USC basketball: More on Nikola Vucevic, his father and the next step: the NBA
In Tuesday's editions of The Times, I detailed the rise of USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic, a story partly told through his father, Borislav, a former professional basketball player in Europe.
But Borislav was no ordinary European basketball player. He played for 24 years, averaging more than 20 points per game in his career, he told me, which obviously gave Vucevic a lot to live up to.
So far, Vucevic has done quite well. This season, the 6-foot-10, 260-pound Montenegro native is averaging 17.7 points, a Pacific 10 Conference-high 10.3 rebounds, and has recorded a league-high 20 double-doubles, including eight in a row.
After the season he's expected to make a decision about whether to declare early for the NBA draft.
Tuesday morning I awoke to an e-mail from a reader asking why Vucevic's father came to see him in late February for the first time in four years, which would seem to indicate he did so to watch his son play his final college games.
Vucevic said his father had planned to come see him near the end of last season because that's when the games are the most competitive, when teams are fighting to remain on the bubble or in their conference tournaments.
However, because USC was banned from postseason play last season, he didn't make the trip.
With that, here are some other passages from my interview with Vucevic and Borislav during Borislav's short stay here in Los Angeles. Hope you enjoy.
Vucevic on what he's hearing regarding his NBA prospects:
Most people say I improved a lot this year and I’m in a position where I’ll have to make a big decision and we don’t really know yet. But I have a chance. It’s not like I’m a top-five pick. I’ve kind of improved, but I still have work to do.
On if being a projected first-round pick is his main factor for leaving:
If they say I’ll be a first-round pick it doesn’t automatically make me leave. There’s going to be a lot of factors that’s going to make my decision. That would definitely help if people say that, yes or no, you’re not going to be or you are.
On his favorite players growing up:
I was a huge fan of [Michael] Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. As a kid, all my clothes had to be related to Jordan. I had to wear Jordan stuff all the time. I had five different sweats that said Chicago Bulls. [Vucevic also said he admired Serbian star Dejan Bodiroga and also Vlade Divac.]
Vucevic on if it was a big leap to come and play in the U.S.:
No, I wanted to come here. I would watch it and see they had a lot of fans and people love college basketball. I was a challenge I wanted to take, to see if I could do stuff by myself and see if I could leave my parents for the first time and all my friends. And I thought I was a great opportunity for me.
Borislav, on his response to Nikola's decision to play basketball:
I told him, "OK, you must understand in the beginning that this is not so easy, You see me, how I practice. You are not like your generation. They go out every night, to the disco or elsewhere. You cannot do that. You must go to school, practice, rest. This is a professional life." He said, "OK, I will do that." We started practice and I told him, "I’m your father, but outside of the gym. In the gym, I am your coach. This is not difficult for you, this is advantage. You do not understand now, but you will understand later." And now he starts talking about it. It’s the reason why he is today in a good position. He will do a great job and he is on a good road.
On how often they talk:
I talk to him every day. At home we watch on TV some games. I explain a lot of things. When we are in the car, when we’re eating, we’re always talking basketball. This is advantage for him.
Vucevic on the journey he's made, from being unknown to possibly declaring for the NBA draft:
It showed that the work paid off. When I came here, nobody knew who I was. I was just somebody they signed. But then, me working hard and spending a lot of time in the gym, I improved a lot and I’m at a point where a lot of people know me. When I see something about me in the newspaper that’s good, it makes me happy because it showed that my work paid off. I’m still a kid about it. When I was a kid I would take the newspaper and I would see pictures about all the players that play professionally, and now, when I see that, I’m as happy as when a kid gets a present.
Borislav on how he sustained his 24-year professional career in Europe:
I never miss one official game. Maybe preseason, I don’t know, maybe a couple games. Never one game. Maybe I was too lucky. Many times I was too close to being injured, but it never happened. I practice very, very tough, very, very hard. During the season, I miss maybe two or three practices. In Europe, we practice in the morning and afternoon also, so two times a day. I think this is the reason why I play so long, because I was always ready, physically, I was in shape. And If I don’t practice really hard, I cannot play. I knew that. This was the reason I was all-time motivated to practice very, very strong. It was my mentality. Everyone is different. But I remember when I played and I was 40 and I played 20-, 21-, 22-[year-olds], I was the same. I run like them, I play defense, I shoot, I score. I keep the same way, practice the same way. This was my philosophy, my way to play.
Junior guard Jio Fontan also said that Vucevic deserved to be the Pacific 10 Conference player of the year, an honor that Arizona sophomore forward Derrick Williams received Monday.
"Oh, by far," Fontan said. "It’s not even close. You look at the things he’s done for our team, he’s the most valuable player. I think Derrick Williams is a great player. If he wins, obviously nobody is going to argue that. He’s such a great player. The battle at Arizona, Derrick Williams won that battle, not by as much as the one Nik won here, in my opinion. As I said, he’s more valuable to us. That series is split. I’m a little biased but I definitely think Nik is the player of the year in this conference."
But Vucevic said previously that he doesn't care much about the awards.
"I'd rather have team wins than me win an award," he said.
-- Baxter Holmes