Denton: Vucevic Continues to Expand His Game; Already Among Elite Centers

By John Denton
April 12, 2013

ORLANDO – Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic took the ball in the post, made a spinning move to the baseline, encountered some heavy banging from Milwaukee shot-blocker John Henson and was left with a decision to make.

In the not-so-distance past, Vucevic likely would have retreated and either passed the ball back out to the wing or stroked a face-up 12-foot jump shot. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that considering that he’s an adept jump shooter and that’s the way that he learned the game while growing up in Montenegro.

But this time, Vucevic did what 7-foot, 263-pound centers should do by gathering himself in the post, knocking Henson away with a blow of his own and dropping in a nifty left-handed hook shot.

Of all the improvements that Vucevic has made – and his growth this season has been so dynamic that he’s in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award – the recent willingness to mix it up in the post on the offensive end has been the most noticeable of late.

Vucevic, 22, has piled up some of the NBA’s most jaw-dropping numbers this season, but he’s done it mostly as a face-up player who would prefer to shoot jumpers as opposed to hook shots and power moves at the rim. But that is changing as he’s spent more time working on his post game in practice and implementing it in games.

Never was the improvement more on display than Wednesday when Vucevic hammered Henson and Bucks for 30 points, 20 rebounds and five assists. He became the first player in Magic history to have at least 30 points, 20 rebounds and five assists, meaning Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard never accomplished the feat in their time with the Magic.

``I think I’m a lot better and I’ve improved in every area of my game,’’ said Vucevic, whose Magic (20-59) host the Boston Celtics on Saturday at the Amway Center. ``My confidence is a lot higher, so when I go out on the court I just do what I do best so I don’t think as much. I’ve gotten stronger and I’m more mature, so I feel like I’m better overall. I’ve played the games and played through mistakes, so I’ve been able to get better.’’

On the strength of his fourth 20-rebound game of the season, Vucevic has risen to second in the league in rebounding, trailing none other than Howard, the player who left Orlando in the summer and sent the Magic scrambling for a replacement. But whereas it took the franchise eight years to go from Shaquille O’Neal in 1996 to Howard in 2004, the Magic might have found a future all-star in the form of the 22-year-old Vucevic.

Already this season, Vucevic broke O’Neal’s 20-year-old franchise record for rebounds in a game by snagging 29 against Miami on Dec. 30. He has four games of at least 20 points and 20 rebounds, including in each of the past two games against Cleveland and Milwaukee. He is third in the NBA in double-doubles (43, despite missing five games with a concussion) and he’s the NBA’s only second-year player averaging double figures in points (12.9) and rebounds (11.9).

``It’s really impressive because you see the improvement and stacked upon that is the consistency,’’ Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn raved. ``So you see growth from him and you’re not shocked when there are five games in a row with a double-double. When he does it, it’s `Nik’s just doing what he does.’ That’s really the sign of the improvements, the fact that he is doing what does every night.’’

The improvement in the post has come, in part, because Vucevic usually stays after every practice to work on offensive moves with Magic lead assistant coach James Borrego and video analyst Matt Hill, a 6-foot-10 former college player at the University of Texas. Hill shoves and bangs on Vucevic in the post and uses his height to get the 7-footer used to shooting over taller defenders. On one such drill following practice on Friday, Vucevic drove Hill to the left, spun back right and dunked with authority – all while Borrego was looking on and offering instruction.

``It’s helping me a lot, getting a lot of reps doing things over and over again. It helps when I get out on the court and I’ve already done it on the practice court. And I’ve done it the right way,’’ Vucevic said. ``(Borrego) tells me when I do it wrong and when I do it right, and that helps.’’

His low-post game is still a work in progress because Vucevic learned the game in the European system where big men are often used in the high post as passers, screeners or mid-range shooters. He did play on the low block some while in college at USC, but he reverted back to being a jump shooter in the NBA because of his lack of comfort playing down low.

``My junior year in college I played back to the basket, but it was a lot different because I was a lot bigger than everybody. It was easier to get to the rim, but here (in the NBA) it’s a lot harder because guys are stronger and bigger and defenses are better,’’ he said. ``Coming (to the NBA) I knew that posting up wasn’t my best quality and it was something that I had to work on. I’ve always been a mid-range and face-up guy, but I’ve been working on the whole year. It’s helping me and the team as well.’’

In addition to playing for the Montenegro National Team in the Eurobasket tourney, Vucevic is planning to spent much of his offseason working in the weight room to become more powerful and explosive. That, he said, should help him hold his position better on the block and to become a more rugged defender around the rim.

In time, Vucevic sees himself becoming a dominant player in the low post such as Memphis center Marc Gasol. Gasol, the younger brother of Pau Gasol, made his first NBA All-Star Game this season and he has averaged 13.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.6 blocks over his five-year NBA career.

Considering the numbers that Vucevic is already putting up as a second-year pro who appears to be blossoming with every game, the Gasol comparison might be a bit conservative. But it hasn’t stopped Vucevic from studying Gasol’s games on a nightly basis and expecting more out of himself every time he hits the floor.

``I think somebody who I could play like someday would be Marc Gasol. He’s a very skilled big man who can face up, shoot it and play with his back to the basket. He passes the ball well and defensively he’s a smart player,’’ Vucevic said. ``He’s somebody I feel that I can learn a lot from. When I played against him, I struggled against him. When I watch games, I watch a lot of (Memphis Grizzlies) games and I can learn a lot from (Gasol).

``I still have a long way to go,’’ Vucevic continued. ``I’ve made some improvements, but to get where the elite big men are I still have a long way to go. I’m still young and have a lot of work to put in. Hopefully I’ll get there someday.’’

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