Tampa Bay Sports Day

NBA: Vucevic Leads Orlando Magic Against Blazers

Photo by Orlando Magic

ORLANDO – Among the many reasons that Nikola Vucevic has stuck it out in Central Florida and has never looked for an escape route as the Orlando Magic have been in rebuilding mode for six seasons is the fact that the soft-spoken 7-footer always thought Orlando would be a great city to raise a family.

Of course, Vucevic himself has always loved the many perks of living in Orlando, namely the sunshine and numerous lakes that allow him to ride his boat year-round or Disney World being nearby so that he can feed his affinity for all things Star Wars.

Life is about to change in a fabulous way for Vucevic and his wife, Nicoletta, as the couple is expecting their first child – a boy – in December. Vucevic, who has talked for years about wanting to build a family and wanting to get a dual citizenship so that he can plant even deeper roots in Central Florida, can’t wait to introduce his son to his basketball home in Orlando.

“Orlando is a great city to raise a family because they have great schools and there are a lot of great people around here that I have met,’’ said Vucevic, a seven-year resident of The City Beautiful who celebrated his 28th birthday on Wednesday. “I know a lot of people who have kids now and when my kid grows up, they can spend time together. Orlando is a great, great city. It’s safe, calm and the weather is nice as well, so kids can play outside. So, it’s a great city to raise a family.’’

While many of the NBA’s offseason headlines centered around player unrest and them wanting to leave their long-time franchises for supposedly greener pastures, Vucevic has never once seriously considered turning his back on Orlando and the Magic. LeBron James, an Akron, Ohio native, snubbed his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for a second time, bolting for the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. Kawhi Leonard did something few players ever have done by asking out of San Antonio and leaving the Spurs franchise that he won a title with in 2014. Meanwhile, forward Jimmy Butler has turned much of the early stages of this season into a daily docu-drama with his attempts force the hand of the Minnesota Timberwovles and get them to trade him elsewhere.

No one could have blamed Vucevic if he had done the same things as those disgruntled players following seasons of 20, 23, 25, 35, 29 and 25 victories. But Vucevic’s loyalty to Orlando has never wavered, in part, because the franchise believed in him enough back in 2012 to trade Dwight Howard for him and a package of others. Vucevic is a die-hard soccer fan and has always admired the players who stuck it out with their franchises for years, but his reasons for wanting to stay in Orlando are quite simplistic in nature. He has a burning desire within him to be the driving force behind a Magic renaissance.

“There were a couple of times where I was very disappointed with a couple of things that happened and maybe I gave (asking for a trade) a thought, but I never went through with it,’’ Vucevic said. “Orlando gave me a lot since I came here, and it gave me a chance to become who I am as a player since I came here from Philly. So, I just wanted to stay loyal and use that as a way to give back to the franchise. Obviously, I’m become a free agent (at the end of this season) and we’ll see what happens, but so far, I’ve never wanted to force my way out of here and leave on a bad note. I know that we’ve had some tough seasons with a lot of losing, but I’ve always hoped that things will turn around and get better. That’s the goal and it would make me really happy.’’

Vucevic is plenty happy these days with the Magic sitting at 2-2 after beating the loaded Celtics in Boston on Monday. Orlando, who faces the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday at the Amway Center, toppled rival Miami in the opener and then showed some of its resiliency under new coach Steve Clifford by bouncing back from a poor game-two performance by taking the Philadelphia 76ers to the brink. Then, came the Magic masterpiece – one that was authored primarily by the big man from Montenegro.

Heading into Thursday’s game, Vucevic leads the Magic in scoring (18.8 points) and rebounding (10.3 boards) and is nearly tops on the team in assists. (D.J. Augustin’s 5.8 assists are slightly more than Vucevic’s 5.3). Augustin, a teammate of Vucevic’s for three seasons now, had his suspicions about the big man confirmed when he signed with the Magic before the 2016-17 season.

“I’ve said it from Day One here since I came here to play with (Vucevic) – he’s one of the best big men in the league because he can do it all,’’ Augustin said. “He’s one of the best passers, especially out of the post and he finds me on cuts all the time. He’s a good shooter and he’s so skilled. So, he’s easily one of the best big men in the league.’’

That’s a thought shared for years Clifford, who has been championing Vucevic’s importance since he took over in Orlando back in late May. Clifford coached previously in Charlotte for five seasons, and he said Vucevic was always at the top of the scouting board because of the diversity of his skills. Even after Orlando drafted Mohamed Bamba with the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, Clifford said that it would Vucevic who would continue to be a pillar the Magic would lean upon.

“He’s a very good player and I think he badly wants to win, which he’s showing now,’’ said Clifford, who named Vucevic a tri-captain along with Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon prior to the start of the season. “He’s always rebounded, but his pick-and-roll defense has been good and his team defense has been very good.’’

Vucevic, who has held the franchise record for rebounds in a game for nearly six years and has steadily worked his way up the charts in several all-time Magic statistical categories, was arguably never better than this past weekend.

Less than 24 hours after the Magic struggled mightily with their ball and player movement in an unsightly loss to the Charlotte Hornets, Vucevic took it upon himself to help the Magic’s passing and handed out a career-best 12 assists in Philadelphia. To go with all those assists, he also poured in 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while doing battle in the post with Sixers superstar Joel Embiid. The triple-double was the second of his career.

Two nights later, Vucevic was at it again – this time outplaying Boston all-star center Al Horford. Against the Celtics, Vucevic made 11 of 18 shots, drilled a 3-pointer, grabbed 12 boards (three of them offensive) and scored 24 points to key the Magic’s gutsy 93-90 win in Boston.

Fournier, Vucevic’s closest friend on the team, marveled at how the big man dominated several phases of the two games despite going up against all-star competition. Teammates for a fifth season, Vucevic and Fournier have leaned on one another throughout the lean years and pondered what could be done to get the Magic back into contention. Not once, Fournier said, has his friend talked about wanting out of Orlando.

“Maybe it’s something from Europe, where we don’t get to ask (for a trade) and it may be a habit or the way we do things,’’ Fournier said of Vucevic. “He loves Orlando and the Magic gave him a good opportunity to become a starter and a good player when he wasn’t playing in Philly. He’s aware of that and he wants to play well for this city.’’

Vucevic also wants to play well for his growing family. In addition to waking up on Wednesday to a specially designed birthday cake, Vucevic’s wife also gave him a couple of presents that will always be near and dear to his heart – even if they are a bit Star Wars’ geeky.

“The one she got me (Wednesday) morning was pretty great. It was this Star Wars T-shirt with (Darth) Vader on it that says, `Daddy,’ and then there was a T-shirt for the baby that says, `Daddy’s Jedi,’’’ Vucevic said. “We found out in May that (Nicoletta) was pregnant and the summer was coming up, so we kept it to ourselves. Then, we found out it was a boy 12 weeks into the pregnancy and we’re really excited. She’s due in December, we’re getting ready now and making sure I get a lot of sleep – that’s what everybody says.’’

Asked if he was going to be one of those dads who changed diapers, cleaned up the many messes and rocked the baby back to sleep late at night, Vucevic gave a reply that might sum up what he’s done in recent games for the Magic.

“Yes,’’ he said with conviction, “I’ll do it all.’’