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.”
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