Vucevic Excited to Put Uniform Back On and Join Teammates on Court

By John Denton
Feb. 22, 2018

ORLANDO – Nikola Vucevic didn’t have to wait until tipoff tonight to get excited about playing in his first game since Dec. 23. That moment came as soon as he stepped into the Orlando Magic’s locker room for the team’s morning shoot-around practice.

``I got excited just seeing my jersey hanging there,’’ Vucevic said, referring to his dressing stall in the team’s locker room. ``It’s been a long time and I’m looking forward to going out there and competing with my teammates. Playing is the best part of what we do, so I’m excited about being back playing.’’

When the Magic (18-39) host the New York Knicks (23-36) tonight at 7 at the Amway Center, it will mark the return of starters Aaron Gordon and Vucevic. Gordon missed the nine games prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game because of a strained left hip flexor, while Vucevic has been out since Dec. 23 because of a fractured bone in his left hand.

Vucevic and Gordon will start tonight, meaning Bismack Biyombo and Mario Hezonja will return to reserve roles. The Magic played surprisingly well without two of their leading scorers, notching impressive wins against Cleveland, Miami, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Lakers prior to the break. Head coach Frank Vogel plans to ease Vucevic and Gordon back in slowly, starting them, but also limiting their minutes.

``It’ll definitely be an adjustment for everybody and for those guys after having not played in some time,’’ Vogel admitted. ``Hopefully it doesn’t put us too much out of sync. Just getting those guys back will improve what we’re doing.’’

Vogel said that while he plans to lean heavily on the scoring abilities of Gordon (18.4 ppg.) and Vucevic (17.3 ppg.), he wants to make sure that forward Mario Hezonja is still a featured part of the offense because of the improvements that he’s made of late. Pressed into duty because of the injuries, Hezonja averaged 16.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 50.4 percent from floor in the 10 games prior to the break.

Vogel said just because the Magic have reinforcements coming back into the fold that it shouldn’t hamper the progress that Hezonja has made of late.

``Keep playing him a lot of minutes,’’ Vogel said of looking for ways to keep Hezonja in the groove that he found while playing 29.3 minutes per game in those 10 games prior to the break. ``I intend to keep him in there, coming off the bench. He’ll see some time at the (small forward) and, obviously, backing up Aaron at (power forward). Both of those guys, Aaron and Vooch, aren’t going to play heavy minutes and there will still be a lot of minutes to go around.’’

That’s good news for Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the roster. In addition to ranking third on the team in scoring and first in rebounding for a sixth straight season, Vucevic has averaged a career-best in assists (3.3 apg.) while embracing Vogel’s share-the-ball theme on offense. Vucevic knows that the Magic once again face longshot odds in making the playoffs, but he desperately wants to see the team play well down the stretch so that it can cull something from a season that has otherwise been frustrating because of injuries and long stretches of uneven play.

``We have to try to build some good habits around here. That’s something that we need to do because it’s important doing the little things that can help us become a better team,’’ Vucevic said. ``In the past few weeks, guys have been doing that by moving the ball, playing together, understanding where they need to be. Defensively, that’s somewhere when we need to put that emphasis and try to become a good defensive team.

``We don’t have much to play for as far as the postseason but finishing the right way on a positive note with some wins can carry onto next year,’’ he added. ``So I think that’s something we need to look to do.’’

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