Little did Nikola Vucevic know he was studying the man he eventually would replace.
When Vucevic came to Simi Valley, Calif., from Montenegro in 2007 at the age of 17, he began watching Orlando Magic games on TV. That continued after he enrolled in 2008 at Southern California for what would be a three-year stint.
“I watched Dwight Howard,’’ Vucevic said. “He’s one of the best rebounders. Obviously, I studied the way he rebounds. I feel like he’s always in position to rebound.’’
Those lessons have helped Vucevic, who is now with the Magic. Lately, he has been rebounding in a similar fashion to Howard, the guy he replaced as the starting center, arriving in a four-team deal that featured Howard being sent last August to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Over his past 15 games, the 7-foot Vucevic has averaged 14.1 rebounds to raise his average to 11.0. If Vucevic can keep up this pace, which included an incredible 29-rebound game Dec. 31 against the Miami Heat, he has a shot at being a second straight Orlando player to win the boards title.
Howard claimed it last season. It was his fourth in eight Magic seasons.
“Dwight is the best big man in the league. You can’t replace him,’’ said Vucevic, knowing very well nobody is about to forget what Howard did with the Magic. “I knew coming in, I was not going to replace the best big man in the league. I just came in and tried to play my game.’’
Still, Vucevic’s recent showing at least has helped the Magic save some face after they were panned nationally for not getting a tremendous amount of assets for Howard. In the four-team deal, which also included Denver, Vucevic arrived from Philadelphia 76ers, who felt they could give up Vucevic due to acquiring center Andrew Bynum from the Lakers.
Bynum, out with a knee injury, hasn’t played a picosecond all season. But the mild-mannered Vucevic isn’t about to gloat that the 76ers must have regrets on moving him after he was drafted No. 16 by them in 2011.
“I’m playing well right now, but at the same time they did get one of the best big men in the league,’’ Vucevic said. “So, when he’s healthy, he’s going to help them a lot. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see when he gets back.’’
Before his current stretch, which began Dec. 14 with 17 boards Golden State, Vucevic was averaging an OK, but hardly exceptional 8.8 rebounds. But he’s begun to feel more comfortable each game in Orlando’s system.
Vucevic has grabbed 13 or more rebounds in nine of his past 15 games. While Magic coach Jacque Vaughn had been hopeful of Vucevic averaging in double figures, he couldn’t have foreseen this type of production, could he have?
“We all have dreams so, yes, I can envision it,’’ Vaughn said. “I’m glad those are coming to fruition. He’s been unbelievable for us, consistent for us …. He has a good feel for the game of basketball. He just has got natural instincts, so he’ll gravitate toward the ball.’’
Vucevic also has been improving his offense lately. Since his monster game against the Heat, which included 20 points, Vucevic has averaged 16.0 over six games to raise his average to 11.4.
There’s still plenty of work to do on the offensive end for the second-year man. But it hasn’t taken him long to become one of the NBA’s best rebounders.
Vucevic said it would be “cool’’ one day to win a rebounding title. With Minnesota’s Kevin Love and Cleveland’s Anderson Varajeo injured, Vucevic has a shot at doing it this season.
Through Saturday, Vucevic ranks fourth. He trails Howard (12.4), Memphis’ Zach Randolph (11.7) and Houston’s Omer Asik (11.1). But Vucevic quickly has been making up ground.
“He didn’t play a ton last year in Philly, so I didn’t know a whole lot about him when he got traded,’’ Magic guard J.J. Redick said of Vucevic, who averaged 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds over 15.9 minutes last season. “I knew he was skilled, which he was. So in a way, yeah, I guess I’m surprised at how good of a rebounder he is. He’s been spectacular …. He’s gaining confidence with each game. He’s a good player now, but he’s going to be really good.’’
It’s doubtful Vucevic ever will be another Howard, who made six All-Star Games with the Magic, three times was Defensive Player of the Year and developed into a 20-point scorer. But if Vucevic can keep pulling down 14 rebounds a night, nobody’s going to complain about that, considering Howard’s Magic average was 13.0.