Inside the Sixers: Former 76ers center Nik Vucevic is becoming a star with the Orlando Magic

Former Sixer Nikola Vucevic is the only second-year player in the NBA averaging a double-double this season.
Former Sixer Nikola Vucevic is the only second-year player in the NBA averaging a double-double this season. (   AP)
Posted: January 28, 2013

Shortly after the trade that brought Andrew Bynum to the 76ers was consummated, Nikola Vucevic received a phone call that roused him from sleep.

It was Sixers coach Doug Collins, Vucevic said. "We talked and had a good conversation. He wished me good luck and told me that he wished he could coach me."

There were no hard feelings on his part, recounted Vucevic, reached by phone earlier this month. The 7-foot Montenegrin center, drafted by the Sixers with the 16th overall pick in 2011, understood completely that Collins wanted to play players he felt he could trust late in the season and in the playoffs. And this was why, according to Vucevic, he played only three minutes during the Sixers' 13-game playoff run last season.

In Orlando, Vucevic is emerging as one of the most pleasant surprises in the league. But given the opportunity to put on a general manager's hat, Vucevic, just 22, demonstrated his understanding of NBA business.

"I would have traded me for Andrew Bynum," he said with a laugh.

Most other teams in the league would have probably dealt what the Sixers did (Vucevic, Mo Harkless, and a future first-round pick) to acquire Bynum, who was coming off a monster season that saw him named second-team all-NBA.

But as the Sixers cross their fingers and hope that Bynum does not suffer a setback with his knees and can make his debut after the all-star break, Vucevic is on fire and looking nothing like the player who could not crack a mediocre rotation.

Scoring 11.8 points, averaging 11.1 rebounds (third in the NBA), and blocking a team-high 1.2 shots per game, Vucevic, making just $1.7 million this season, is the only second-year player averaging a double-double. On Dec. 31, Vucevic scored 20 points and grabbed 29 rebounds to break the franchise record (28) set by Shaquille O'Neal 19 years ago.

In January, Vucevic, who will make the first of two appearances at the Wells Fargo Center on Feb. 4, has averaged 14.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. And since Dec. 1, the lock to be named to the rookie-sophomore game during the all-star weekend festivities had grabbed more rebounds (334) through Friday than any other player in the league.

None of this comes as a surprise to Vucevic.

"I kind of knew that I could play at this level. I just wasn't really ready to do it in my first year," Vucevic said. "You kind of hit a wall in your rookie year, but you learn from that and you make changes. I knew that I had to get stronger and be in better condition. I also changed my diet. Those things helped a lot.

Vucevic appeared in 51 of 66 regular-season games, making 15 starts. In 15.9 minutes, he averaged 5.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks.

Despite his shrinking playing time as the season wore on, the Sixers were happy with Vucevic.

The Magic, however, insisted on adding young and promising players, especially after trading away Dwight Howard, who made it clear that he would not re-sign with the Magic at the expiration of his contract this summer. As a result, Orlando insisted that the Sixers part with Vucevic as part of the four-team, multiplayer deal that brought them Bynum.

Vucevic's former Sixers teammates knew they were losing a promising young player.

"It's hard to give him credit because he's a [Southern Cal] guy," said all-star Jrue Holiday, who attended crosstown rival UCLA. "But seriously, we knew that Vuc could play. He had some trouble being consistent as a rookie, but you know that's going to be the case.

"The team made a business decision," Holiday continued. "Andrew Bynum was coming off a great year. They had to do that."

The situation in Orlando, where expectations are low, is probably perfect for Vucevic to blossom. Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn, 37, is the youngest coach in the league. Yet he's seven years older than Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan, 30, and both have ties to the San Antonio Spurs organization.

They have a slew of draft picks, the newest arena in the league, and most important, they have time on their side.

"I want to grow here," Vucevic said. "I am confident I can be an elite player in the NBA. I think the trade worked out fine for me because I am getting every opportunity to improve as a player."


Contact John N. Mitchell at jmitchell@philly.com. Follow on Twitter @JmitchInquirer.

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