Denton: Intriguing Journey for Vucevic


By John Denton
October 13, 2012

ORLANDO -- While it might be shocking to some to see the fluidity that Orlando Magic 7-footer Nikola Vucevic possesses on the court and his innate sense of always being around the ball, those are understandable when you know the story of his life around basketball.

First, Vucevic was born in Switzerland and later moved to Belgium because his father, Borislav, played professional basketball for 24 years and competed on the Yugoslavian National Team alongside of Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic. Also, his mother played professionally in Bosnia, giving him great basketball bloodlines as he learned the game.

Once smaller than his buddies in Montenegro – the place he has lived since his teenage years and still calls home – Vucevic started playing basketball as a slick ball-handling point guard. As he grew, his positions on the court changed, going from guard to forward. And when he went from 6-6 to 6-9 during his senior year of high school at a prep school in California, Vucevic finally settled in as a center.

Learning basketball from two professional parents and bouncing around at various positions throughout his growth spurts helped give Vucevic a tremendous depth of knowledge about the game he has loved since childhood. That full understanding helps him now that he’s climbed to the top of his profession and a candidate to start at center this season for the Magic.

``I learned to play every position and every position does different kinds of stuff, so it helped my game,’’ said Vucevic, who speaks three languages (English, Serbian and French) fluently. ``Every position sees the game in a different way, so it taught me a lot about basketball. When I was 15 or 16, I was a forward a lot, so that taught me how to be more mobile. It all helps me now.’’

Vucevic, who doesn’t turn 22 years old for another two weeks, is hoping to help the Magic move on this season from the Dwight Howard era. Orlando dealt Howard, universally considered the best center in the league, to the Lakers in August and are hoping to replace him with a committee of players led by Gustavo Ayon, Kyle O’Quinn and Vucevic. Vucevic, who was acquired from Philadelphia in the Magic’s four-team, 12-player trade in August, knows he won’t be able to fully replace Howard and is instead focused on carving his own niche.

``You can’t really replace a guy like Dwight because he’s the best big guy in the league,’’ Vucevic said. ``All I can do is my best and try to help the team win. There’s no pressure.’’

Vucevic and the Magic (0-2) are about to embark on a two-game roadtrip where they will face Cleveland (in Cincinnati on Monday) and the Detroit Pistons (on Tuesday). A reserve in the exhibition opener and a starter on Thursday night against Philadelphia, Vucevic has impressed the Magic with his ability to do a lot of things well. Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn said that Vucevic has proven himself to be much more athletic and versatile than he expected.

``He’s done a really good job of getting better. We’ve challenged him to be more physical and play with more grit and he’s done that,’’ Vaughn said of Vucevic, who has averaged 7.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in two games. ``He’s rebounded the ball well and he’s played with more force.’’

When he met with Vucevic prior to training camp, Vaughn learned of the 7-footer’s nomadic basketball background. And after hearing stories of his father and mother playing professional basketball, Vaughn could see how Vucevic’s upbringing in the sport serves him well now.

``He definitely has a skill about him that things come very natural to him,’’ Vaughn said. ``(Sunday) in practice he had a spin-out dribble that most big men couldn’t make that move. But it’s very easy for him to do. He’s left-hand and right-hand capable. Obviously, his rearing around basketball has something to do with that.’’

Once a trading of Howard was inevitable this summer, Magic GM Rob Hennigan targeted Vucevic because he was well-aware of his athleticism and skills around the hoop. Hennigan scouted Vucevic when he played collegiately at UCS where he was the Pac-10’s Most Improved Player in 2010, and he led the league in rebounding each of his final two years in college.

After a junior season in which he averaged 17.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, Vucevic opted for the NBA Draft where he was the 16th overall pick by the 76ers. Philadelphia was quite fond of Vucevic, who played in 51 games as a rookie and made 15 starts.

He was back in Montenegro – where he grew up idolizing fellow countryman Vlade Divac – when he learned of the trade to the Magic. The news was greeted warmly because he knows there is an opportunity in Orlando to become a starting center and show the basketball world all of the weapons in his arsenal.

``I’m just trying to be on the court as much as I can,’’ he said. ``If it’s starting, that’s great and if I’m not that’s fine, too. I just want to play. As long as I’m on the court I’m happy. This is a big opportunity for me to get my game better and I’m ready for it.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997. E-mail John at jdenton@orlandomagic.com or follow him on Twitter at @JohnDenton555.

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