Winning is What Matters Most to Nikola Vucevic

By John Denton
Dec. 12, 2017

ORLANDO – On the New Year’s Eve night in 2012 when Nikola Vucevic did the unthinkable in grabbing 29 rebounds and eclipsing Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic record for boards in a game, the 7-foot center’s team suffered a heartbreaking, double-overtime loss.

On the night when Vucevic passed O’Neal for second on the Magic’s all-time rebounding list, he wasn’t even able to enjoy the moment because Orlando was whalloped in a lopsided loss in Chicago.

This season, two of the greatest games of Vucevic’s seven-year NBA career – a 41-point, 12-rebound effort on Oct. 20 in Brooklyn and a dominant triple-double performance on Saturday in Atlanta – came similarly in losses.

Orlando’s longest-tenured player is carving out quite the legacy for himself among the Magic’s all-time greats, but the one thing missing from his rather impressive resume is the team success. Not only has Orlando’s five-plus seasons of struggles robbed Vucevic much of the joy of celebrating his accomplishments, but they have most likely kept him out of NBA All-Star Games. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, whose team will be in Orlando to face the Magic (11-17) on Wednesday, playfully called the Magic’s center ``the best player in the league that nobody knows’’ back in 2014, and that is largely because the Magic haven’t been to the playoffs since 2012.

It’s somewhat cliché to say that the big man would trade it all in for winning, but at this point Vucevic says his only focus is trying to find ways to help the Magic become winners once again.

``That’s really the only thing that matters to me – what you’ve done as a team because basketball is a team sport,’’ said Vucevic, who is well on his way to leading the Magic in rebounding a sixth consecutive season and has 208 double-doubles in Orlando pinstripes. ``All of the individual honors are great, but there’s nothing better than winning as a team. Even your individual awards are much better when you win. If I would have had my triple-double in a win, it would have been so much better. Hopefully we get there before too long, getting more wins and getting to the playoffs because that would make everybody feel better. And it would feel better for me as well.’’

Vucevic could very well have to do most of the heavy lifting again on Wednesday against the Clippers (10-15) with Orlando possibly missing Aaron Gordon (concussion), Evan Fournier (ankle sprain), Terrence Ross (knee sprain) and Jonathan Isaac (ankle sprain) still bothered by injuries. Gordon, who suffered his concussion on Friday following a face-first collision with Denver’s Gary Harris, is the closest to returning after passing the first three stages of the NBA’s concussion protocol. If he makes it through Wednesday morning’s shoot-around session without symptoms and is cleared by an independent physician, Gordon should be ready to go on Wednesday.

``He did non-contact work (on Tuesday) and they keep testing him each day after the work level rises,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said of Gordon. ``He’ll continue with that (on Wednesday) at shootaround and we won’t know if he’s available until after shootaround sometime (during the day).’’

With the Magic playing without their top two scorers in Gordon (18.5 ppg.) and Fournier (18.3 ppg.), Vucevic did his best to pick up the slack and give his team a chance to win on Saturday in Atlanta. Not only did he score 31 points on an ultra-efficient 13-of-18 overall shooting and four-of-six accuracy from 3-point range, he handed out a career-best 10 assists and grabbed 13 rebounds. The assists are a product of the Magic putting the ball in Vucevic’s hands and trusting him to make the right play.

``The more times he touches the ball, the more good things that happen,’’ Vogel said recently of his big man. ``It’s kind of a general theme that we have that when things are getting stagnant, get the ball in (Vucevic’s) hands someway – in the post or at the top of the key in the dribble-hand-off game because he usually makes good things happen.’’

Added Magic veteran point guard D.J. Augustin: ``Vooch can score the ball with the best of the bigs and shoot the ball better than any big in the league. And he’s really smart and unselfish – something a lot of people don’t know. He knows how to play the game. You can put Vooch on any team in the league and he’d succeed. You can’t say for a lot of people in the NBA. … Vooch is a smart player and he makes everybody around him better.’’

That has played out in the win/loss column this season when Vucevic has been relied upon in the Magic offense. When he scores at least 15 points, Orlando is 9-7, but it is just 2-10 when he fails to reach that 15-point plateau.

News of the first triple-double of Vucevic’s NBA career reached all the way to his native Montenegro and he received dozens of congratulatory text messages, tweets and calls from family, friends and National Team teammates from his home country. Still, Vucevic felt a bit embarrassed by all of the attention because his stellar performance didn’t come in a victory. He helped the short-handed Magic get the game tied at 110 in the final minutes, but the Hawks made all of the key plays down the stretch for a 117-110 victory.

Vucevic joined Dwight Howard (30 points, 19 rebounds and 10 blocks in 2008) and O’Neal (24 points, 28 rebounds and 15 blocks in 1993) as the only Magic centers to record triple-doubles, but the caveat to his was that he did with assists. Playing the right way – a phrase that the 27-year-old Vucevic likes to use because of his high respect for the game – made the performance special despite the loss.

``It would have much better in a win, but to me it was just about me wanting to help the team and carry the team in any way that I can,’’ said Vucevic, who is averaging 17.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and a career-best 3.3 assists per game. ``I’m proud of it because I was able to do it with assists and a lot of big men don’t do it that way. I was just trying to help the team anyway that I could.

``My passing came from us playing the right way and guys cutting and me finding them,’’ he added. ``It wasn’t a triple-double where it was me having the ball all the time (with extra shots). It was just me trying to find guys in the flow. That’s why I appreciate this so much more.’’

A huge fan of soccer and specifically the Italian club, Juventus F.C., Vucevic’s favorite players have always been the ones who stick with their teams for long periods of time. Even though the Magic haven’t had much success in recent years, Vucevic considers himself extraordinarily fortunate to have stuck in Orlando these 5½ seasons. Playing for the Magic for so long has allowed him to climb in the record books as he now ranks second in total rebounds (3,966), second in 10-rebound games (228, 14 this season) and he recently passed Scott Skiles for ninth in all-time minutes played for the franchise.

And the impressive numbers don’t stop there for the big man. In his Magic career, he has had six 20-point/20-rebound games, two 30-point/20-rebound games, 72 20-point/10-rebound performances and 30 times he’s notched at least 25 points and 10 rebounds. Those nights have allowed him to do things in a Magic jersey that greats such as Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Nick Anderson, Horace Grant, Dennis Scott, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, O’Neal and Howard never accomplished.

``It means a lot to me, especially considering all of the great players who have played for this franchise,’’ said Vucevic, who has averaged 16 points and 10.6 rebounds over his 376 games with the Magic. ``It also comes from being able to play for a franchise for a long time. It allows you to leave some prints with your individual achievements.

``Last year, when I surpassed Shaq for rebounding, that was big for me because everybody knows how big Shaq is and all he’s done throughout his career. Obviously, Dwight is far away (for the lead) because he was a rebounding machine when he was here.’’

Vucevic vowed that all of the losing has only hardened his desire to help the Magic get over the hump and back into the playoffs. After all, posting big numbers and setting records feels much better in victories than in losses, the big man stressed.

``All of those (statistics) mean a lot to me, but hopefully it won’t be long until we start to get some wins and do some great things as a team as well,’’ he said with conviction.

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