Could former USC forward Nikola Vucevic sneak into the lottery?
It still sounds a bit crazy to say it, but yes, yes he could -- quite easily, in fact. Vucevic, a three-year contributor for the Trojans, has risen up NBA teams' draft boards over the last month to the point where he's now considered a top-25 lock, a reasonable bet to go in the final few picks of the lottery and even a potential top-10 selection in Thursday's 2011 NBA draft, which begins at 4 p.m. PT on ESPN.
All this, after he started out the pre-draft season projected as no better than a second-rounder potential undrafted free agent in many insiders' eyes.
"I'm not surprised," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said flat-out Wednesday of the progress Vucevic has made in recent weeks. "He was in great shape during the year, had a great junior year and he's worked out really well.
"Now he's gonna be a high pick, hopefully."
Hopefully isn't exactly right. Vucevic is going to be a high pick no matter what -- the only hope involved now is in relation to exactly how high he could go. Rumors floating around in the final pre-draft days Tuesday and Wednesday had teams like Boston and New Jersey possibly trading up to gain a better chance to select him than their current late-first selections.
He has worked out for 12 teams in all, including last-minute visits to Indiana, Portland, New York and Washington over the past few days. Those teams all pick in the 15-to-21 range of the draft, perhaps his most likely landing spot come Thursday. But there's also Houston, who picks 14th and is reportedly enamored with the Montenegro native. And, even more, there are the potential trade-up teams. Vucevic may be the draft's biggest unknown in the top half.
As for his USC roots, O'Neill and Vucevic talk every day, the coach said, with conversations ranging from short catchup calls to longer discussions regarding workouts and strategies when meeting with teams.
A big factor working in Vucevic's advantage this entire time, O'Neill emphasized, has been his agent, Rade Filipovich, and the fact that, because of him, Vucevic was able to dedicate himself fully to preparing himself for workout season instead of waffling back and forth between college life and draft prep.
"You're either in or you're out," O'Neill said. "Nik was in from the get-go, and that showed."
Other things showed, too, including his abnormally low body-fat percentage and abnormally long wingspan. Those figures are big sells for interested NBA teams, as is the fact that he's still only 20 years old with three full seasons of college experience under his belt -- a true rarity when it comes to the draft. College juniors are typically considered older prospects in the NBA draft, but Vucevic, junior and all, is only five months older than Texas forward Tristan Thompson, who spent only one season playing college basketball.
He offers the best of both worlds in that sense.
Vucevic did not receive a formal invite to the green room at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey for Thursday's draft festivities, but he's going anyway. His father, Borislav, and mother, sister and uncle will all join him. He's not the only prospect scheduled to attend without an invite, but he stands a significant chance of being the highest-selected player to attend as a normal citizen -- another potential storyline in what has been a month chock-full of them for the former Trojan.
USC has two other players who have made the rounds across the NBA in pre-draft workouts: forward Alex Stepheson and guard Marcus Simmons, both graduating seniors. Simmons has worked out for the Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets, am0ng other squads, and Stepheson has auditioned for the Raptors, Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats.
O'Neill has kept in contact with both of them and believes they will at some point find a landing spot to play pro basketball next season, not necessarily in the NBA but somewhere. Stranger things have happened, but they're considered longshots to be selected in the second round of Thursday's draft.
"With both of them, it comes down to: they're not going to be first-round draft picks and may not even be drafted, obviously, but their pro careers may go different routes than a first-round draft pick," O'Neill said. "It might be D-league or overseas or something of that nature.
"Who knows right now?"