Denton: Vucevic Should Be Lock to Play in Rising Stars Challenge

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

But when considering just how far the 22-year-old Vucevic has come from last season as a timid rookie in Philadelphia to a rebounding workhorse in Orlando, it might not be too early to start the push for the Most Improved Player award.

By setting the franchise record for rebounds in a game (29), ranking seventh in the NBA in boards (10.9 a game) and already posting 17 double-doubles and 22 double-digit rebound games, Vucevic has calmed fears in Orlando after the Magic were forced to trade away Dwight Howard last August. In short, the Magic traded away the NBA’s best rebounder in Howard for a player in Vucevic who might eventually take over that mantle someday.

Vucevic was a part of that massive 12-player, four-team transaction centered around Howard in August, but he was mostly overlooked as an asset for the Magic because of his pedestrian play during his rookie season in Philadelphia. But his offseason skull sessions with his father – Borislav played professionally 24 years in Europe – his daily work with the Magic coaching staff and the confidence instilled in him by Orlando head coach Jacque Vaughn has allowed Vucevic to blossom into a rebounding force. He made improving his mission, and now the Magic are reaping the benefits of a game that seems to grow on a nightly basis.

``When you come in as a rookie you don’t know a whole lot about the way it is NBA, but you learn about it and you go and study. And you realize right away that you must get better,’’ said Vucevic, who had 10 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots in Orlando’s loss to Denver on Wednesday night. ``In the offseason I studied what I did well and what I didn’t do well and worked to improve on my game every day. I wanted to be stronger and quicker and I am this season.’’

Vucevic, back in Los Angeles near where he went to high school and where he attended USC, has used that improved strength and quickness to evolve into one of the most productive players from the 2011 draft class this season. Among all second-year NBA players, the 16th pick of the 2011 draft ranks first in rebounding (10.9 rpg.), first in double-doubles (17), second in field goal percentage (50.4 percent) and seventh in scoring (11.3).

That makes him a strong contender to be picked to the sophomore squad for the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge during NBA All-Star weekend in Houston on Feb. 15. A huge NBA fan from his childhood days in his native Montenegro when he would often dress in Michael Jordan gear from head to toe, Vucevic said it would be a dream come true to be picked to be a part of the NBA’s All-Star Weekend.

``It would be a huge honor for me. All of the best players in the NBA play in the All-Star Game and are a part of All-Star Weekend, and being in that Rookie-Sophomore Game would be huge for me,’’ Vucevic said. ``There are a lot of young, great players playing in that game. So I’d really like to make it.’’

NBA coaches will cast their ballots for the rookies and second-year players who will compete in the exhibition all-star game in two weeks. But from the sound of things he will certainly get the nod from several coaching staffs, including the Miami Heat who witnessed Vucevic set a Magic record with 29 rebounds while also scoring a career-best 20 points.

Said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra two weeks ago: ``He’s a physical guy, but he’s skilled at the same time. That team has a bright future (with Vucevic at center).’’
Vucevic weathered a rough patch in the season in late November and responded with a huge night (17 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and four dunks) when the Magic vanquished Howard and the Lakers on Dec. 2. Since then, he’s been dominant on the glass and much more confident when finishing around the rim. Vaughn calls Vucevic’s daily growth one of the most satisfying aspects of the season so far.

``We all have dreams, so yes I could envision him playing like this and I’m glad it’s all coming to fruition now for him,’’ Vaughn said. ``He’s been unbelievable and consistent for us. We’ve talked to him about getting rebounds outside of his area and he’s done it. We’re short-handed right (with the injury to power forward Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis) and that’s made rebounding even more of a premium and Nik has been unbelievable.’’

In Los Angeles where the Magic (12-23) will face the surging Los Angeles Clippers (28-8) on Saturday afternoon, Vucevic got to spend time with many of his buddies from his high school in nearby Simi Valley and college at USC. Those friends flooded his phone with congratulatory messages two weeks ago when he broke Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic record for rebounds in a game with 28. In that game, he set a new career-best just after halftime, had 20 rebounds by the end of three quarters, got four boards on one sequence in the fourth quarter and topped the mark previously held by O’Neal – and never before reached by Howard – in overtime against the Heat. That night, he outrebounded All-NBA performer Chris Bosh 29-4.

``You have to have a feel for rebounding and know where the ball is going to bounce and be in the right place. But the thing most important is effort,’’ Vucevic said. ``You have to really want the ball and be able to go up and get it. For me, that’s the main thing.’’

When asked if he’s surprised himself with his ability to outmuscle and outmaneuver some of the biggest and baddest dudes in the NBA in the paint so far this season, Vucevic offers up a yes/no type of answer.

Rebounding is something that his father has stressed that he should always do in every game regardless of how many points he scores. The two talk after just about every game, and often his father is critical of his hustle or toughness on certain plays. But there was nothing but praise on the night of the 29-rebound effort – a moment that even gave Nikola himself a glimpse at how bright his future is.

``Getting 29 rebounds, yeah that was surprising because that’s a lot of rebounds,’’ he said with a sheepish chuckle. ``But I’ve always been able to rebound really well since a young age. In college I did a good job of rebounding and I led the (then Pac-10) in rebounding. It’s just something that I know I can do well. I take pride in it and I’m the biggest guy on the team, so I have to do that every night for us to be able to win games.’’

Vucevic is hardly satisfied with where he is now. That’s where the whole improving thing comes in for him once again. He usually works daily before and after practice on finishing stronger around the rim. His hope is that he can soon make as much improvement offensively as he has made in becoming a rebounding force for the Magic.

``I think I will always be a good rebounder, but I’ll keep working hard every day and maybe one day I’ll be good enough to be a scorer in this league,’’ he said humbly. ``That’s the goal and something that I work on every day to get better at.’’

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