Vucevic Reflects Back on Rookie Season with Sixers

By John Denton
Feb. 23, 2018

PHILADELPHIA – A rookie center on the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers, Nikola Vucevic not only got to feel the white-hot intensity of the NBA playoffs, but he also reveled in the joy of toppling the Chicago Bulls in the first round and the agony of losing to the Boston Celtics in a tight, seven-game series.

It was the kind of feeling that Vucevic hoped to experience all throughout his NBA career, especially on a 76ers team that seemed to be on the rise at the time.

But, as Vucevic – now a franchise fixture for the Orlando Magic – found out in August of 2012, things can change quickly in the NBA. Some six years later, Vucevic is still longing for those all-consuming joys and pains of postseason basketball.

``I didn’t play much in those playoffs, but just watching it and being a part of it and feeling how intense every game was, it was great,’’ Vucevic recalled. ``Every play mattered so much. At the time, I was thinking, `This year we had a good run and next year we’ll be back and do even more.’’’

Those hopes never came to be for Vucevic as Orlando, Philadelphia, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers engaged in a blockbuster, 12-player mega-trade where the key pieces moved around were Dwight Howard, Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bynum. Vucevic, a raw, but promising rookie at the time, was dealt from Philadelphia to Orlando where he would become one of the cornerstone pieces on a rebuilding Magic team.

As it turns out, Orlando, Philadelphia and Denver have yet to make the playoffs since that transaction, while the Lakers made it just once in 2013, got summarily swept out and haven’t made it back since. Even more shocking, 11 of the 12 players in the deal have either bounced around the league or are out of it completely. (Arron Afflalo was involved in that deal, but he is in his second stint with the Magic after playing for four different NBA teams in between).

Vucevic, of course, is the exception, blossoming in Orlando and sticking around for six seasons as the longest-tenured player on the Magic’s roster.

He, like the 76ers franchise he once played for, is still longing to get back to the playoffs. At a disappointing 18-40, Orlando will have to wait at least another season, while Philadelphia (31-25) is most likely playoff-bound this spring because of the maturation of young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

As the Magic and 76ers face off on Saturday afternoon (5 p.m. tipoff) in Philadelphia, Vucevic can’t help but think about how his fortunes have changed in his seven-year NBA career. He has repeatedly stated that he wants to finish his career in Orlando and he wants nothing more than to eventually lead the Magic back to the playoffs someday.

``Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to achieve that here (in Orlando),’’ Vucevic said on Friday before his Magic departed Orlando for Philadelphia. ``Being in the playoffs and competing, that’s what you want as a player.’’

A big part of the reason why Orlando fell out of the playoff chase again this season was because of the kinds of injuries that felled Vucevic for nearly two months. The 7-footer missed 23 games because of a fractured bone in his left hand – a stretch where the Magic went just 7-16 without arguably their best all-around player anchoring the middle. In all, the Magic have been without Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross, Jonathan Isaac and Vucevic for extended stretches this season and have lost 159 player games to injuries.

In his first game back on Thursday, Vucevic played especially well with 19 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in 24 minutes, but it wasn’t enough on a night when Orlando was mostly defenseless in a 120-113 loss to the New York Knicks.

Vucevic’s success was likely a byproduct of his dedication to his craft. Rather than taking a vacation during the break for the NBA All-Star Game, the native of Montenegro remained in Orlando to refine his jump shot, strength and conditioning. It showed on Thursday as he made eight of 11 shots and two of three 3-pointers.

``He’s really worked, and he had a different injury from Aaron (Gordon), who had to be off his feet, but Vooch has been able to play a lot and his legs were there,’’ Magic head coach Frank Vogel said. ``He played a good basketball game and a good defensive game, too. The rest of our team, no so much.’’

Now 27 years old, Vucevic is well on his way to leading the Magic in rebounding a sixth consecutive season by averaging 9.2 boards a game. He’s twice led the team in scoring and this season he’s averaging a career-best 3.2 assists and has buried a personal record of 50 3-point shots.

While Vucevic has racked up a slew of individual records – he still holds the franchise mark for rebounds in a game with 29 – team success has eluded him. He said the foundation for his career was established in that rookie season in Philadelphia when he was surrounded by solid veterans like Tony Battie, Spencer Hawes and Iguodala. Still, he longs for the big-game pressure of being in the playoff hunt as he was back in the 2011-12 season in Philadelphia.

``I just remember the intensity of the playoffs, and Chicago and Boston are great sports cities, and Philly as well. If you’re winning, there are no better places. But if you’re losing it can be a little rough as well,’’ Vucevic recalled. ``We were winning that year in Philly and it was sold out every game and the intensity in the playoffs was awesome. That (76ers) team had some of the best veterans I’ve ever been around who really helped me a lot and I respected them. It was a good year for me and it really helped me learn a lot. It helped me mature and learn how the NBA works.’’

Coincidentally, or not, Vucevic has almost always played well against the 76ers since the 2012 trade that sent him to Orlando. In 17 games against the Sixers, Vucevic has averaged 19.8 points and 13.0 rebounds – the second-most points and the most rebounds against any foe in his NBA career. Much of that came before Embiid became a fixture in the middle for the Sixers, and some of it, Vucevic admitted, came because he wanted to show Philly what it missed out on in trading him following that stirring playoff run in 2012.

``Early on, maybe it was just me playing my old team and wanting to show what I could do,’’ Vucevic said with a somewhat sheepish smile. ``But there were never any hard feelings (toward the 76ers). I think every guy kind of has that (revenge motive) in the beginning and you have some big games against your former team, but it fades. I do like playing in that arena (in Philadelphia) after spending one season there. There are people I know there, and they’ve got good crowds – especially these last two years that they are playing well.’’

Kind of the way they did back in the 2011-12 season when Vucevic was a rookie on that last Sixers’ team to reach the postseason.

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