Vucevic: "Had to Make A Lot of Sacrifices"

Magic center reflects back on journey to NBA

By John Denton
Jan. 8, 2015

LOS ANGELES – Thousands, if not millions of young basketball players dream of making it to the NBA every year, but most aren’t willing to put in the work or make the necessary sacrifices to reach the sport’s grandest stage.

Nikola Vucevic, a big man with basketball in his bloodlines, shared the dream of playing in the NBA even though he lived a half-a-world away as a kid. But eight years ago Vucevic was willing to give up everything comfortable in his life – living in his hometown of Bar, Montenegro, being around his family and friends and speaking his native languages – to make sure that his NBA dreams would one day become a reality.

As a blossoming 16-year-old who hoped to someday play basketball professionally, Vucevic made the bold decision to leave Montenegro behind in 2007 and enroll in a boarding school in Southern California, even though he spoke or even understood little English at the time.

With a father, Borislav, who had played professionally in Europe for 24 years, Vucevic had a strong resource in his life when it came to determining the proper path to the NBA. Still, it was quite the daunting task for the then-teenaged Vucevic to move 5,000 miles away from the comforts of home and with his broken English to chase his hoops dream. Despite terrible bouts of homesickness, Vucevic stuck it out in America, later thrived as a college player and accomplished the goal of reaching the NBA.

``In high school, it was tough for me moving away, going to school and practice while my English wasn’t that good and living with a family that I didn’t know at all,’’ Vucevic recalled. ``I had to make a lot of sacrifices, but my dad always told me if I wanted this – if I really wanted to get to the NBA – that I would have to make sacrifices in my life. I did that and I don’t regret anything at all because I have gotten to where I want to be.’’

Every return trip to Southern California – such as the one Vucevic’s Orlando Magic made on Thursday for Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers – reminds the 7-footer of his unlikely journey to the NBA. Once a skinny, 6-foot-7 power forward that preferred jump shots over physical post plays and was much too shy to speak English around others, Vucevic has evolved now into a franchise fixture for the Magic and one of the NBA’s best all-around centers. As for his English, quite frankly, Vucevic speaks better than some of his American-born teammates.

``For him to be from Eastern Europe and come over here and adapt his life and adapt his game, it’s really amazing what Nik has done,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, Vucevic’s best friend on the team. ``It’s hard when you have to leave your country and you speak another language. Those first two years were hard for him – that’s something that we’ve talked a lot about. But Vooch is Vooch now. He’s more American that a lot of guys around here. He kept fighting for his dream and that’s why he’s here in the NBA now.’’

`BEST YOUNG PLAYER OF 2007’

The son of a pro basketball player who bounced around Europe, Nikola – or ``Nik’’ as he American coaches and teammates like to call him – was born in Morges, Switzerland and grew up in Belgium. While there, he learned to speak French – the language he uses to communicate with Fournier in the Magic locker room and when the two of them hang out in each other’s hotel rooms on road trips. Vucevic’s mother, Ljiljana, a 6-foot-2, forward, played for a club team in Sarajevo and was a member of the Yugoslavian National Team.

Borislav, a sweet-shooting 6-foot-10 forward, won a European Champions Cup in 1979 and once played for the Yugoslavian National Team alongside of the legendary Drazen Petrovic, and the family moved back to their native Montenegro when Nikola was a teenager.

The family lived in Bar, a port city of roughly 45,000 people, where Borislav once constructed Nikola a basketball goal constructed of his own wood and iron.

Nikola grew up watching the Chicago Bulls’ championship runs with Michael Jordan and his favorite player was Dirk Nowitzki because of the German’s ability to make the smooth transition from Europe to the NBA.

The work with his father and the growth in his own game led Nikola to being named Montenegro’s ``Best Young Player of 2007.’’ Already the best young prospect in his country by age 16, Nikola began plotting the best move that would help him reach his goal of playing in the NBA.

``It was a big decision for me and my parents. I was playing in my hometown in Montenegro and I felt like I had achieved the (top) level and I felt like I needed to go to the U.S. to achieve more,’’ Nik said. ``If I had stayed there I wouldn’t have had a chance to improve because I felt like I had already topped out.

``I could have gone to a (pro) team in Europe and tried to get some minutes, but playing time is tough there because they are already have their guys and they don’t really play young guys,’’ Nik added. ``We felt like in the U.S., I’d be able to play against guys my age, but they would be better than me and at a higher level than me. We thought if I got playing time (in America) that I would improve. In the end, it worked out great for me because that made me a better player.’’

Fellow Montenegrin, Nikola Pekovic, who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves, has known Vucevic since his teen years and he always thought that the big man with the soft hands, off-the-charts basketball IQ and knack for rebounding would blossom into a big-time basketball talent.

``He just needed to work hard. That’s the main thing if you want to succeed here in the NBA,’’ Pekovic said. ``He was working hard and playing hard and he was staying within his limits and not trying to do some crazy things.

``I mean he needed to develop playing back to the basket if he wanted to succeed playing here,’’ Pekovic continued. ``He’s a big, long, tall guy, so that (post game) can only help him in his game when you have an advantage inside. I’m not surprised (with Vucevic’s progress) because he’s a smart person and a smart player. I think he will still develop his game a lot more.’’

COMING TO AMERICA

With Nik seeking a higher level of competition to grow his game and possibly get good enough someday to play in the NBA, it helped, of course, that his father had basketball contacts all over Europe from his two decades in the sport professionally.

An uncle of Nik’s had coached professionally in France and he was familiar with a Senegalese coach who had helped start a basketball program at a boarding school in Simi Valley, Calif., just 45 miles outside of Los Angeles. The coach at Stoneridge Prep, Babacar Sy, took one look at the tapes of a young Vucevic stroking jump shots and crashing the boards with his amazing knack for knowing where balls will come off the rim, and he pushed hard the rising player to make the leap to America. It also helped that Vucevic’s ``god brother’’ Nikola Dragovic played previously at Stoneridge Prep and went on to earn a scholarship at UCLA.

Located an hour’s drive northwest of Los Angeles in the foothills of Simi Valley, Stoneridge Prep evolved through the years as a factory for rising basketball talent and a haven for college scouts. At times, it has had as few as 50 students that attend classes in adobe buildings surrounded by strawberry fields and grazing livestock. Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson, who went on to team with Vucevic in college, is one of the most successful basketball players to come out of Stoneridge Prep.

Nikola brought his father along with him to Southern California in 2007 and while he was excited about the opportunity to play basketball against elite competition, he was intimidated by the culture shock and the language barrier. It did help that three of the players on the team were from France and three more were from Senegal, meaning they could all converse in French while making the transition to America.

``The first semester, it took me some time to adjust to the speed of the game and the life here in the U.S. That first semester, I was just playing OK, but nothing special,’’ Nik recalled. ``It was the language because I wasn’t speaking very good English and I didn’t understand much that my coaches and my teammates were saying. That made it really hard at first. And everything was different for me, so it took me time to get comfortable. When you aren’t comfortable off the court, you don’t play as well. It took me some time, but after I got adjusted it made a big difference and I started playing really well. I really improved a lot. After that first semester, I went home and when I came back I made huge improvements. I was much more confident and I got a lot better on the basketball court.’’

What little English that Vucevic knew came, fittingly enough, from watching the movie, ``Love and Basketball’’ over again and again. The version that Vucevic owned had French subtitles and it allowed him to learn a handful of words, especially some of the slang jargon often used in locker rooms between players who aren’t exactly conversing about the meaning of life.

``At first, I was shy because I didn’t want to make mistakes (speaking English). I would say phrases like, `I … go … tomorrow … eat … food,’’’ Vucevic said, breaking out in laughter at the memory of his language struggles. ``I started speaking more and learning from my mistakes. The more I spoke it and listened to it, the better I did. I didn’t feel like my English was very good until my sophomore year of college.’’

THE DREAM COMING TRUE

While Vucevic might have struggled with English, he spoke the language of basketball very well. As a 6-foot-9 senior at Stoneridge Prep, he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds a game. Despite receiving heavy interest from Nevada-Reno, Vucevic picked USC to play his college basketball. The coach there at the time, Tim Floyd, had NBA experience, and he quickly became friends with Gibson because of their Stoneridge Prep ties.

Vucevic’s one-year stint at Stoneridge Prep left him ineligible at the start of his college career because of Clearinghouse issues with the NCAA. As a freshman, Vucevic played in just 23 games (with three starts), but what proved to be the most beneficial to his game was the daily battles that he and Gibson would have before and after practices and during the offseason. Both were skinny, perimeter-based players at the time, but Floyd had them go at one another repeatedly in the post to toughen them up.

``When Vooch first got to USC he was more of a jump-shooter, but Coach Floyd made us go at it every day after practice so that both of us could get stronger,’’ Gibson remembered. ``Nik was even like a 3-point shooter in college, but he is way, way better now. He’s always been one of those guys with a strong work ethic. He worked hard in college because he always felt like he was underestimated and over the years he just kept improving every year. Now, you see his confidence is through the roof and it’s just a testament to how hard he’s worked.’’

Before Vucevic’s sophomore season, Floyd left the program, three players – most notably Gibson and Daniel Hackett – declared for the NBA Draft and five recruits changed their commitments. That opened up plenty of playing time for Vucevic – who had grown to 7-foot and was nearly 240 pounds by now. All he did over the next two seasons was become the first USC player to lead the then-Pac-10 in rebounding two consecutive years (9.4 rpg. as a sophomore and 10.3 rpg. as a junior) and become the first USC player to average a double-double (17.1 points and 10.3 rpg.) since Lorenzo Orr in 1994.

``Back then, he would turn and face-up, he’d shoot jumpers and he’d even make threes,’’ said Orlando Magic reserve center Dewayne Dedmon, a teammate of Vucevic’s at USC for half a season. ``He even had that European thing where he would flash the three (fingers) as he ran back down the court. Vooch was always big with those huge legs, but he could really shoot the three and he still had that touch around the rim.’’

Vucevic’s life came full circle a bit on Thursday when the Orlando Magic practiced at USC’s Galen Center. As soon as the team’s bus pulled into the building, collegiate memories began flooding back to Vucevic. He teased Magic video analyst Matt Hill – a 6-foot-10 former center at Texas – about the big night he had against the Longhorns. And he reminded Magic forward Channing Frye the time that the Trojans topped the University of Arizona in Los Angeles.

``It brings a lot of memories back because I had a lot of fun times in this gym,’’ Vucevic said on Thursday. ``It was a great three years here and I was very fortunate to be a part of this school.’’

ACCOMPLISHING THE DREAM

The growth that Vucevic made while in high school at Stoneridde Prep and at USC put him in position to finally accomplish his goal of playing in the NBA. His parents made the trek to New York for the 2011 NBA Draft, and it was Ljiljana’s first trip to the United States. That night, all of Nik’s sacrifices in moving away from home, moving away from his family and moving to a place where he understood very little of the language, proved worth it when he was selected No. 16 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers.

``It was always my dream my dream to get to the NBA. I think anybody who starts playing basketball they want to get to the NBA,’’ Vucevic said. ``When I first came to the U.S., I really didn’t know what chance that I had to make it, but I just tried to put in the work and see if I could do it. From the point where I was to where I am now, I’ve come a long way.’’

When the Magic were forced to trade unhappy superstar center Dwight Howard in 2012, new GM Rob Hennigan insisted that Philadelphia throw Vucevic into the four-team, 12-player megadeal. Hennigan had scouted Vucevic as a rising player at the Under-20 European Championships in 2009 and he saw his progress at USC and thought he could blossom into a key piece in Orlando.

Has he ever? Vucevic broke Shaquille O’Neal’s franchise record for rebounds in a game on Dec. 31, 2012 with 29 boards. He had four 20-point, 20-rebound games that season and two more in 2013-14. The 24-year-old center’s scoring average has steadily climbed each of his three seasons in Orlando to 18 points a night. He also ranks sixth in the NBA in rebounding (11.0 rpg.) and his 20 double-doubles (giving him 102 in three years in Orlando) are second in the NBA.

Magic coach Jacque Vaughn has raved for years about Vucevic’s high basketball IQ – something that helps him as a rebounder and a scorer from various spots on the floor. Vaughn appreciates the fact that Vucevic grew up around the game while his father played and Vaughn likes how Nik has always dedicated himself to becoming a better player.

``One thing that hopefully he never takes for granted is that a lot of people made sacrifices for him and he had to make the ultimate sacrifice too of dedicating himself to the game. I think he’s done pretty well for himself,’’ Vaughn said. ``I’m just his coach right now, but his permanent coach is his dad. His dad works him out, he’s raised him and Nik saw the approach that his dad had as far as playing as long as he did. I would hope that he would give his dad a lot of credit.’’

The Magic rewarded Vucevic’s devotion to bettering his game and banked on his vast potential by signing him to a four-year contract extension in October. At various times over the past eight years – when he signed a college scholarship to play at USC; when he was drafted into the NBA; and when he signed the lucrative contract extension – Vucevic thought about how his life might have been different had he not made the decision to leave all the comforts in his life to pursue his hoops dreams in America.

Leaving his family, friends and way of life behind was difficult – and there were times for sure when Vucevic thought about heading back to Europe – but his willingness to make sacrifices and chase the NBA dream paid off in a big way for him.

``I was 16 and I was really homesick, but I knew that (coming to America) was good for me to get to where I wanted to be and that was the NBA,’’ Vucevic admitted. ``I really tried not to think about being so homesick. I was just trying to get better as a basketball player. I tried to not think about how much I was missing my family and my friends. But everything that I did, it helped me reach my dreams and be the basketball player that I am today.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.