Nikola Vucevic Willing to Step Out of Comfort Zone for Betterment of Team

ATLANTA – English is Nikola Vucevic’s third language behind his native Serbian and the French he mostly spoke as a child while growing up in Belgium and Switzerland, but that’s hardly the reason why the Orlando Magic center was reticent to speak up to teammates early in his NBA career.

Instead, Vucevic felt that he had to first establish himself in the NBA as an elite player who could be trusted and ultimately earn the respect of his peers before barking at them in the heat of the moment during games.

Coincidentally, Vucevic’s English is nearly flawless and there’s hardly a hint of a European accent when he talks with his usual monotone speaking voice. Now 29 years old, a nine-year NBA veteran, the longest-tenured member of the Magic and one season removed from establishing himself as an All-Star performer, Vucevic feels he has properly earned the right to call out his Orlando teammates when he sees something that he doesn’t like during games.

``You go through the draft process, and people ask you if you are a leader?’’ Vucevic said of being a vocal leader during games and in locker-room settings. ``Maybe I was in college (at USC) when I was a junior, and other guys were younger than me. But I’m not going to come in my rookie year (in the NBA) and yell at (former Philadelphia 76ers’ teammate Andre) Iguodala.

``(Analysts) throw that (leader label) around, but that’s not something that you decide to be; it’s something you earn when you have the respect of your teammates,’’ Vucevic continued. ``I just feel like I’m an established player now, I’ve been around a long time and my teammates respect me for the way that I play. So, when I do say something, I think they are going to listen to it and respect it.’’

That was certainly the case on Monday night in Brooklyn when several Magic players credited Vucevic’s fiery, third-quarter rant during a time out for Orlando digging its way out of a 19-point hole and beating the Nets 115-113 at Barclays Center.

When a 13-point halftime deficit swelled to 19 at 67-48 some 3 minutes and 13 seconds into the third quarter, Vucevic angrily barked at his teammates during a time out about ``playing the right way’’ and he ordered them to ``move the ball’’ the rest of the game. The response to Vucevic’s rant were downright shocking as Orlando outscored Brooklyn 67-46 the rest of the way to record its largest come-from-behind victory of the season at 19 points. Remarkably, a Magic team that shot just 35.6 percent from the floor and missed 15 of 18 3-point shots over the game’s first 24 minutes inexplicably drilled 63.6 percent of its shots and converted on 10 of 16 threes in the second half.

Magic standouts Aaron Gordon (17 of his game-high 27 points in the second half), Terrence Ross (all 21 of his points and four 3-pointers in the second half), Evan Fournier (21 points and three 3-pointers in the game) and even veteran head coach Steve Clifford were quick to credit their 7-foot center for the offensive explosion over the second half. Vucevic also backed up his rant with plenty of substance as he made all five of his third-quarter shots and poured in 14 of his 16 points during the Magic’s best offensive half of the season.

``I thought it was good that he told us how he felt, and we had a good reaction,’’ said Fournier, Vucevic’s closest friend on the Magic and his teammate for the past six seasons. ``After he said what he said, it was about how we handled the physicality and intensity on defense, the execution and details on offense. We always say, `Move the ball,’ and it means everything, and it means nothing. When we have that attention to the details defensively, it carries over to the offense and that’s what happened.’’

An Orlando team in the throes of a topsy-turvy season thus far is eager to see if Vucevic’s fiery rant and the subsequent come-from-behind win on Monday will carry over in the days, weeks and months ahead. The eighth-seeded Magic (25-32) pulled within 1½ games of seventh-seeded Brooklyn (26-30) and they hope to make up even more ground on Wednesday when they face the Hawks (17-42) in Atlanta. Superstar guard Trae Young and the Hawks have given the Magic fits this season, winning two of the three meetings thus far. Clifford, for one, hopes that Vucevic’s message has some staying power on Wednesday when Orlando faces its Southeast Division rival.

``This either ends up being the beginning of improved, sustained play or it’s just a really good win, which every team in this league has,’’ Clifford said of Monday’s victory in Brooklyn. ``It’s one of those two things. We either go to practice (on Tuesday), we try to get better, we learn from (the game plan) and then we play well against a team in Atlanta that we’ve really struggled with this year. Or we just started a road trip (well). Every team in our league will have a good win and that was a really good win, so we’ll see what we make of it.’’

What to make of Vucevic stepping outside of his comfort zone and speaking up to jar the Magic out of a Monday malaise? Humble and not one to seek out praise, Vucevic didn’t want to take too much credit for his speech that inspired the Magic to one of their most important wins of the season. After all, Vucevic said, the Magic don’t win without Gordon’s seven-for-seven second-half shooting, Ross’ eight-of-nine accuracy over the final 24 minutes, Gordon’s spectacular block of a Caris LeVert layup with nine seconds remaining and Brooklyn’s Taurean Prince misfiring on a 27-foot 3-point shot in the final second of the game.

Vucevic admitted afterward that his fiery pep talk during the time out was partly directed at himself. He had just two points in the first half and that lone basket didn’t come until the game was already more than 22 minutes old. He did get himself going in that fateful third quarter by drilling all five of his shots, including his lone 3-pointer of the night.

``I was frustrated because we weren’t playing the right way and we weren’t giving ourselves a chance,’’ he said in the joyous Magic locker room after the win. ``I feel like I could have been more aggressive in the first half because I was trying to move the ball a little too much maybe. It was just more because we weren’t playing the right way, and that’s why I was frustrated. We were down by a lot and it was a big game for us, and all of those things added up and I did what I did.’’

Ross said Vucevic was able to inspire his teammates with a simple, but direct comment during the third-quarter time out. Remarkably, Ross added, Vucevic didn’t even feel the need to pepper his comments with any colorful language.

```Just move the ball’ – as simple as that – that was the quote,’’ Ross said. ``It’s simple basketball (when the ball is moving). Actually, no (expletives). He just said it really loud.

``(Vucevic) talks a lot, but he’s not like over-the-top about it,’’ Ross added later. ``What he said got our team going.’’

Fournier, a native of France, has said for years that he often shied away from angrily speaking up to teammates early in his career because of his wavering confidence with the English language. Fournier and Vucevic often speak French on the floor and in the locker room, but both have grown accustomed to calling out teammates when needed in English.

``Nahhh, I probably wouldn’t have done that two or three years ago, but I have a lot more confidence now,’’ Fournier admitted candidly. ``Even if I make mistakes (speaking English), I really don’t care now.

``Obviously, when you have a key guy from a team (speak up) like Vooch, it means a lot, for sure,’’ Fournier added. ``The way we responded and the way we shot the ball, it was crazy. When we move the ball and make shots, it makes things a lot easier.’’

Vucevic, who leads the Magic in scoring (19.1 points per game) and rebounding (10.8 boards a game), said in the future he will carefully pick his spots as to when he speaks up to his teammates. After all, words often lose their meaning and rants don’t have the same impact when they aren’t backed up by actions.

``I think it’s important that you pick the right moments and that you don’t just bark all the time,’’ he said. ``And you have to have something behind you and not just say things because you think you need to talk.’’

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