Vucevic Earning Praise From Stars Throughout League

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – After almost every game that the Orlando Magic have played this season, there’s been a steady stream of elite players – some of them the best in the NBA such as LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul, Nikola Jokic and D’Angelo Russell – making a beeline toward center Nikola Vucevic to congratulate him on what has been a career year.

Clearly, the mild-mannered 7-footer has earned their respect despite playing on a Magic team that has struggled for much of the past seven seasons. Now, Vucevic is hopeful that having the respect of some of the NBA’s top talent will allow him to share a locker room with them at the NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 17 in Charlotte.

Not long after Vucevic jumps center against Indiana Pacers’ big man Myles Turner on Thursday night, the NBA will announce the Eastern and Western Conference reserves for the NBA All-Star Game. Vucevic, 28 and an eight-year NBA veteran, makes no secrets about the fact that he desperately hopes to be chosen as an all-star. If the nod does come, it will be the ultimate sign of respect for Vucevic.

``It would mean everything to me,’’ said Vucevic, whose Magic (20-31) will host the Pacers (32-17) on Thursday. ``Obviously, I’ve been through a lot here (in Orlando) and our (Magic) team has been through a lot and to finally get the recognition (would be nice). I know I’m respected around this league and enough people respect my game and know what I��m capable of doing but getting selected as an All-Star would take me to that next step, I think.’’

The reserves are voted on by the head coaches and their ballots had to be turned in by Tuesday. Many of the coaches in the Eastern Conference have raved about the production, versatility and consistency of a Magic big man who will go into Thursday’s game averaging 20.7 points, 12 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.2 blocks – all career highs. Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks went as far strongly hinting that Orlando’s big man got his vote for the all-star team.

``I just voted (on Friday). Do you want to know who I voted for? Alright, I do like him,’’ Brooks said last week while talking about Vucevic. ``I think he’s playing well and averaging career highs in rebounds and points – 20 points and 12 rebounds a game. He’s doing a great job and he’s improved every year and he’s doing the things that the league sometimes forgets about players like him from that (center) spot. But he’s fought his way and he’s made himself a good player. Each year he seems to have gotten better. I don’t know anything about him as a person, but he seems to be a great teammate and a good guy, and he deserves it. Hopefully, coaches vote for him.’’

Orlando coach Steve Clifford certainly agrees even though he wasn’t allowed to vote for Vucevic because coaches can’t vote for their own players. Clifford has said all season that in this first season of working with the center he’s been amazed by Vucevic’s smarts, will to win and steady improvement on the defensive end.

``It would be great for him and great for our franchise,’’ Clifford said. ``Listen, to be an all-star it’s an incredible award. … He’s very deserving. The votes are in, so nobody’s campaigning, but he’s very deserving.

``He’s really played at a high level at both ends of the floor,’’ Clifford added. ``I think he’s smart, he gets himself ready to play every night. And one of the biggest things is what he started doing last year is he’s shooting more threes. He’s always been a really good post-up player, but the fact that he can play comfortably from the perimeter, that makes it a big change for him.’’

Orlando’s last all-star selection was center Dwight Howard in 2012, and Clifford is hopeful that the big man is honored for his high level of play this season. This season, he’s scored 20-or-more points 29 times and 30-or-more points five times. He’s grabbed double-digit rebounds 35 times, including a season-best 24 against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 6. In addition to notching the second triple-double of his career on Oct. 20 in Philadelphia (27 points, 13 rebounds and a career-best 12 assists), Vucevic was named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week for a period ending on Nov. 18 when he averaged 27.8 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.25 steals over a four-game stretch.

In a season where the Magic’s play has been dominated by so much inconsistency, Vucevic’s consistency on a nightly basis causes his teammates to marvel.

``He’s Mr. Consistent, even when I played him in college, he was just like this – the same guy, an in-and-out player and somebody who will go 15 (points) and 12 (rebounds), won’t miss a shot and go left hand and right hand,’’ raved teammate Terrence Ross. ``For him to maintain it this long, it’s amazing.’’

Added forward Jonathan Isaac: ``I don’t want to say late in his career, but the fact that he’s getting better each year and now has an opportunity to make the all-star game, it speaks to his work ethic, how much he’s put into the game and how much he’s put into this team. So, I’m going to be extremely happy for him if it happens and still happy if it doesn’t happen that he was mentioned in the (all-star) category.’’

Vucevic, who owns career averages of 15.4 points and 10 rebounds, likely would have been an all-star long ago had it not been for many of the Magic’s struggles through the years. He averaged 19.3 points in 2014-15 and 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds in 2015-16, but his push to make those all-star teams were sabotaged by poor team performances in January and February. Similarly, the Magic head into the final game of January on Thursday with a 4-11 mark and an ugly four-game losing streak since the calendar turned to 2019.

Vucevic is hopeful that coaches will take into account how he has kept the team afloat and in the postseason race much of the season and finally reward him with the All-Star bid that he feels is long overdue.

``Hopefully coaches recognize (his consistent contributions) and it sure would mean a lot to me. But we’ll see,’’ he said. ``It’s right there and I’m hoping for the best. I really do think that I deserve it because of my play all year long, what I mean to the team and what I’ve done for the team all year long. I think the coaches know that and will recognize it. I really feel that, in the East, after (Joel) Embiid, I’m one of the best big men.’’

Embiid and other star players have been quick to compliment the 7-footer with the rugged low-post game and the soft touch from the outside. Getting postgame handshakes and congratulatory messages from some of the best players in the game means a lot to him, he said. Now, he simply wants to be in the same galaxy as those stars at the midseason all-star game.

``I know that my peers around the NBA respect me and I have respect around the NBA,’’ he said. ``That’s the most important thing because you want to be respected. When you see those best players in the league giving you their respect, that’s what you want. At the end of the day, that really, really matters to me.’’

``The (all-star) weekend itself is fun but just being selected among the best players in the league, honestly, I don’t know how I’ll feel in that moment, but I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions going through me,’’ he added. ``I’ll hope for the best and we’ll see what happens.’’

Ever the team player, Vucevic said he also wants the all-star honor for a Magic franchise that traded for him back in 2012 when he was a lightly regarded big man from Montenegro. Through the years, he’s developed into one of the NBA’s most lethal centers with his wide array of skills even as the team around him has struggled. He’s never asked to be traded and never wanted to leave Orlando, and he is hopeful that by making the all-star game, it will be a bit of repayment to those in the Magic organization who believed in him when few else did.

``Obviously, as a franchise, we’ve been through a lot lately and I think this would give us something positive,’’ Vucevic said. ``For me, I came here my second year and I’ve become the player that I am by being here. This city has given me a lot and this franchise has given me a lot, so it would mean a lot for me (to make it).

``We obviously haven’t gotten a lot of national recognition, so (an all-star berth) would give us something,’’ he added. ``I’d be honored to represent the Magic out there, for sure.’’

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