Denton: Vucevic Shows Off His Innate Skills

By John Denton
March 29, 2014

ORLANDO – When there is discussion about a basketball player’s instincts, the conversation usually centers around some heady point guard who can see plays before they actually unfold.

When there is talk about a basketball player’s hands and footwork and soft touch, it’s usually in reference to some sweet-shooting wing player or high-flying forward.

Nikola Vucevic is neither a point guard nor a wing player, but just because he’s 7-foot tall it certainly doesn’t diminish the innate skills that he brings to the court every night for the Orlando Magic.
Vucevic’s latest masterpiece – a 24-point, 23-rebound effort in a 110-105 overtime defeat of the Charlotte Bobcats on Friday at the Amway Center – showed just how dominant that the third-year center can be with his incredible instincts, tremendous touch and fancy footwork. Vucevic might look at times like a lumbering big man, but his combination of basketball smarts and skills allow him to take over games at times.

Vucevic was so dialed in on Friday night as to where the ball was going to come off the glass that he grabbed 10 offensive rebounds and deftly converted three of them into put-back baskets – one with his left hand and two more with his right.

Still very much a work in progress, the 23-year-old center knows that he still has a ways to go to become a complete player. He’s so driven that late Friday night he was almost as upset by a two-for-12 shooting start to the game as he was his gaudy final statistics.
``I kept believing that at some point the night was going to turn around,’’ said Vucevic, whose Magic (21-52) host the Toronto Raptors (41-31) tonight at 6 p.m. at the Amway Center. ``I just kept my confidence high. I had all good looks, but I wasn’t able to make them early in the game. I think I almost broke the backboard once (with one of his shots). I just kept believing and once I made a few easy ones the rim looked a lot bigger.’’

Vucevic was so dominant on Friday that he had as many rebounds in the first half (16) as the entire Bobcats team (16) in the first two quarters. His aggression down low allowed the Magic to hold a 57-36 edge on the glass and have a 21-free throw advantage – a first in the past two seasons. And just to show that he wasn’t one-dimensional Vucevic made nine of his last 10 field goals and gashed playoff-bound Charlotte for 24 points.

For Vucevic, it was his second 20-point, 20-rebound effort of the season and the sixth in two seasons with the Magic. It’s become anything but old hat to a Magic squad that marvels at the grace and instincts of their mild-mannered center.

``He’s got long arms and great touch and what he does is probably more impressive offensively because guys come into games know that Nik likes to get tips around the basket and he still finds ways to do it night in and night out,’’ guard Arron Afflalo gushed. ``I commend him for his effort. He can really put it all together sometimes.’’

Added power forward Kyle O’Quinn about Vucevic: ``It’s incredible. Sometimes you sit back and say, `I’ve never seen anything like it.’ I’m happy that he’s on our team. Sometimes he gets boxed out and he still gets the rebound. He’s an outstanding rebounder and I try to learn something from him every day.’’

Some of Vucevic’s basketball smarts and instincts can be explained by his upbringing in the sport. His father, Borislav, played professionally for 24 seasons in Yugoslavia, Switzerland and Belgium. Therefore, Nikola didn’t just play basketball because he was tall; he played because he loved the game just like his father and mother had. And his father always told him that no matter how many points he scored in a game, he was expected to be a force on the glass rebounding the ball.

Vucevic’s 23 boards on Friday were the most he’s had since breaking Shaquille O’Neal’s 20-year old franchise record for rebounds in a game back on Dec. 31, 2012. Vucevic had 29 rebounds last season against the Heat, one more than O’Neal had on Nov. 20, 1993.

Just as teams can go on streaks and shooters can get into `The Zone’ stroking jump shots from the outside, Vucevic said there are times when he as rebounder can just feel where shots are going to come off. Incredibly, Vucevic has had six 20-rebound games, 27 15-rebound games and 95 double-digit rebound game the past two seasons. He finished second in the NBA in rebounding last season (11.9 rpg.) and he’s eighth this year (11.1 rpg). And with his 14.2-point scoring average, he is one of just 11 players in the NBA averaging double figures in scoring and rebounding.

``To be honest, it kind of comes down to if the ball is kind to you and if you are able to go and get it. So it’s kind of half-and-half,’’ Vucevic said of his ability to pile up rebounds in bunches. ``I can’t really explain how some games I can get so many rebounds and some I can’t. It just comes down to being aggressive and really going for it on both ends of the floor. And it helps too when they miss it and the ball just comes your way.’’