Denton: Vucevic Has All-Star Caliber Skills
By John Denton
October 30, 2012
ORLANDO – When the Orlando Magic exercised the option for the 2013-14 season on Nikola Vucevic’s contract last week it was considered a mere formality what with the 7-foot, 240-pounder expected to be a key cog for the team this season.
But the move was also one where the Magic were displaying their belief and faith that Vucevic can someday be something special as their starting center. Special, as in, an all-star or a double-double machine for years to come.
When Magic GM Rob Hennigan brought Vucevic in last week to tell him the news of the contractual option for next season being picked up, he also praised the center for the work he had put in and the growth he had made since arriving in Orlando in August.
The Magic have big visions for their highly skilled center, and so too does Vucevic starting with Friday night’s season-opener at the Amway Center against the Denver Nuggets.
``When you come into this league at first you take it step by step. You try to get playing time, then you want to do better each game and then every year you want to grow,’’ said Vucevic, a second-year NBA player. ``Hopefully I’ll be good enough someday to make an all-star team or be a double-double guy. Hopefully, I’ll keep getting better, getting more years in the league and hopefully I’ll be an all-star. That’s the goal.’’
Heavy talk, indeed, but those goals could be accomplished sooner rather than later for Vucevic, who proved himself to be very skilled and productive throughout the Magic’s preseason.
Despite playing just 20.6 minutes a game as head coach Jacque Vaughn rested the starters and tested rookies, Vucevic still averaged 8.0 points and a team-high 8.6 rebounds a game. Extrapolate those numbers out to the usual 30-to-35 minutes a night for a starter and Vucevic could easily be looking at double-double numbers in scoring and rebounding this season for the Magic.
With Gustavo Ayon out another week with a sprained thumb on his left hand, Vucevic will be the starter at center on opening night against the Nuggets. Some within the Magic are wondering after a solid preseason just how good Vucevic can be – not only this season, but for years to come.
``I hope that he doesn’t have a ceiling. I hope that he continues to improve,’’ Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. ``He’s done a great job for us and he just had another great practice for us (over the weekend). He gets into the game and he gets things accomplished. I think guys are really gaining confidence in him. And the best part now is that he has confidence in the things that he’s doing. So for me, that’s the best part of his growth so far.’’
While Vucevic admittedly won’t make anyone forget former Magic center Dwight Howard anytime soon because of the massive differences in their game, the Orlando did seek out Vucevic as a replacement at center this season. Hennigan scouted Vucevic extensively when he was playing for his national team in Montenegro and later when he played three seasons at USC. He saw how Vucevic blossomed as a rookie last season with the Philadelphia 76ers and saw him as a building block for the future for the Magic.
Vucevic grew up in a family of basketball with his father playing professionally for 24 seasons in Belgium, Switzerland and in Yugoslavia. His mother played professionally as well in Bosnia before giving birth to Vucevic’s older sister.
Unlike Howard’s power, Vucevic’s game is built more around skill moves and finesse. He’s more comfortable facing the basket than playing with his back to the rim, and the range on his jump shot extends out to some 18 feet. Vucevic said he isn’t looking at his job as trying to replace Howard; he’s simply trying to get the most out of his own potential.
``I don’t really look at it as pressure because obviously you can’t replace Dwight,’’ said Vucevic, who averaged 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds a game as a NBA rookie last season in Philadelphia. ``Dwight is the best center in the league and so athletic and strong. I’m sort of the opposite of him, but I have my own strengths. I don’t look at it as pressure because I’ll just be doing my best to help the team win.’’
He certainly did that in the preseason, hanging some impressive numbers. Despite playing just a half against the Houston Rockets, Vucevic snagged 14 rebounds – a total that would have been his career-high had it been a regular-season game. And in addition to putting up 12 points and 10 rebounds against the Sixers, he hung 16 points and nine rebounds on the Grizzlies frontline of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph last week in Memphis.
Those kinds of nights have Vucevic thinking he could average double figures in both points and rebounds this season.
``Rebounding-wise I definitely feel like I can be there around 10 a night,’’ he said. ``With the points, I’m not going to force it and if it’s there I will take shots and try to help the team that way. But that’s not my main goal. I have to help the team win and if I get a double-double then great.’’
``Great,’’ is also how Vucevic described the Magic picking up his contract option, a move that means he will likely be in an Orlando uniform through next season at least. But the likelihood is that if Vucevic improves as much as he has since training camp over the next season that his long-term future will be in Orlando.
``When Rob told me that they were going to exercise my option it made me feel really good,’’ Vucevic said. ``It’s a great feeling to know that the organization, coaching staff and players believe in you. They want me back here and that means a lot to my confidence.’’
John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997. E-mail John at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @JohnDenton555.
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