NBA Draft 2011 Results: How Nikola Vucevic Fits on the Philadelphia 76ers

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJune 24, 2011

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 10:  Nikola Vucevic #5 and Alex Stepheson #1 of the USC Trojans battle for a rebound with Markhuri Sanders-Frison #10 of the California Golden Bears in the second half in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Pacific Life Pac-10 Men's Basketball Tournament at Staples Center on March 10, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

With the 16th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft on Thursday night, the Philadelphia 76ers landed solid gold when they picked Nikola Vucevic, the 7-foot junior out of USC.

As I wrote in a Sixers draft preview, the Sixers' most obvious glaring need came at the center spot, with Spencer Hawes becoming a restricted free agent this summer. Before Thursday, the only Sixers player above 6'8" with more than 35 career minutes to his name was Marreese Speights—not exactly someone whom coach Doug Collins seemed to favor last season.

If the Sixers weren't ready to pull the trigger on a trade based around Andre Iguodala for the Clippers' Chris Kaman, there wasn't a reasonable veteran option available at the 5 this summer. They'd be priced out of any bidding on RFAs Marc Gasol and Tyson Chandler, and it's hard to imagine a reunion with Samuel Dalembert this summer.

Basically, if the Sixers didn't draft a big man, they'd be scraping the bottom of Miami's free agent center barrel this summer. Zydrunas Ilgauskas' 34-year-old body, come on down!

Instead of adding yet another swingman, the Sixers made the safe, smart pick with the 20-year-old Vucevic. Let's examine where he fits into the Sixers' overall franchise plan.

Starting Center of the Future?

Three fun facts about Vucevic:

1)      He measured out as the largest player at the NBA draft combine (beating out Enes Kanter, the No. 3 pick in the draft), standing at 6'11.75" in shoes. That's a legit 7-footer, folks.

2)      He also has a 7'4.5" wingspan—only two inches shorter than the freakish length of Bismack Biyombo, the No. 7 pick.

3)      He averaged 17.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG and 1.4 BPG last season for USC… and shot nearly 35 percent from 3-point range in the process.

In other words, give this guy a few years in the league, and he could become a nightmare to guard for back-to-the-basket centers like Kendrick Perkins. Meanwhile, he's got the height and bulk to contribute right away at the NBA level with his rebounding ability.

ESPN's Chad Ford had two big knocks for Vucevic in his draft profile: Vucevic isn't a great athlete and lacks lateral quickness. Last I checked, the Oklahoma City Thunder just got to the Western Conference finals this year with a badly out-of-shape Perkins manning the middle.

Besides, when was the last time anyone accused of Spencer Hawes, the Sixers' current starting center, of being a "great athlete" or possessing great lateral quickness? (In fact, Ford called Hawes an "average athlete" in his 2007 draft profile.)

Hawes ended up being selected by Sacramento with the No. 9 pick in 2007, and after three seasons of wholly underwhelming production, the Kings shipped Hawes and Andres Nocioni to the Sixers last year for the disgruntled Dalembert.

Lo and behold, Hawes managed to largely underwhelm in his first year with the Sixers as well, averaging only 7.2 PPG and 5.7 RPG in 21.2 MPG. Extrapolate those numbers to 36 MPG and Hawes would be pushing a double-double… but the fact that Hawes couldn't average more than 21 MPG on a team desperate for true big men says something.

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Kate Fagan gives the best description of Hawes I've heard: He's a great career backup at the center spot (especially if he stays cheap, in the $4 million/year range), but he's not much more than that if you hope to compete for a championship.

That's not saying that Vucevic will step in with the 76ers and be the second coming of Moses Malone from day one. It's virtually guaranteed that Vucevic will need time to acclimate himself to the increased physicality of the NBA.

But to get a 7-foot 20 year old who's "in love" with the idea of playing for Doug Collins, as 76ers GM Ed Stefanski said on Thursday night, is the absolute best the Sixers could have reasonably hoped for in a relatively weak draft class.

"I'm really happy to be a part of that organization," Vucevic said in a players chat with Thursday night. "That was my favorite team in the draft. I'm really happy a chance to be in Philadelphia."

And, as Philadunkia of ESPN's TrueHoop pointed out on Twitter Thursday night, Vucevic's USC Trojans dominated Tristan Thompson and the Texas Longhorns early last season. (24 points and nine boards for Vucevic; six points and five boards for Thompson.)

Why Jordan Hamilton Wasn't the Pick

Had Vucevic been off the board—say, had the Rockets drafted him at No. 14—Jordan Hamilton would have likely been near the top of the Sixers' draft board (along with Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, and Chris Singleton).

Most mock drafts—notably, ESPN's Ford's  and Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick's—projected Hamilton as the Sixers' pick in the hours leading up to the draft. At 6'9" and 230 pounds, Hamilton had "Andre Iguodala replacement" written all over him.

Selecting Hamilton would have signaled exactly that. There's no way that the Sixers, already stocked with Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, and Nocioni alongside Iguodala, could have reasonably kept all five players in the active rotation, especially come playoff time.

For whatever reason, the Sixers appear to be dragging their feet on any potential Iguodala trade at this point. Disregarding how incomprehensible that is, given that we're all of eight days away from entering a lockout/era of a more restrictive CBA, a Hamilton pick would have forced the Sixers to put the "50 percent off" signs around Iguodala's neck.

Unless the Sixers suddenly felt inclined to move Iggy in the next week, which only appears more and more unlikely at this point, drafting Hamilton would have created an even larger logjam on the wing for the Sixers.

What to Expect in 2011-12

Obviously, this section is all very subject to change, depending on what happens with the restricted free agency negotiations of Young and Hawes, and whether the Sixers finally end up trading Iguodala. That said, let's assume for now that the Sixers keep both Young and Hawes (likely) and Iguodala (unlikely, but I'm not projecting a trade here).

With the same core in place, it's reasonable to expect the Sixers' starting lineup next year to mirror their 2010-11 lineup: Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Iguodala, Elton Brand and Hawes. That leaves Turner, Young, Lou Williams, Vucevic and Marreese Speights to come off the bench.

Point being, the Sixers now go a legitimate 10-deep. They don't need Vucevic to step in and give the team 30 minutes/game immediately, like the Kings did with No. 5 pick DeMarcus Cousins last year.

In fact, if Vucevic puts up numbers in his rookie season similar to what Hawes posted this year (roughly 7 PPG and 5 RPG in 21 MPG), the Sixers should be more than satisfied. Between him and Hawes, the Sixers now have the ability to scrape a competent 48 minutes out of their center position every night next year. You couldn't have said that this past season.

Vucevic has the size to bang down in the post, but also has the range on his shot to hang around the 3-point line. The key for the Sixers this year will be teaching Vucevic to stay in the frontcourt as much as possible.

Elton Brand became the Sixers' key low-post player last season due to Hawes' tendency to drift to the perimeter. Suffice it to say, having a 6'8" player in that role isn't typically a championship-winning strategy.

If Vucevic displays toughness down low next season, the Sixers could have a true frontcourt piece to build around for the future, alongside the guard combo of Holiday and Turner. Throw in the swingman Young and the combo-guard Williams, and suddenly, the Sixers' future doesn't look so bleak after all.

Who would have imagined saying that back in the midst of the Eddie Jordan catastrophe-era


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