Denton: Vucevic Making Many Quickly Forget About Howard

By John Denton
January 17, 2013

ORLANDO – Whereas it took the Orlando Magic eight years to find Shaquille O’Neal’s replacement in Dwight Howard, they have found a more-than-capable stand-in for the departed Howard in six short months in Nikola Vucevic.

The Magic are leery of comparing the 22-year-old Vucevic to Howard, and rightly so because the Montenegro native is still in the infancy of his pro career and the styles are so dramatically different. Whereas a large part of Howard’s game was based around raw power and freakish athleticism, Vucevic gets it done with basketball smarts, jumpers instead of dunks and a keen sense of his place on the court. But where they are in similar is their ability to haul in rebounds by the bushels and compile gaudy numbers on a nightly basis.

In slightly more than a week’s time, Vucevic has climbed from seventh in the NBA in rebounding to tied for third at 11.2 boards a night. That puts him just two spots behind – yep, you guessed it – Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers. And with double-digit points and double-digit rebounds in each of his past eight games, Vucevic now has 20 double-doubles on the season – only two fewer than – yep, you guessed it again – Howard.

During his eight seasons in Orlando, Howard simultaneously became the game’s best defensive player and rebounder. Because of that fact, there was somewhat of a sky-is-falling attitude among some Magic fans when the franchise was forced to trade away Howard in August. But Vucevic – one of the pieces that GM Rob Hennigan deftly acquired in the four-team-12 player blockbuster deal – has helped soften the blow for the Magic. Think of him, in some ways at least, as Dwight Lite. If Howard was all thunder and lightning, Vucevic is a steady rain that just keeps coming and never seems to ease up.

``He does it every day. He does it in practice and he does it in games. He was here in practice (on Thursday) working on his game and he’ll be ready (on Friday against Charlotte),’’ gushed Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, who is constantly preaching to his players about the power of consistency. ``It’s great when your teammates can trust you and rely on you and know what you are going to bring every night. That’s the ultimate sign of respect.’’

Vucevic said during training camp that he thought he could become a double-double player this season, and he has followed up that promise by averaging 11.6 points and 11.2 rebounds for the Magic (14-24). His latest stat-sheet-stuffer was a 16-point, 15-rebound effort in which he dominated Indiana’s Roy Hibbert, the 7-foot-2 center who almost single-handedly ushered Orlando out of the playoffs last spring.

Even Vucevic himself is somewhat surprised by progress in his first season with the Magic. The 16th overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, he played just 51 games and got only 13 starts last season for Philadelphia. The 76ers were also involved in the August trade, and they were giddy to acquire Andrew Bynum in exchange for a player in Vucevic who many knew little about. While Bynum has yet to play in Philadelphia because of two bad knees, all Vucevic has done is set the Magic record for rebounds in a game (29), lead the team in rebounding 28 times and grab double-digit boards 25 times.

``One of the toughest things to do in this league is to stay consistent because of the number of games that you have,’’ Vucevic said on Thursday. ``That’s something last year that I had with the ups and downs and I knew I had to stay consistent. This year I’m trying to stay as consistent as I can because that really helps your game.’’ Magic guard J.J. Redick, who spent his first six NBA seasons playing alongside of Howard, marveled at how Vucevic has been able to fill the void in the middle for the Magic. Comparisons would be unfair to both players, Redick said, but there’s no denying the production the Magic’s new center contributes on a nightly basis.

``I don’t think you can get even get into comparisons right now, but there are very few guys who will give you a double-double every single night and Nik is one who is capable of that,’’ Redick said. ``I think he’s made a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2. That’s probably the most important story than replacing No. 12 (Howard). Kudos to him because he’s having a great year for us. We need him to continue to do that because he’s important.’’

Vaughn raves about Vucevic’s awareness on the court, whether it’s knowing angles to get rebounds and put-backs or helping out teammates defensively with traps on pick-and-roll plays. Much of his basketball smarts come from a life around basketball because his father, Borislav, played professionally for 24 years in Europe. Father and son talk after just about every game, and Borislav has been known to not hold back in the critiques, Nikola said. But it’s working in ways that Vaughn and the Magic coaching staff can truly appreciate.

``Coaches look at it differently. It’s not about highlights or dunks. Nik has hit some timely fourth-quarter shots for us and some put-backs, things that keep us in games throughout games,’’ Vaughn said. ``When we break down film, it’s really eye-opening to us, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Nik is usually in the right position, he’s helping somebody and he’s helping his team. He’s unbelievable to watch.’’

Vucevic said that while some might be surprised at what he’s been able to do, he was confident all along that this time would come for him in the NBA. After all, he was a decorated high school player at Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, Calif., and he once led the then-Pac-10 in rebounding while starring at USC.

``I’m not going to say that I’m surprised because I knew I could play at this level,’’ he said confidently. ``It has come maybe a little quicker than I thought it would. I just play my game and I don’t think about the numbers too much. I know what I’m capable of and I just let the game come to me.’’

As for the task of having to replace Howard, Vucevic said he dismissed that notion right away because he knew he would never possess the same kind of power and athleticism. And Vaughn stressed that the coaching staff and the team have never once asked him to be the kind of dunking, shot-swatting player that he hasn’t been molded to be. Instead, he hurts teams by knocking down shots, finishing tougher around the rim and tracking down rebounds like a bloodhound on a scent.

``The great thing is we’re letting him be who he is. No one else and we’re not asking him to be anyone else,’’ Vaughn said. ``I like him the way that he is. Is he going to grow as a player and an individual? Yes. So that’s the start of it – that we accept him for who he is. And the next step is that we haven’t put any added pressure on him.

``He just has a knack and you can tell that he’s been around basketball,’’ Vaughn continued. ``Just his feel for the game, his (understanding) of spacing on the floor – those are innate things. It just comes from his background. And a lot of it is him, too.’’

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