, 2013, 3:30 pm
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In nearly 1,000 regular-season games for the Orlando Magic, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard were good for approximately 13 rebounds per night.

There wasn’t much Shaq and Howard did not do during their runs with Orlando. Both big men have the rare distinction of carrying the Magic to the NBA Finals and were, indisputably, the most dominant centers in the game at their respective times.

As a result, along with Nick Anderson, Tracy McGrady, Penny Hardaway and Scott Skiles, Shaq and Howard own just about every record in the books for the Magic.

But there is one record the big fellas don't own ...

In the history of the Orlando Magic, no one has more rebounds in one game than the 29 Nik Vucevic piled up against Miami on Dec. 31 this season. Shaq in 1993 had 20 rebounds in a half (and had 28 total) and Howard grabbed 12 boards in a quarter twice during the ’06 season.

But neither Shaq nor Howard grabbed 29 rebounds in a game like Vucevic did on New Year's Eve.

“I always could rebound,” Vucevic said last month when the Magic were in Washington to play the Wizards. “I led the conference in rebounding in college, and it’s something I’ve been good at ever since I started to play.”

Yeah, sure, a seven-footer is bound to be a pretty solid rebounder. But 29 rebounds in one game …

From Nik Vucevic?

The NBA’s big surprise
The unquestionably biggest surprise in the NBA this season has been Vucevic, the former Sixer. Following a topsy-turvy rookie season in Philadelphia that saw him go from a main cog in the Sixers’ rotation to just another body sitting on the bench, Vucevic has turned into a veritable double-double machine as a sophomore.

Already Vucevic has the high rebounding game in the NBA this season and has been one of the few consistent players for the struggling Magic, a team clearly building for the future.

In fact, when All-Star weekend rolls around, Vucevic will be running up and down the floor in the annual Rookies vs. Sophomores game that highlights the league’s brightest young players.

Oh yes, you remember Nikola Vucevic? Of course you do. He was, after all, the linchpin in the trade that brought Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson to Philadelphia and sent Andre Iguodala to Denver and Dwight Howard to the Lakers.

It also was one of those trades in which Vucevic’s name got lost in the excitement from the Sixers’ fans giddy over acquiring Bynum. Considering Vucevic was virtually eliminated from the Sixers’ rotation by the time the playoffs began, it was easy to forget about him.

“I would have traded me for Bynum,” said Vucevic, who returns to the Wells Fargo Center on Monday to face the Sixers.

Still, Vucevic was the player that held the deal together. The Sixers didn’t want to part with him and, according to sources, both Denver and Orlando wanted to get him.

Eventually, Orlando won out.

“I saw him a lot and I liked him a lot. I knew a lot about him coming out of [college],” Orlando coach Jacques Vaughn said. “He had some good minutes in Philly and then he ended up getting hurt and Lavoy Allen took his minutes. He comes to us and has done an unbelievable job and he’s getting better every day.”

Nevertheless, the Sixers had big hopes for Vucevic when they took him in the first round of the June 2011 draft. Following three seasons at USC and a strong showing at the Chicago scouting combine, coach Doug Collins claimed he had fallen in love with the big man’s game. And why not? Vucevic came polished with a nice touch from the outside, a deft passing game and, of course, strong rebounding skills.

Moreover, Vucevic, born in Switzerland and raised in Belgium, is a basketball brat who traveled the globe while his father, Borislav, who played 24 years of pro ball and didn’t retire until the age of 44. In fact, Vucevic’s mother, Ljiljana, also played pro ball in Europe and both parents played for Yugoslavia in the Olympics.

If anything, Vucevic has just taken over the family business.

These days the roles have been reversed as it’s mom and dad who globe trot while young Nik plays in the NBA. Oftentimes, when Nik is struggling with his game or needs some advice, Borislav Vucevic is the one with the answer.

“I talk to him all the time,” Vucevic said about his dad. “He’s the one who taught me everything about basketball, and not only how to play the game, but to stay in there and take care of my body. He knows a lot about it. He played till he was 44, so he knows a lot.”

Growing pains in Philly
Undoubtedly, the elder Vucevic and his son talked a lot last season when Nik spent his rookie year playing for Collins and the Sixers. By his own admission, Vucevic said his rookie campaign was up and down, even bordering on difficult, in part because of typical rookie quandaries, mixed with the compressed schedule from the lockout, followed with virtually zero playing time when Collins said Vucevic “hit the wall.”

This season Vucevic has clearly crashed through the wall.

“It was a tough season and I didn’t know what to expect,” Vucevic said. “Obviously, it wasn’t a normal season with the lockout, and I was up and down. This year I’ve been able to settle in and I have a better idea of what the NBA is like and I’ve just been making the most of my chances and playing.”

Vucevic slowly and steadily worked his way into Collins’ rotation last season, building up to a consistent 25 minutes per game around the All-Star break before he was supplanted in the rotation by fellow rookie Lavoy Allen. When the postseason rolled around, it was Allen who got the playing time against Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer of the Bulls as well as Kevin Garnett of the Celtics while Vucevic was stuck on the bench.

In fact, Vucevic saw action in just one playoff game, picking up three minutes in a blowout loss to the Celtics in Game 3. Collins said Vucevic was fatigued from the long season, especially since he jumped right from his collegiate season into a pro summer league in Montenegro. When the postseason rolled around, Collins said Vucevic didn’t have the energy he needed.

Vucevic, affable and good-natured, didn’t dispute his former coach’s analysis. Instead, he said he wanted to use the lessons he learned from his rookie year to improve in 2012-13.

Still, he admits he was a bit surprised when he learned about the big four-way trade between the Sixers, Magic, Nuggets and Lakers last August. But he also knew the trade meant more playing time and a chance to improve his game without looking over his shoulder for the hook from rookie coach Vaughn.

There was nothing bad that could come out of more playing time, Vucevic thought. In Philly, he would have been sitting behind Bynum just biding his time and waiting for a chance.

“I knew that I could play in the NBA. I just wasn't really ready to do it in my first year,” Vucevic said, admitting that the condensed schedule from the lockout and a summer spent playing pro ball in Europe wore him down. “You kind of hit a wall in your rookie year, but you learn from that and you make changes. I knew that I had to get stronger and be in better condition.”

Vucevic was also hurt headed into last summer, which gave him the impetus to take a break and rest.

“Everything is starting to come together,” he said. “I’m healthy and understand what it takes to play in the NBA better.”

Plenty of room for improvement
Sometimes Vucevic must wonder if he’s going to get a seat on the bench at all. Twice this season he has logged 47 minutes in a game and has averaged twice as many minutes (32 to 16) for Orlando than he did in Philly.

Still, for as much promise as Vucevic showed during his rookie season in Philadelphia, and for as much as Sixers fans would love to see him play alongside Bynum, how could anyone have expected the season he is putting together for Orlando?

Though the Magic are struggling to win games and are headed into Monday’s matchup with nine straight losses and 20 defeats in their last 22 games, Vucevic is making a name for himself. Starting with the 29-rebound game, he put together a string of eight straight double-doubles and has 15 double-doubles in the last 17 games.

More impressively, in NBA history only four players have scored at least 20 points and grabbed 29 rebounds like Vucevic did on Dec. 31 against Miami: Charles Barkley, Dikembe Mutombo and Kevin Love.

There is plenty of room for improvement, though. Vucevic is still getting used to playing defense in the low post and often has difficulty guarding quicker big men. Sometimes he is a step slow when it comes to getting in defensive position, though the instincts are there.

However, “He rebounds, he’s a great passer and he’s consistent,” Vaughn said.

Offensively, Vucevic has plenty of low-post moves in his repertoire and isn’t simply tethered to the paint. Most of his points come down low like any other big man in the game, but he also isn’t bashful about shooting (and making) a 20-footer. This season, Vucevic is serving as a pick-and-roll partner with veteran Jameer Nelson.

“Nik is playing alright,” Nelson said. “He’s getting there. I don’t think he’s ever played so much pick-and-roll in his life.”

No, Vucevic isn’t going to be one of those fateful one-that-got-away players like Barkley, Wilt or Moses. Plus, if Bynum is able to perform the way the Sixers expect, Vucevic will be a fair price to pay.

But with the Sixers struggling to find their way in a 20-26 season without a low-post presence, Vucevic has been greatly missed.

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