ORLANDO, Fla. — It wasn’t as if Nikola Vucevic began this season, his first as a member of the Orlando Magic, with the specific goal of being good enough to earn a spot in the NBA’s Rising Stars Challenge.
Establishing the sort of consistency he was unable to do as a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers would have been a sufficient reward.
Fifty-two games and a whole bunch of double-doubles later, the 22-year-old center has emerged as the Magic’s one true constant. So it came as no surprise when Vucevic was named to be one of the participants in Friday night’s game in Houston involving the top first-year and second-year players in the NBA.
Vucevic will be joined at the All-Star weekend event by Magic first-round draft pick Andrew Nicholson, who was chosen as a replacement for the injured Andre Drummond. In a quirk that isn’t lost on either player, Vucevic and Nicholson will be on opposite teams.
In perhaps the sweetest development of all, the player who went largely unrecognized in the four-team trade that sent Dwight Howard from the Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers is challenging Howard for the league lead in rebounds — and, according to several advanced statistical categories, is enjoying a better season than the player who was the face of the franchise from 2004 through his long and drawn-out departure in August.
“I knew he could shoot the basketball. So that’s what I knew about him going forward,” said Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, who followed Vucevic’s college career at USC and his brief stint with the 76ers. “But his ability to get rebounds and provide a touch around the rim with both hands has been extremely impressive to me.”
That ability was best illustrated Dec. 31 against the Miami Heat, when Vucevic accomplished something not even Howard or Shaquille O’Neal were able to do during their years with the Magic by pulling down 29 rebounds.
Although he pretty much had nowhere to go but down after that performance, the drop was anything but precipitous. Before being held out in the fourth quarter Wednesday night of a lopsided loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Vucevic had gone 30 games in a row with at least nine rebounds, the longest such streak by anyone this season.
His averages of 12.4 points and 11.5 rebounds are more than double what he posted in 51 games in Philadelphia last season and should earn him consideration in the months ahead for Most Improved Player honors.
“Rebounding is something I can do pretty well because of my size and (because) I have a good feel for the game,” he said. “I have a feeling where the ball is going to bounce off and just follow it.”
Said Vaughn: “He has great anticipation, great instincts to know where the ball is. And I think he’ll even be better once he gets more physical. He’ll be able to get some of those rebounds where he’s just stronger and bigger than the other guy.”
As a 7-footer with a wingspan of 7-5, Vucevic possesses a natural advantage when it comes to grabbing missed shots. But on Friday night, he need look no further than the man who will coach his squad — Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and current TNT analyst Charles Barkley — for proof that rebounding isn’t simply a matter of being tall.
Despite being an undersized power forward, Barkley led the NBA in offensive rebounds for three consecutive seasons. So while other young players might think of him more from his in-studio wisecracking with O’Neal, Vucevic is taking his meeting with Barkley seriously.
“I haven’t met him before,” he said. “But he knows the game and he played for a long time, so I can probably learn a lot from him.”
Vucevic already has someone providing him an example of basketball longevity. His father, Borislav, played professionally for 24 years and was a member of the Yugoslavian national team that included the legendary Drazen Petrovic.
When word got out back home in Montenegro about his son’s selection, Vucevic’s father wasted little time getting on the phone.
“He’s very happy for me for all the work I put in,” said Vucevic, who was born in Switzerland and raised in Belgium when his father’s career took him there. “He knows how much work I put in and how much effort and all the time I spent.”
Their relationship is as much coach-player as it is father-son. Vucevic thought he was doing his dad a favor by purchasing NBA League Pass for him but now admits with a laugh that it “wasn’t very smart because now he can watch all my games and critique me.”
That sort of tough love has come in handy during the Magic’s tough season.
“He’s really like my personal coach, my best coach,” Vucevic said. “He’s always honest with me. He tells me the way it is. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here today.”
And before too long, the two of them will get the chance to talk face-to-face again.
“He’ll come here sometime, probably in March,” Vucevic said. “He’s not a huge traveler.”