May 27, 2013 by Seth Rubinroit
By Seth Rubinroit
DeMar DeRozan seemed to be everything Nikola Vucevic was not.
DeRozan arrived at USC in 2008 as one of the most-hyped prep prospects in the nation, surrounded by an entourage that included rapper Percy “Lil’ Romeo” Miller. DeRozan had a vertical leap that made him a SportsCenter highlight waiting to happen.
The closest Vucevic came to SportsCenter was religiously watching the nightly sports news program from his Troy East apartment, desperate to learn English to communicate with his peers.
Yet the two former teammates found themselves hugging before a November game between DeRozan’s Toronto Raptors and Vucevic’s Orlando Magic at the Air Canada Centre.
According to Vucevic, “DeMar said, ‘Man, you have come a long way. When you were a freshman, nobody knew who you were, and you did not play a lot. Now you are starting in the NBA.’
“I did not really think about it until then,” Vucevic mused.
Vucevic was born in Switzerland and raised in Belgium, and moved to Montenegro as a teenager.
He was voted the best young player in Montenegro in 2007. That year he decided to move to the United States to attempt to prove himself against American competition, despite not having any formal English instruction.
“I could say, ‘How are you?’ ” Vucevic said, “but that was it.”
Vucevic arrived in the United States as slim as his NBA aspirations. He landed at basketball powerhouse Stonerigde Prep in Simi Valley (Calif.), a magnet for foreign players.
Though skinny, Vucevic had natural talent. His father was a member of the Yugoslavian national team and played basketball professionally for 24 years. His mother also played professional basketball.
In his one season at Stoneridge Prep, he led his team in scoring and rebounding.
USC coach Tim Floyd was familiar with Stoneridge Prep because Trojan forward Taj Gibson had attended the high school. Vucevic impressed Floyd enough to earn a scholarship offer.
Vucevic took extra classes in high school to ensure that he would be eligible for college. Nevertheless, he still had to sit his first eight collegiate games as he waited for the NCAA Clearinghouse to confirm his amateur status.
“I was mad,” Vucevic said, “but I got through it and was able to play.”
He was eligible to be able to play, at least. USC had a crowded frontcourt featuring Gibson, Leonard Washington and senior Keith Wilkinson, and playing time proved scarce. Vucevic averaged 11 minutes, and contributed less than three points and rebounds, respectively, per game.
The summer after his freshman season, Vucevic returned to Montenegro determined to improve his game. He worked on his post skills and jump shot, and gained 20 pounds of muscle.
Vucevic competed for Montenegro in the U20 European Championships. He played against some of Europe’s best basketball players. He excelled, leading the tournament in rebounds per game.
Vucevic’s summer in Europe was only the beginning of his reinvention as a basketball player.
Gibson declared for the NBA and Wilkinson graduated, freeing playing time. Still, Vucevic had to prove himself to USC’s new coach, Kevin O’Neill.
Floyd was considered a Southern gentleman, the type of coach who could charm a recruit’s mother in the living room during a recruiting visit. O’Neill had the reputation of being a loose cannon, the type of coach whose colorful use of language once caused a recruit’s mother to storm out of a practice.
O’Neill was very familiar with NBA talent; he was the former head coach of the Toronto Raptors and an assistant with three other NBA teams. He realized Vucevic had the ability to play professional basketball if, and only if, he gave more effort.
“I pushed him everyday,” O’Neill said, “because I knew he could be better.”
There may have been 13 guys on team, but at times it seemed O’Neill only had eyes for Vucevic. O’Neill’s voice loudly imploring Vucevic to run harder or to box out became the soundtrack of practices.
During one scrimmage, an errant elbow struck Vucevic in his nose, causing blood to gush out of both of his nostrils. He casually strolled to the trainer to seek medical attention.
O’Neill, furious at Vucevic’s leisurely pace, began screaming at Vucevic. O’Neill suggested Vucevic simply use a female hygiene product to stop bleeding. O’Neill was being facetious, but the trainer stopped the bleeding and Vucevic quickly returned to the drill.
“I learned to play tough and aggressive,” Vucevic said.
His sophomore year, Vucevic looked like a completely different player. His minutes per game more than tripled, and he led the Pac-10 in rebounds and offensive rebounds per game.
He was recognized with the Pac-10 Most Improved Player award.
The next year the Trojans graduated their three leading scorers, other than Vucevic. With the increased responsibility, Vucevic led the Trojans in scoring and rebounding, and was named All-Pac-10 First-Team.
As polished as Vucevic looked on the court, he had a cultural misunderstanding off the court. Following USC’s January loss to Arizona, Vucevic told reporters, “I felt we played like women. We didn’t play hard at all. Every single one of us just played like women.”
Upon learning that his remarks could be considered offensive, Vucevic quickly apologized.
Following the season, Vucevic had to decide whether to return to USC for his senior year or declare for the NBA Draft. Removing the emotional attachments of wanting to compete with his collegiate teammates one final season, Vucevic’s choice was obvious. He announced his intentions to turn pro during a press conference at the Galen Center.
“He definitely made the right decision,” O’Neill said. “I did not even question it at that time.”
While most prospects are exposed during pre-draft camps for being smaller than their generously listed college heights, Vucevic continued to grow during his college years. He measured as the tallest player at the NBA Draft Combine, at just under 7-feet, after being listed as 6-foot-10 throughout college.
“I cannot think of too many examples of when that has happened,” O’Neill said.
Vucevic was not invited to sit in the green room of the Prudential Center with the other top prospects, but he decided to sit in the stands and attend the draft, anyway.
When the Philadelphia 76ers called his name with the 16th pick of the first round, Vucevic wiped away a few tears and walked up to the stage to shake hands with NBA commissioner David Stern and receive his official team hat.
“It was by far the greatest moment of my life,” Vucevic said. “It was something that I dreamed about since I was little.”
As improbable as it would have seemed four years earlier when he arrived at USC, Vucevic found himself the star of a SportsCenter highlight after the Magic played the Los Angeles Lakers in early December.
Three of Vucevic’s game-high four blocked shots came at the expense of Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, and Vucevic added 17 points and 12 rebounds in the Magic’s 10-point victory.
Before the game, Vucevic sat in the Magic’s crowded Staples Center locker room and recounted his NBA journey.
Vucevic averaged 5.5 points in only 15.9 minutes per game in his first season with the 76ers.
Off the court, he received much more than just traditional rookie hazing from 76ers teammates. Playing alongside four players who competed at Pac-12 schools–California’s Francisco Elson, Washington’s Spencer Hawes, UCLA’s Jrue Holiday, and Arizona’s Andre Iguodala–Vucevic received numerous reminders that his Trojans struggled through a 6-26 season without him.
“[USC] did not win a single game against those teams,” Vucevic said, “so I had to do a lot of extra favors for the veterans.”
Following the season, Vucevic was working out when he received a call from his agent informing him he was traded to Orlando as part of the blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for me,” Vucevic said. “I knew I could have a chance to play on such a young team.”
The Magic do not have much veteran leadership in the locker room. Vucevic sits in the locker room next to a player, Glen Davis, whose nickname is “Big Baby.”
Vucevic has nevertheless flourished in his new surroundings.
“He is a very talented big man,” said Magic teammate Arron Afflalo. “You can see his growth mentally from last season in terms of how hard he plays.”
Several of his former USC teammates drafted him on their fantasy basketball teams, and it was much more than just a friendly gesture. Vucevic filled the stat sheet, finishing second in the NBA in rebounding, averaging 11.9 per game. He also contributed 13.1 points.
“He is in a great situation,” O’Neill said. “If he was on the Lakers, he would not be putting up those numbers.”
Vucevic no longer has O’Neill’s screaming voice in his ear during practices, but he has been able to maintain a consistent level of intensity.
“The Magic coaching staff pushes me hard,” Vucevic said. “Probably not as much as [O’Neill], but they are working me hard so I get better every day.”
New Magic coach Jacque Vaughn has noticed Vucevic’s work ethic.
“I love coaching him and his approach at practice everyday,” Vaughn said. “He can shoot the basketball, and he is very skilled offensively.”
Vucevic is only in his second NBA season, but he is competing with the confidence of a veteran.
“[Vucevic] is playing great,” O’Neill said. “He has the chance to have a long, successful career in the NBA.”