Checking in with Nikola Vucevic

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Former USC forward/center Nikola Vucevic, who averaged 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds last season, is rapidly rising up draft boards and could be taken as high as 16th in next week's 2011 NBA draft.

The whispers started just about as soon as Nikola Vucevic announced he was going pro back in mid-March, nine days after USC was eliminated in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament by VCU.

He was a surefire second-rounder, if even that, the critics said at the time. He was making a mistake by signing with an agent straight out of the gate rather than waiting a month until the NBA deadline to decide. His body wasn’t NBA-ready, wasn’t tough enough to handle the rigors of the predraft circuit, let alone an 82-game season.

It turns out the critics were wrong on all three counts, and Vucevic and his agent, Rade Filipovich, were right. At least, it appears that way right now, with just days left until next week’s 2011 NBA draft and most draft prognosticators placing the former Trojan forward comfortably in the top 25.

Vucevic’s rise has been fairly meteoric, featuring more exponential growth than any other prospect in this year’s draft class. Even one month ago at this time he was still a projected second-round selection.

Then Chicago happened -- Chicago being, of course, the annual five-day NBA Draft Combine held in Chicago, Ill, this year from May 18-22.

Vucevic dominated it this year. He was the tallest player there at 6-11 and ¾ and the second-heaviest at 260 pounds, a remarkable 40-pound increase from his measurables as a skinny freshman just two years ago. He also recorded the second-best wingspan and standing reach.

About the only thing he didn’t do well was the vertical jump, but teams are evidently looking past that.

He also, you know, played good basketball.

“People were questioning how tough I am, like, ‘Was I just soft, like most Europeans?’” Vucevic said over the weekend from his new temporary home in Manhattan Beach. “And I just went really hard and I played tough and I shot the ball pretty well and did my moves under the basket. And then I measured out well and did well in interviews and people started talking about me more.

“It really just felt good.”

Vucevic’s rise to draft semi-stardom started at the declaratory press conference, really, when he and Filipovich took to the mic on the upper courts at USC’s Galen Center alongside Trojans’ coach Kevin O’Neill. The surprise in that room from the media was clear when the announcement was made. Less than two weeks after that announcement and roughly 20 days after the end of USC’s 2010-2011 season, Vucevic was already back in the gym, working on his game and getting his body in tip-top shape with the help of Filipovich and his staff.

Vucevic is adamant he made the right decision in bringing on an agent, an advisor his father was long-term friends with in Europe, instead of waiting it out and deciding at the May 8 deadline whether or not to hire one.

“By me having an agent, I’ve had the chance to have somebody who could be with me as much time as I needed,” Vucevic said. “He’s only focusing on me and making sure I do everything right, so when you have that it’s great. He gets me good meals, a nice place to live where nothing can disturb me.

“It paid off, and it definitely helps when you get focused on it 100 percent, when you go into it without the possibility of going back.”

The worst part of making the predraft rounds, according to Vucevic, is the constant flying. At nearly 7-feet, with gangly legs that don’t fit well in any type of seating for an extended period of time, it’s easy to see why.

The best part? Meeting the legendary Michael Jordan at a workout with the Charlotte Bobcats earlier this month. Jordan, now Charlotte’s majority owner, approached Vucevic after he matched up positively against Tristan Thompson, Trey Thompkins and other potential first-rounders in a Bobcat workout.

Charlotte, picking ninth and 19th, is now rumored to be interested in his services.

“I’ve been dreaming about it since I was a little, and I finally got to meet him and talk to him,” Vucevic said of His Airness. “We talked for a couple minutes about the workout and I told him that my dad played against him and he knew that.

“That was pretty cool.”

By the end of this week, Vucevic plans to have worked out with a total of 10 NBA teams. He’s already traveled to Houston, San Antonio, Denver, Charlotte, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York and visits Sacramento later today and Portland later this week.

He also plans to be back in New York next Thursday for the draft alongside his parents, although the NBA has yet to formally extend invitations to the draft festivities to any prospects.

Asked where’d he like to go in the draft and to what team, Vucevic says he will pay little mind to the pick number but some to the current layout of their roster.

“I’d like to go to a team with a couple younger players, maybe, where I could fit in a little bit,” he said. “But it doesn’t really matter to me much, really -- wherever I go I’ll be able to fit in.

“A lot of people ask me that but it doesn’t really matter, honestly -- I just want to go somewhere.”

Somewhere it is.