Denton: Vucevic Not Afraid Of Challenges
By John Denton
Oct. 16, 2013
HOUSTON – Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic is coming off a record-setting season and could be poised to make an all-star run this year. Still, the 22-year-old center feels like he has a long way to go to become an elite player in the NBA.
On Wednesday night, Vucevic took a powerful and aggressive step toward establishing himself among the league’s best centers.
Vucevic said his pursuit of greatness has him wanting to match up against the best players in the league so that he can see where his skills stand.
Vucevic guarded his childhood hero, Dirk Nowitzki, on Monday night when the Magic won in Dallas. And with the Magic in Houston on Wednesday, Vucevic went toe-to-toe with Dwight Howard and delivered some of his best defensive play since joining the Magic 14 months ago.
One of the bright spots in Orlando’s 108-104 loss to the Rockets was the way Vucevic played aggressively on defense and showed a newfound physicality. He held Howard to pedestrian two of six shooting and just eight points in 18 minutes of action.
``You’ve got to do your job (defensively) early against a guy like Dwight because he’s very physical,’’ said Vucevic, who chipped in six points and seven rebounds, but was limited in the second half because of foul trouble. ``If you let him catch it deep there’s not a lot that you can do. So I was trying to be as physical as I can be. I tried to make him catch it as far away as I could and my teammates did a great job of helping me on the backside when I was fronting him. I tried to limit him as much as I could and still help on the guards when they drove.’’
Howard didn’t play in the second half against his former team, but Vucevic’s mark was already left on the game considering how he battled in the post early on. Vucevic also had a couple of marks on him as he exited the game with a bruises and welts. Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn liked seeing his usually mild-mannered center so willing to mix it up with Howard.
``(Vucevic) has a couple of bruises. He has a bruise on his arm and under his eye a little bit, so that means he came to play,’’ Vaughn said. ``You should go home every night with some sort of scar, scab or band-aid to prove that you came to play. So he got a couple of bruises and I loved seeing it.
``(Vucevic) just has to understand that (physical play) is part of the game,’’ Vaughn continued. ``Everyone understands that when you are a big there is more contact down low than there is up top, so accept that that’s the way it is and embrace it. Just do what you have to do to survive in this league and he’s learning to do that.’’
Facing the best of the best, such as All-NBA players like Nowitzki and Howard, is just one way for the steadily blossoming Vucevic to measure himself against others.
``I enjoy going against guys who are better than me. Those are the guys that I need to catch up to to get to their level,’’ he said. ``So I like going against better players. I get to see where I am and it’s a fun experience.’’
Vucevic was certainly one of the better centers in the NBA last season despite being in just his first season as a full-time starter. The 7-footer finished second in the NBA in rebounding last season (11.9 rpg.) and finished with a flurry offensively to boost his scoring average to 13.1 points per game.
Vucevic was a model of consistency as he had 56 double-digit rebounding games and 46 double-doubles (the third-best mark in the league). Vucevic also had two performances for the ages last season for the Magic. He broke Shaquille O’Neal’s nearly 20-year-old franchise record when he grabbed 29 rebounds against the Miami Heat last December. And in April he had 30 points, 20 rebounds and five assists against Milwaukee – something that no other Magic center had accomplished in franchise history.
Vucevic said it was actually a performance against Howard and his former team, the Los Angeles Lakers, that greatly boosted his confidence and paved the way for last year’s breakout season. Vucevic had 17 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots in the Magic’s defeat of the Lakers last December. Most impressively, Vucevic matched Howard physically and converted dunks four different times in that game. That performance, coming on the heels of earlier struggles against Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, stoked Vucevic’s confidence and proved to him that he could play at an elite level.
``That game definitely helped my confidence because Dwight is the best big man in this league. To play well against him, it showed me that I can play against him and I can go against the best guys in this league,’’ Vucevic remembered. ``We all had a good game and we won. And it was in L.A. where I went to school (at USC) and I had a lot of people there watching me. So that game really helped my confidence for the rest of the season.’’
Vucevic’s confidence was tested Monday night in Dallas when he was asked to guard Nowitzki some 23 feet from the basket even though he’s usually positioned in the post. First, Vucevic had to battle nerves because he grew up watching Nowitzki while he was a kid living in his native Montenegro and Belgium.
During Monday’s game, Vucevic had trouble contesting Nowitzki’s jump shots and contending with his step-back shots, pump fakes and sneaky quick drives into the lane. Nowitzki made nine of 14 shots and scored 24 points in 25 minutes – a performance that served as another learning lesson for the Magic big man.
``It was a lot of fun going against Dirk because he was my favorite player while growing up,’’ Vucevic said. ``It was fun trying to do my best guarding him. But he scored a lot of points and I found out how hard it is to stop him. But I had fun. With every great player in this league, it motivates you because you want to do well against them. I’ll learn from it and be better next time.’’
Vucevic said that Wednesday’s stellar play against Howard in the post confirmed to him that he’s ready to play with more of a nastiness and a physical edge this season. After all, if he can stop Howard, he can likely do the same to the other lesser centers in the NBA.
``It tells me that I can go against the best players in this league. I held my own pretty good,’’ Vucevic said. ``I think I limited (Howard) pretty well. But it wasn’t easy to do it and it took a lot of energy. But tonight showed me that I can do it and I just have to keep working and keep going. Going against these best guys is only going to make me better.’’
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