USC's Nikola Vucevic matures

Nikola Vucevic won Pac-10 Most Improved Player honors last season.

USC head coach Kevin O'Neill told the forward it was because he was bad the previous season.

Vucevic improved his point and rebound averages by about eight and seven per game, but O'Neill half-jokingly stated that he was only picking up the pace from what was a poor freshman season. You know, making up for lost time.

Now Vucevic, a junior, has improved his per-game numbers even more. And, through 23 games, he's just about averaging a double-double, with 16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds per contest. Only four power conference players -- Syracuse's Rick Jackson, Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Maryland's Jordan Williams -- are putting up double digits in both categories.

But O'Neill's still not happy with his performance. And Vucevic wouldn't have it any other way.

"I know that when he says that it's just to make me more motivated," Vucevic said before a recent USC practice at the Galen Center. "If he'd tell me all the time, 'You played well,' then, as a young guy, I'd just be like, 'OK, he tells me I'm good, now I can get lazy or stop working so hard.'

"Due to the fact that he always says that I can do better or he gets hard on me, that makes me more motivated to do better. One day, he's going to say, 'OK, you've done enough.'

"That will be a good day."

If that's not a perfect example of what college coaches -- and all coaches, really -- strive to achieve with their players, what is? O'Neill has Vucevic so set on satisfying him on the basketball court that he's changed the 20-year-old's character in the process of developing him into a better player.

How so?

By focusing on accountability, primarily. O'Neill has forced Vucevic to be accountable on a game-by-game basis for the effort he puts out.

O'Neill says Vucevic's primary gains have been in the work ethic-category, i.e., he's now an "everyday worker," according to his coach -- whereas, before, he was a sometimes worker. That's an important distinction to the second-year Trojans coach.

"Think about it," O'Neill says while watching Vucevic toss up 15-footers near the baseline after practice. "This guy didn't play any as a freshman and was up-and-down and inconsistent last year, in my mind.

"Now, the next step, I told him, is to be playing at his highest level all the time."

Vucevic, the son of an European professional basketball player, was born in Switzerland and raised in Belgium, then moved to Montenegro in the early 2000s when the country became relatively strife-free and his father retired from the game.

Upon watching fellow countryman Nikola Dragovic come to Los Angeles to play for Ben Howland at UCLA, Vucevic trekked to nearby Simi Valley to play at Stoneridge Prep for a season under Senegalese coach Babacar Sy, whom his father knew from the pro ranks. He chose the U.S. route, hoping to get recruited by a major college, over a surefire career in Europe -- where he would likely be earning a big paycheck by now.

At Stoneridge, many players on the team spoke French, making it a natural fit for Vucevic, who speaks French and Serbian in addition to English. He came to the U.S. knowing little English but picked it up quickly, holing up in his room and practicing it the old-fashioned way -- watching American movies with subtitles. A year later, he was already competent and could communicate with teammates without significant trouble. Now, he's one of the more vocal players on the floor.

Count it as one of many things Vucevic picked up quickly.

"He has really matured as a person and as a basketball player since he first went to the United
States," says his father, Borislav, via phone from Montenegro, with Nikola serving as translator. "The thing that has most surprised me, in a good way, is how he quickly adjusted to living by
himself and taking care of everything he needs by himself.

"It wasn't easy for him but it didn't take him a long time to adjust to that."

Teammates have noticed the difference in maturity level. Former Trojans coach Tim Floyd -- Vucevic's primary recruiter -- described him as a goofy kid when he first got to USC in 2008, and that description stuck with him for a time. Vucevic said he took everything in a joking manner during his freshman season and struggled to focus. Now, he says he's still goofy off the court but has learned appropriate in-game behavior.

"He's definitely a lot more mature," says forward Alex Stepheson, who enrolled at USC alongside Vucevic after transferring from North Carolina and now marvels at the personal growth Vucevic has made in the two and a half years since. "He's more confident in himself, for sure, and I think his confidence off the court translates into confidence on the court."

An example? Vucevic has a long-standing love affair with the 3-point shot and he's no longer afraid to admit it. In his first two seasons at USC, Vucevic made a total of eight of 39 shots -- a 21 percent clip -- from long range. This season, he came back to USC after his second summer spent playing with the Montenegrin national team and debuted a much-improved stroke.

He's taking almost three attempts per game from 3-point range this season and making them more than a third of the time. Opponents have learned to step up on Vucevic when he catches the ball on the perimeter, and he has, in turn, learned to drive to the basket occasionally to mix things up.

Stepheson offered another example of his frontcourt mate's growth: With 10:26 left to go in a game last month at Oregon, Vucevic was struggling mightily to establish himself offensively against the Ducks' zone and the Trojans were down 60-41 to Oregon and in danger of being embarrassed by a Pac-10 bottom-feeder.

Then Vucevic took control. After being assessed a technical foul for his role in a scuffle between the two squads, he started playing with emotion and started scoring, too. In the final 10 minutes he had seven points, five rebounds and a block, getting USC as close as a four-point margin at 66-62.

"That was a big moment for him," Stepheson says.

Still, even as the Trojans prepare to face Oregon State Thursday and Oregon Saturday in what are decidedly crucial games for their postseason hopes, O'Neill is critical of Vucevic for virtually the same reasons.

"If you look at the first half of the Oregon game -- nonexistent," O'Neill says. "Then the last 10 or 12 minutes, he really went after it and played like he should."

What will O'Neill say if Vucevic earns more honors this postseason? A spot on the All-Pac-10 First Team is a likelihood at this point, and a Pac-10 Most Valuable Player award is an outside possibility, although he probably sits in third or fourth in the race at this point (behind Arizona's Derrick Williams, Washington State's Klay Thompson and perhaps Washington's Isaiah Thomas). Vucevic is currently third in the conference in scoring and first in rebounding.

At some point, Vucevic's "good day" will come and O'Neill will stop criticizing him and start praising him. That day could be sooner rather than later, by the looks of things. Vucevic has risen up draft boards with his performance this season, and rival Pac-10 coaches, including Howland and Washington's Lorenzo Romar, have proclaimed him an NBA-caliber player.

Vucevic says he will address the NBA decision with O'Neill once the season comes to an end. O'Neill corroborates that account.

"My only hope for Nik is that he's a first-round draft choice," O'Neill says when asked to relay what he'll tell his star forward come season's end. "If he's a first-rounder this year, we'll kick his a-- right out the door."

Pedro Moura is co-author of the USC blog on ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.