Nikola Vucevic Helping Fill Void in Orlando
Sometimes overlooked in the massive four-team deal that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers this past summer is the sophomore center who is currently starting for the Orlando Magic. Nikola Vucevic, 22, has stepped into some mighty big shoes on a team that barely resembles its former 50-plus win self with very little fanfare.
The seven-footer had a decent rookie campaign with the Philadelphia 76ers, but a crowded frontcourt limited last year’s 16th overall draft pick to about 16 minutes per game. This year, Vucevic has faced little competition for minutes and the Magic needed him to step into a starter’s role and soak up as much time as possible.
“It’s great to have a chance to play,” Vucevic said. “The main thing that changed for me is my confidence. I have a year of experience. Now I know how to prepare for games and in between games, I take care of my body. Last year was all new for me and I was just trying to learn. This year, I have seen a lot of veteran guys and what they do and talked to a lot of guys to see how they manage to take care of their bodies so they can be fresh for every game.”
So far this season, Vucevic has started every game for the Magic and is averaging just under 30 minutes per game. With seven double-doubles already, his impact has been surprising. Unlike many young players that suddenly get an increase in minutes, Vucevic’s productivity hasn’t declined and his rookie per 36 minute production has directly translated to his stats as a starter. Through 18 games this season, Vucevic is averaging 9.9 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.
“He has a lot to learn,” Glen Davis said. “[But] right now he is playing really well. He is playing the way we need him to play.”
After averaging just 5.5 points as a rookie, it may have come as a surprise that Vucevic can contribute on offense. Although the Magic are not using him as a three-point threat, he hit 37.5 percent from deep as a rookie and there may be a lot more to come offensively from Vucevic in the future. His strength, however, may actually be mid-range and closer.
“I can shoot the ball pretty well, although I haven’t been shooting well so far,” Vucevic said. “Something I do the best is shoot mid-range. We run a lot of plays where I can get open on pick-and-rolls, pin downs and rolling to the basket. They do a great job of finding me. When the game starts, I try to open in the paint and get some easy buckets to get going, but as the game goes on, I like the mid-range and I am comfortable with that.”
Early success has come in part because he grew up in a basketball family. His father played and coached professionally in Europe and his mother played professional basketball as well. Growing up in Belgium, Vucevic learned to play under control from an early age and to not rely solely on his athleticism.
“[A controlled pace is] something I have always done,” Vucevic said. “I have been playing basketball since I was 10 and my dad played basketball before. It is kind of European that we play that way. We are not athletic.”
The controlled pace that Vucevic plays at doesn’t give him much of a chance to replicate the highly athletic and active style of play that Howard displayed in Orlando, but as his minutes have increased, the stats are starting to appear. In the seven games Vucevic has played 36 minutes or more, his production has been remarkably close to what the sophomore Howard put up. While no one is anticipating Vucevic will ever replace what Howard was able to do for the Magic, it does look like the team acquired a very good young center in the trade the franchise never wanted to make.