LOS ANGELES – Within seconds of stepping onto the basketball court at USC’s practice facility on Tuesday, Nikola Vucevic’s eyes gravitated toward one of the overhead banners that featured a then-20-year-old center who looked vaguely like him – minus the scruffy facial hair, 20 pounds of muscle and seven years of life experience, of course.
“Baby Vooch,’’ as one of Vucevic’s Orlando Magic teammates called the banner of the thin and fresh-faced center wearing the black, No. 5 Trojans jersey. Not long after, the 27-year-old Vucevic’s mind transported him back to a time when he was a raw college player, still new to America, still learning the English language, and still hopeful of growing his game. In a flash, it hit Vucevic that without those tireless days of work in the USC practice facility and the nights of endless hoop dreams, there likely would be no Vucevic in the NBA.
“S.C. really helped me become who I am as a person and a player. A lot of great memories here and I always love coming back,’’ said a nostalgic Vucevic. “This (practice court) helped for sure. A lot of work here for three years, every day working. In Europe, not a lot of teams have their own gym where you can go and practice whenever you want, but for me I’d be sitting in my dorm room not knowing what to do and I’d come here and get shots up. It’s great for people that age to basically have access to a NBA-(like) facility. I had everything here that I needed to improve, and it was just up to me to put the work in.’’
That work ultimately led Vucevic – a native of Montenegro by way of Switzerland and Belgium as he followed his father’s pro basketball career in Europe – to the NBA where he has been a franchise fixture for the Magic for the past six seasons. Orlando, 20-44 and set to play the Los Angeles Lakers (28-35) on Wednesday, is headed toward a sixth straight non-playoff season to no fault of the 7-foot Vucevic, who has led the team in rebounding six consecutive years and in scoring twice.
This season, Vucevic had one of his best all-around seasons interrupted by a broken bone in his left hand that cost him six weeks of action. Still, he’s averaged 17.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while also notching career-bests in assists (3.2) and 3-pointers made (58).
The seeds for his steady production throughout his seven years in the NBA were planted, he stressed, at USC, where his rise to NBA levels was somewhat unexpected by those on his own college campus. After a year of high school at Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, Ca. – a place where he could transition to life in the United States and speak French with his mostly foreign-based teammates – Vucevic was an unheralded, below-the-radar signing by USC.
He was mostly an afterthought on that 2008-09 USC team as a freshman, playing in the shadows of future NBA standouts DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson. Vucevic played 11 minutes a night in 23 games, averaging just 2.6 points and 2.7 rebounds a game. His favorite memories are beating UCLA (with Jrue Holiday and Darren Collison) and Arizona State (with James Harden) to win the Pac-10 Tournament and reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament where he had six points and four rebounds in a crushing loss to Michigan State.
“It was my first time going to the (NCAA) Tournament and we played a lot of big-time games,’’ Vucevic recalled. “I had only heard about (the NCAA Tournament) before, and then when I saw all of the excitement around it, it was great.’’
Following a 16-14 sophomore season when Vucevic produced nearly double-double numbers nightly (10.7 ppg., 9.4 rpg., 1.3 bpg.), his talent started to blossom fully during his junior season at USC. Not only did he average team highs in points (17.1), rebounds (10.3) and blocked shots (1.4), he led the Trojans back to the NCAA Tournament. And, as it turns out, his final college game at USC – an 11-point, 14-rebound, two-block performance against Virginia Commonwealth – convinced him that he was ready for the NBA.
Playing professionally allowed him to follow in the footsteps of his father, Borislav, who once played alongside of Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic with the Yugoslavian National Team and also played for 24 years in Europe.
Vucevic said he can close his eyes and still picture in his mind the 2011 night that when he had 25 points and 12 rebounds in a defeat of then-No. 10 Arizona and his 20-point effort a month earlier when his Trojans defeated UCLA before a raucous sellout crowd at the Galen Center on USC’s campus.
Most of all, he’s proud of the monumental strides that he made while at USC that helped him become a fixture in the NBA with the Magic.
“It makes me proud to have gone to SC, a big school with all of these other great players and being up there (on the banners in the practice facility) with them means a lot to me,’’ Vucevic said. “When I came here, I was basically the 10th or 11th guy on the roster and they wanted me to redshirt my first year and I didn’t want to. Each year, I made huge strides and I ended up leaving for the NBA after my junior year.
“It just makes me really proud of how much I’ve grown and how much I’ve improved each year after my time here,’’ he added.
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