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Vučević Living NBA Dream After Unusual Journey

Nikola Vučević moved across the world and left everything to chase his NBA dream. Now, he’s thriving on the Magic.

Mary Stevens

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Nikola Vučević recently signed a four-year extension worth $53.4 million with the Orlando Magic, which was the culmination of an unusual eight-year journey that required him to make many sacrifices.

Vučević, a native Montenegrin, moved to Southern California for his senior year of high school to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA. He knew attending a college in the United States gave him his best chance of getting drafted into the NBA, so he left Montenegro and settled in Simi Valley.

“I wanted to play college basketball,” Vucevic told Basketball Insiders. “I felt like that was a good way for me to go to improve, to get better and achieve my dream of making it to the NBA because most guys in the NBA come from college.”

Vučević is no stranger to the basketball world. His father, Borislav, played professional basketball in Europe for 24 years. He grew up watching his father play in Belgium and wanted to be a professional basketball player just like him. His mother, Ljiljana, also played professionally in Bosnia and suited up for the Yugoslavian national team. As a young boy, Vučević played on a basketball team that his father coached. His father never gave him any special treatment, like some fathers would. Instead, Vučević says his dad was probably a little bit tougher on him than the other kids, but that helped him become a better player. His father started him off with minutes as a bench player and he had to work hard to get into the starting lineup. As he grew older and taller, his primary goal was to play in the NBA.

Vučević had to leave his family, friends and everything he knew in order to pursue his dream. When he arrived in California, he had to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture and take care of himself at just 16 years old.

“I was very dependent on my mom and sister,” Vučević said. “They did everything for me as far as laundry, what I ate and cleaning my room. It was a process for me to get used to. It wasn’t easy [living without them]. It was tough.”

He used his senior year at Stoneridge Prep to adjust to his new environment and showcase his talents for colleges. When the University of Southern California gave him an offer, he accepted and became a Trojan. His freshman year at USC, he came off the bench and averaged 2.6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 11 minutes per game. He would use practices to go up against teammates DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson, which helped him elevate his game. Vučević became a starter in his sophomore season, after DeRozan and Gibson left for the NBA.

“My sophomore and junior year there was a coaching change; Kevin O’Neill came and he just threw me out there in the starting five and he just made me play a lot of minutes,” Vučević said. “He’s really a guy who really helped me develop a lot and I improved a lot in those two years.”

Vučević  felt like he exploded onto the scene in his junior year at USC and knew it was time to enter the draft. He was selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 16th overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. Vučević entered the league during the NBA lockout and when the season finally started, he found himself at a disadvantage since training camp was shortened and there were many games with very few practices. As a rookie, he started 15 games and appeared in 51 contests. He averaged 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 15.9 minutes.

Vučević views his time in Philadelphia as a positive experience. Even though it wasn’t always good, he learned the importance of being consistent and became a tougher person.

“My first year [in Philadelphia] was a lot of up and downs,” Vučević said. “I wasn’t very consistent. We had a good run first then the team started doing okay so the coach played a lot of older guys, which was normal, and I kind of lost myself a little bit in that.”

Things changed for the young center in August of 2012. Rob Hennigan, the new general manager of the Orlando Magic, had to trade away Dwight Howard to start his franchise’s rebuilding process. The trade included four teams: Howard, Chris Duhon and Earl Clark joined the Los Angeles Lakers, Andrew Bynum and Jason Richardson joined the 76ers, Andre Iguodala joined the Denver Nuggets and Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Maurice Harkless, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and Vučević joined the Magic. This served as an opportunity for the young Montenegrin to find success.

“Then everything turned around for me,” Vučević recalls. “They gave me a chance to play, put me in the starting five right away. I played a lot of minutes, they were behind me, they supported me when I was playing well or bad or whatever. They were always there believing in me and that’s what got me to this point.”

Despite his struggles during his rookie season, Hennigan viewed Vučević as a valuable piece for the Magic and he was not wrong.

After getting traded to Orlando, Vučević ended 2012 on a high note by breaking a franchise record on New Year’s Eve. Back in 1992, Shaquille O’Neal set a Magic record of 28 rebounds in a game. Vučević broke that record when he grabbed 29 rebounds against the Miami HEAT on Dec. 31, 2012. Once he got comfortable with his new team, he started recording double-doubles in almost every game. He ended up ranking third in the league with 46 double-doubles during the 2012-13 season.

In his first year in Orlando, Vučević broke out and let everyone know he was a rising star. He averaged 13.1 points and a team-high 11.9 rebounds over 77 games. His talents were noticed and he was selected to participate in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend. At the end of the season, he had grabbed 917 rebounds, which ranked third in the league behind Howard (945) and Omer Asik (956).

He used his second season in Orlando to refine his skills. He turned to veterans like Jameer Nelson and Afflalo for advice. He was never shy to ask how to do something or how to improve on his weaknesses. Both teammates gladly helped as the Magic big man continued to develop.

Vučević is one of the most consistent players on the Magic roster and is one of only five players in the league to average over 10 boards per game in the past two seasons. When teams match up against Orlando, one of the first things they think about is how to keep Vučević under control. He has become arguably one of the best centers and rebounders in the league.

Despite his success, his father is constantly giving him advice and guiding him. The distance has not affected how close Vučević is to his family. From the beginning, they have been very supportive of his goals and have stood beside him through the thick and thin. When Borislav and Ljiljana sent their 16-year-old son halfway across the world to chase his dream, they hoped for the best but they were still in shock when they received news of his large contract extension.

“They were very happy, but I don’t think it really hit them right away what it really meant,” Vučević shared. “But they are very happy, very proud of me. They know how much work I put in, how much I’m dedicated to basketball, how much I really love doing this.”

In the past eight years, Vučević has sacrificed a lot to make his dream a reality. His hard work has paid off, but he will continue to work hard as he knows there’s always room for improvement. He had to take an unusual path to get to this point, but his journey in the NBA is just beginning.

“I’m very proud to be a Magic player,” Vučević said. “This organization gave me a lot and I want to stay here and make this a winning team.”

Mary Stevens is entering her third year covering the NBA. She is based out of Orlando, Fla. and has also covered the NFL, NCAA and MLS.

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The G-League is a Path Back to the NBA

The G-League has become an avenue for several player types toward the NBA, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the NBA first instituted their development league, its main purpose was two-fold. The first was to give experience to young players who perhaps were not seeing regular playing time on their respective NBA teams. The second was to give undrafted players a chance at getting exposure and ultimately getting to the NBA.

With the growth in size and popularity of the development league, now known as the G-League, it’s begun to serve another purpose. It’s become a place for older veterans who have already tasted the NBA life to get back to the highest level of basketball that they once knew.

One player in particular who has a wealth of NBA experience is Terrence Jones. Jones is currently playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors, the G-League affiliate of the Golden State Warriors.

Jones was originally drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was part of a vaunted class of Kentucky Wildcats that year, which included Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Doron Lamb, and Darius Miller. During his four years with the Rockets, he emerged as a dependable reserve and part-time starter. He averaged 9.5 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds.

“It was just a lot of excitement and a lot of joy, being part of the Houston Rockets was a lot of fun,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “We had great memories and great seasons, a lot of up and downs, I just enjoyed the journey.”

Jones’ dealt with injuries his last two season in Houston, and when he was a free agent in the summer of 2016, the Rockets didn’t re-sign him. He was scooped by the New Orleans Pelicans, however, and he made an immediate impact for them. Prior to the trade deadline, he played in 51 games for the Pelicans, including 12 starts while putting up 11.5 points on 47.2 percent shooting, and 5.9 rebounds.

When the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins, however, they cut Jones. He didn’t stay unemployed for long, though, as he was signed by the Milwaukee Bucks to add depth for a playoff run. He was unable to crack the rotation, though, and the Bucks cut him as well before the playoff started. After a brief stint in China, he’s now back stateside and using the G-League to get back to the NBA.

“That’s the goal. Right now, I feel I’ve been playing pretty well and just trying to help my team get wins,” Jones told Basketball Insiders. “I think I can play multiple positions offensively and defensively. Whether that’s creating plays for myself or for others, I think I can help contribute on the offensive end.”

He’s been the second-leading scorer for Santa Cruz with 19.9 points per game. He’s pulling down 7.1 rebounds, and even dishing out 4.5 assists. In the G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team at All-Star Weekend, he finished with eight points on 50.0 percent shooting, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. He’s definitely a name to watch for as NBA teams scour the market for 10-day contract possibilities.

Another player who’s had a taste of the NBA is Xavier Silas. Silas is currently with the Northern Arizona Suns, the affiliate of the Phoenix Suns. He went undrafted in 2011 and started his professional career in France. That only last a few months before he came back the United States and latched on with the Philadelphia 76ers.

He played sparingly with the 76ers and was ultimately cut before the start of the 2012-13 season. Since then, he’s played summer league with the Bucks, and been in two different training camps with the Washington Wizards.

“It was amazing, any time you get to go and play at the highest level, and I even got to play in the playoffs and play in the second round and even score, that was big,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “It was a great time for me and that’s what I’m working towards getting back.”

While his professional career has taken him all across the globe from Israel to Argentina to Greece to Germany and even Ice Cube’s BIG3 league, he sees the G-League as being the one place that will get him back to where he wants to be.

He’s done well this season for Northern Arizona. He’s their third-leading scorer at 19.3 points per game and he’s one of their top three-point threats at 39.9 percent. At the All-Star Weekend G-League Challenge against the Mexican National Team, Silas had a team-high 13 points for Team USA including 3-5 shooting from three-point range.

It’s isn’t just what he brings on the court that Silas believes makes him an attractive candidate for an NBA team. At age 30, he’s one of the older guys in the G-League and one with a lot of basketball experience to be passed down to younger guys.

“I think it’s a little bit of leadership, definitely some shooting. I’m a vet now so I’m able to come in and help in that aspect as well. But everybody needs someone who can hit an open shot and I think I can bring that to a team,” Silas told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s the best place for anyone who’s trying to make that next step. We’re available and we’re right here, it’s just a call away.”

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NBA Daily: Lillard Playing For Something Bigger

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has his eyes set on a bigger prize than just being an NBA All-Star.

Steve Kyler

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Playing For Something Bigger

The NBA All-Star Game is a spectacle.

By design, the game is meant to be a showcase, not just for the players selected to compete, but for the league and all of its partners, on and off the floor. It is easy to get caught up in how players selected actually play, but the reality is while most see the game as important for a lot of reasons, Portland Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard understands it has to be put into perspective.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect people to go out there and treat it like they are playing for the team they’re under contract for,” Lillard explained this weekend.

“It’s the one time in an 82-game season plus playoffs, preseason and training camp that we actually get a break. It’s necessary to take a mental break, along with a physical break from what we do every day. There’s nothing wrong with that, so I don’t think it’s fair to ask guys to go out there and play like it’s for the Trail Blazers. My loyalty is to my team; I got to stay healthy for my team. I got to do what’s best for my team. Obviously, go out there [during All-Star] and not mess around too much and that’s how people get hurt and stuff like that. You got to go out there and play and have respect for the game, but I don’t think it’s necessary to go out there and go crazy like it’s a playoff game.”

Lillard notched 21 minutes in Sunday’s big game, going 9-for-14 from the field for 21 points for Team Stephen, a roster that included three Golden State Warriors players. Lillard believes that eventually, he’ll get the chance to share the weekend, his third, with teammate C. J. McCollum.

“Each year you see teams are getting two to three, Golden State got four this year,” Lillard said. “But you look at it and say ‘why is that happening’ and it has a lot to do with team success. Me and C.J. just have to take that challenge of making our team win more games. I think when we do that, we’ll be rewarded with both of us making it. If we really want to make that happen, then we’ll do whatever it takes to win more games.

“I feel like this season we’ve moved closer in that direction. In the past, we haven’t even been in the position to get one, because I did not make it the past two years. I think if we keep on improving we’ll eventually get to the point that we’re winning games and people will say ‘how are they doing this’ and then hopefully our names come up. Hopefully, one day, it’ll happen.”

Another issue that got addressed during the All-Star Weekend was the growing tensions between the NBA players and the NBA referees. Representatives from both sides met to address the gap developing on the court, something Lillard felt was necessary.

“We’re all human,” Lillard said. “As competitors, we want to win. If you feel like you got fouled, you want them to call the foul every time. I think sometimes as players, we forget how hard their job can be. At the pace we play, it’s hard to get every call, and then you got guys tricking the referees sometimes, we’re clever too. It’s a tough job for them. I think when we get caught up in our competitive nature, and we forget that they’re not just these robots with stripes, they are people too. You have got to think, as a man if someone comes screaming at you every three plays, you are going to react in your own way. Maybe you’re not going to make the next call; maybe I am going to stand my ground. It’s just something that I think will get better over time. I think both have to do a better job of understanding.”

With 24 games left to play in Lillard’s sixth NBA season, the desire to be more than a playoff team or an All-Star is coming more into focus for Lillard, something he reportedly expressed to Blazers management several weeks ago.

“There are guys that have this record and guys that have done these things, and I want to at least get myself the chance to compete for a championship,” Lillard said. “If I get there and we don’t win it, it happens. A lot of people had to go see about Michael Jordan, a lot of people had to go see about Shaq and Kobe. You know, those great teams, but I have a strong desire to at least give myself a chance to be there. Take a shot at it.”

With All-Star out of the way, the focus in the NBA will switch to the race to the playoffs. As things stand today Lillard and his Blazers hold the seventh seed in the West and are tied with Denver, and just a half of a game back from the five seed Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Blazers are going to make noise this post season its going to be on the shoulder of Lillard, and based on what he said, it seems he’s up to the challenge.

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NBA Daily: James Harden on the new All-Star Format and Chris Paul Being Snubbed

James Harden shared his thoughts on the new All-Star game format and teammate Chris Paul not being selected as an All-Star

James Blancarte

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NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a bold decision to alter the All-Star game format. By allowing the two highest voted players in each conference to be team captains, Silver did away with tradition and the usual West versus East format. While there were a few complaints about the switch, fans were seemingly more vocal about the decision to not televise the selection of players by the team captains.

Well, the results are in and praise for new format has been nearly universal. With players more invested in the new format, and perhaps the $100k per player bonus for the winners, the effort level was up, plays were being drawn up and executed and defense made a surprise appearance in an exciting game that came down to the final possession.

2018 NBA All-Star and Houston Rockets guard James Harden spoke about the All-Star game and the new format.

“I think it is exciting. You get an opportunity, you know, for a mixture of guys to play on the same team together. We’re trying to win though, it’s competitive,” Harden stated. “Obviously, the All-Star game has a lot of highlights but we’re trying to win, we’re going to go out there and prove we’re trying to win.”

Harden, who played for Team Stephen, did not get the win. However, Harden also made it clear that playing in the this year’s All-Star game meant even more having grown up in Los Angeles.

“To be able to play in the big boy game means a lot. I grew up, especially being from LA, you grew up watching Kobe, watching Shaq every single year. You see how fun, you see how exciting it was,” Harden said. “Now to be here, to be in the city is more special.”

While Harden made it a point to talk about what it means to play in Los Angeles, another factor he seemed excited and appreciative about was being the first player picked for Team Stephen.

“Man, that’s a great feeling. Just because in middle school I was the last pick. So, to be the number one pick in the All-Star game, that’s what the swag champ is for,” Harden said.

Harden wasn’t universally positive about All-Star Weekend. Specifically, he was not happy about being the only Rockets All-Star – especially considering Houston’s standing in the Western Conference playoff race.

“I have a lot to say about that. What are we talking about? Everyone knows Chris Paul is with the Rockets and the Rockets have the number one [record]. How does that not happen?” Harden asked rhetorically. “It’s frustrating. I know he’s frustrated. He never brings it up. That’s why I did say what I said. He’s never going to bring it up. But, I’ll defend for him. He should be here with me in LA as an All-Star.”

Harden had some success as he led his team in minutes and logged 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds. He spoke after the game and confirmed the reconfiguration of the All-Star game produced a competitive game and a fun product for the fans.

“Felt great. I hope all the fans enjoyed [the All-Star game] as well. It was very competitive. Guys got after it from the beginning of the game. Usually All-Star [games] there are a lot of dunks, a lot of freedom. Tonight was intense,” Harden said.

Harden was not wrong with his conclusion that there was less freedom. With less freedom and better defense played, Harden went 5-19 from the field and 2-13 from three-point range while finishing the game without a single free throw attempted. The lack of free throws may have irked Harden, who is renowned for his ability to get to the line (9.9 free throw attempts per game this season). Adding to that frustration, Harden had the opportunity to put his team ahead with a three-pointer late in the game but failed to connect on the shot. Unsurprisingly, Harden expressed his disappointment with the result.

“I was pissed we lost. I’m still mad,” Harden stated.

On the final play of the game, while ignoring Harden, Curry kept the ball with the chance to tie the game. Curry dribbled into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant double team. Curry wasn’t able to get a shot off and Harden was left with his hands up waiting for a pass and a chance to win the game that never came.

Looking toward next year, Harden was asked if as a possible captain he would prefer to have the player selection two weeks before or right before the game. He thought about it and then smiled.

“Probably right before the game,” Harden answered.

Commissioner Silver has spoken on the subject and is sending strong signals that next year’s selection will be televised. That will potentially add another layer of excitement to the new All-Star game format, which is already paying off for the NBA.

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