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Meet Nikola Vucevic, the Eastern Conference's Next Great Behemoth

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 15, 2015

AP Images

Nikola Vucevic has the numbers of an All-Star and the salary of an NBA centerpiece.

The 24-year-old is one of only two players averaging at least 19 points and 11 rebounds. Starting next season, he'll be the Orlando Magic's highest-paid player when the four-year, $54 million contract extension he signed last summer kicks in.

Born in Switzerland, then raised and schooled in Belgium and Montenegro before coming to the U.S. as a high school senior, Vucevic chatted with Bleacher Report on Saturday to describe his global trek to the NBA.

Among other topics, he described his experience watching and playing for his father, Borislav (who played 24 seasons overseas) and how surviving a train crash that claimed 47 lives changed him forever.

Bleacher Report: Earlier this season, Doc Rivers called you "the best player in the league that nobody knows." How do you feel about that label?

Nov 19, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic (9) passes the ball around Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) and forward Blake Griffin (32) during the second quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Vucevic: I take it as a compliment. Obviously coming from a great coach like Doc Rivers, who's won a championship, who's coached great teams and great players, been around this league a long time, coming from a coach like that it definitely meant a lot to me to hear that.

What he said that nobody knows about me...I'm still young in this league. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to win much with a team. That kind of affects it.

But I never really pay too much attention to it at all. I know that if I just keep putting in the work that I put in, if I keep playing welleventually there's going to be a much better team here with the Magicthen all that's going to come.

But I never really focus too much on, 'Do people know me?' or what people think about me. I just try to play my game and only worry about the people who are really important, which is my teammates, my coaches and the organization I play for.

BR: What has changed for you this season? You've posted good stats before, but this year's are on a completely different level.

NV: I think the main thing really is my confidence. The thing that really helped me, this summer I really had a lot of time to prepare myself for the season, work on my game, work on my strength and conditioning, work on really everything I needed to work on.

The summer after my first year in Orlando, I played for my national team in Montenegro [and] that didn't go really well, so that kind of affected me. After my rookie year in Philly, I came to summer league and injured my ankle. So I couldn't work out for some time.

This was the first summer I could really put my time into it, really focus on myself and do whatever I needed to do to take the next step. I had almost four months of work. We put in a lot of work every day, did different stuff and made sure I was going to come to training camp ready. I got to training camp in the best shape I've ever been in my life, and that helped.

During the exhibition games, everyone was playing well, and my confidence just really jumped. I signed the deal, and I think that helped. I could take that off my mind and be able to go out there and play.

Early in the year, I had some good games. As I was playing well and playing better, my confidence really went high. Obviously all the work I did in the summerall the individual work, all the strength and conditioningthat helped me develop as a player.

And the most important thing was the belief from my teammates, my coaches to trust me with the ball in my hands. That helps as well.

So, a lot of practice, but most importantly all the hard work I put in is finally paying off for me.

BR: Did your new contract add any pressure on your end to perform, or was it just a sense of relief knowing that's all taken care of?

NV: I didn't feel any pressure at all. It actually helped me in the way that now that part is taken care of. Now all I gotta do is go out there and play.

I know what I'm capable of. I know that I put the work in every day necessary to be ready to play. I know that I've prepared myself for each game. So when I go out there, I don't have to worry about anything but performing.

Obviously, I didn't take it as, 'OK, now that I've gotten paid, I can relax.' For me, it's like now that's done, and I can just go out there and enjoy playing basketball. When you know that you've put the work in, that you're doing everything necessary to be ready, there's no reason for you to doubt yourself.

I have a lot of confidence in myself. I know everything I've done up to this point, so I just go out there and play.

BR: Growing up, was there anyone who you modeled your game after?

NV: I watched a lot of players. I can't pick out one player that I tried to play like.

Growing up, obviously my dad played, so I watched a lot of basketball, and I was always around it. Just by watching I learned a lot.

Even now I watch a lot of games, and I feel like you can learn a lot by watching. Obviously, Tim Duncan, I've watched a lot of his games. Vlade Divac when he was playing, I watched a lot of his games.

Later on when I was in college, LaMarcus Aldridge, the Gasol brothers. A lot of big men really. Dirk [Nowitzki], I've watched him a lot. I've started doing what he does, but he obviously does something at a whole different level.

There are a lot of players who I think you can learn fromanybody that you watch. Not only big men, even other positions. What I like to do is watch something that other players do, and then I'll go into the summer and try it and see if maybe I can implement it into my game. You try stuff, you see what you like and what you really can do well, and it will help your game.

BR: Which center has been the toughest for you to defend, and which one makes you work the hardest on the offensive end?

NV: Good question.

There's a lot of really great big men in this league. A lot of teams play different ways, so one night I have to defend a guy that's a big inside presence with post moves on all that, and a different night it could be more of a small guy who faces up.

So, you have to adjust to all that, and that's the hardest thing about the NBA now, it has so many guys who play different ways. Some guys go straight post-ups and you have to defend that, some nights you have to chase a guy who's more of a pick-and-pop or face-up guy.

Probably the guy who makes me work most at the offensive end is Marc Gasol. He's a very good defender, big body, long, knows how to close angles, has a lot of experience. So, it's probably him that I have the toughest time against.

BR: You've been a good jump-shooter for a long time. Any plans of stretching out your range to the three-point arc at some point?

NV: I think I could add that to my game. I don't know if I'll make it a big part of my game ever, because I don't want it to take away from where I'm really at my best: in the post, around the paint and in the mid-range.

But I will work on it, so maybe we can run a play or two. I think people won't expect it, for me to come out and shoot the three. But that's not going to be my main focus when I work on my game. I'm still going to focus on my main areas: the post game, the face-up shot, the mid-range jumper. I think that's where I'm at my best.

BR: What's the best thing about growing up as the child of a professional athlete?

NV: To learn how to live as a professional athlete. How to prepare yourself for games, how to rest, how to work, how to be mentally ready, what to eat, what to do with your recovery, how to handle the pressure, how to interact with people.

At a younger age maybe I wasn't alert about that. But as I was growing, I was remembering what he was going through and talking to him. That definitely helped me develop into who I am today.

I had a huge advantage maybe on some other guys; maybe their families didn't help them with basketball or with sports at all. So, it definitely helped me—obviously in the gym, but also just to know what it takes to make it.

He's my personal coach. I work with him in the summer. He talks to me after he sees my games. We talk a lot about it, and he always coaches me and gives me advice. He knows me the best, knows what I can do to get better and what areas I need to get better at. So it definitely helped me that I had a father who's been around basketball my whole life.

BR: He coached you at one point, right?

NV: Yes, he did from to 12 to 16. Right before I came to the U.S., he was my coach in Montenegro.

At the time I didn't always like it much, because he was the hardest on me out of all the players on the team. He would push me the hardest. If I played bad, I was benched. If I played good, I played. He treated me like any other player on the team.

But just having his knowledge and all that really helped me and helped all the guys on that team.

BR: You came to the U.S. for your senior year in high school. What was the hardest adjustment to make over here?

Vucevic's Long Road to Orlando
LocationPeriodDistance From Previous Place
SwitzerlandBirthN/A
BelgiumAdolescence307 Miles
MontenegroTeenage Years887 Miles
Los AngelesHigh School, College6,503 Miles
PhiladelphiaRookie Season2,391 Miles
OrlandoAug. 2012 - Present865 Miles
NBA.com, DistanceFromTo.net

NV: The language was a big barrier for me. I didn't know much English when I came here. I could understand a good amount of it, but I didn't really speak much. That was the biggest thing for me.

It was just very different from where I grew up. The hardest part for me was leaving all my family, leaving all my friends and coming into the unknown. But at the same time, I was excited to come to the United States. When you're in Europe, at a young age you watch all these movies. You watch sports on TV, the NBA and college. You see all these people around, you see how it is here and you want to be part of it.

So, I was very excited to come here. But it was also hard for me to leave all that.

When I got here, people were so great to me. At the high school I went toStoneridge Prep in Simi Valley [California]they really made the transition easier for me early on. They were great to me. Whatever I needed, they were helping me. With classes, to improve my English, people in school were great.

It was hard for me. A lot of times I wanted to be back with my friends and my family in Europe. It was hard, but they helped me a lot to make the transition easier. When I got to college [at USC], I got to meet a lot of people everywhere. There were more foreign kids, so it was easier for me to transition and get adjusted to it.

But even now when I go home and come back here, I'll always get a little homesick. There's a week or two weeks where it's hard for me, because home is always going to be home for me.

BR: How did that language barrier impact you on the basketball floor? Are guys helping you translate, or is the language of basketball kind of universal?

NV: The basketball part, the language wasn't a big barrier for me. I watched it so much on TV. I was watching NBA TV and stuff that I had back home, and it was all in English. So I learned a lot of expressions [from that].

At my dad's practices, they were speaking English, because they had American players and players from everywhere. English is the universal language. The basketball expressions, I knew most of those, so that was never a big issue for me.

It was really the regular English, just talking to people.

BR: You survived a horrific train crash when you were younger. You said that the experience gave you a new appreciation for life. Are there any specific things you do, think or feel now that you didn't before?

NV: Nothing specific. It's really more just learning to appreciate every moment that you have. It was so close to the end when we were all in that train. Now you appreciate every thing that happens to you.

Some things that happen that are maybe not as good, you don't look at them as bad things. Because there's always worse. It helped me stay more positive and act in a more positive way. If something bad happens, you just take care of it and know that everything will be OK. It made me be more positive.

BR: Getting back to basketball, the team's defensive numbers have really improved since [interim coach James] Borrego took over. With all the athleticism on the roster, is that the identity you see for this team moving forward?

NV: I think to be able to be a good team in this league, you have to be good defensively. We've made huge strides since Coach JB took over, and our numbers show it. I think that it's something we're going to have to continue to be a good team in this league.

Obviously, we don't have those great scorers like Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant, [Russell] Westbrook, LeBron James. So we have to do it as a team. We have to defend, be good defensively.

These games that we've won and we've played well we were able to defend really well. Since the coaching change, we have accepted that and bought into a defensive mind and played some good basketball on that end.

BR: There have been a lot of debates this season about the league's best backcourt. Do you see Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo joining that conversation soon?

Feb 13, 2015; New York, NY, USA; U.S. Team guard Elfrid Payton of the Orlando Magic (4, left) and guard Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic (5, right) watch from the bench during the first half against the World Team at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit:
USA TODAY Sports

NV: I think so. I think they have the potential.

They're both very young. Victor's just a sophomore and Elfrid's just a rookie. At those positions, that's tough when you're a young player, because there are a lot of good players in this league at your position.

So it's going to take them time. But I think they have the potential. I think they have the work ethic. I think they want to become that. And I think they will one day become one of the best backcourts in the league. They're not there yet, but I think they can get there, because they have the potential and what it takes to get there.

BR: Who's the best dunker on your team?

NV: The best dunker on my team? [Long pause.] I haven't really seen all the guys do crazy dunks. It would be a good dunk contest if we did that one day after practice with all the guys that are very athletic.

Victor, he's really athletic and had some good dunks at the dunk contest. Mo Harkless, he could be up there. Aaron Gordon. I think those three would really be the favorites. It would be a tough matchup.

BR: Are you in that conversation at all? That dunk you had on Pau Gasol earlier this season was pretty vicious.

NV: I'm not at all in that conversation [laughing]. That's definitely not me.

I mean, I can dunk one-handed, two-handed. The best I could probably do is behind-the-back, and that's about it.

That dunk on Pau, it was a good play for me. I just wanted to be aggressive on that play. Obviously that's not my main strength.

BR: Did you get a lot of text messages after that game?

NV: I did. A lot of my friends texted me. Obviously that was one great thing about the dunk. But it was probably the best play—dunk-wisethat I've ever had....

What really happened, I had a couple plays before where I went to the rim and thought I got fouled but didn't get the call. So on that one I just wanted to take it aggressive. I beat him off the dribble, and I saw I had a little lane to go in and throw down.

So that's why I came to the rimto dunk it or get fouled. It ended up being a good dunk, and it was a great play for myself and my whole team. What I really liked about it is how my teammates reacted; the whole bench jumped. It was a fun time.

BR: You played college ball in L.A., started your NBA career in Philadelphia and now you call Orlando home. Which of those three is the best city to spend an off-day in?

NV: I think L.A. is a special place for me, just because that's the first city I ever came to when I was here in the United States. I met a lot of great people there, lot of people who helped me there. That's really where I grew up as a person and became a man, where I learned about who I want to be and how I want to be.

I had a great time in college. That whole city is fun.

DAYTON, OH - MARCH 16: Nikola Vucevic #5 of the USC Trojans runs onto the court as he is introduced before the game against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during the first round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at UD Arena on March 16, 2011 in
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

At the same time, I really love Orlando. It's a city that embraced me the first day I came here. Everywhere I go, people talk to me. They come up and say, 'We love what you do. We're glad that you're here, hope you stay here for a long time.'

So I'm really growing to love Orlando. And hopefully I stay here for a long time.

L.A. and Orlando are very different cities. But I really love them both.

BR: What's the one thing you think you could improve this summer that would allow you to take another leap next season?

NV: I think a lot of it is going to be spending time in the weight room, getting stronger. Things that are going to help me, my footwork. I know I'm not going to be the strongest guy, but...I think I'm pretty compact for my size. I got a good form. So I want to add onto that and just work on my game overall.

Improving my jumper...is going to really open my game. Being able to knock that down consistently is going to help my face-up game, and that'll make it harder for guys to defend me.

I never really just pick one area. I just want to add to my whole game all the time.

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