Vucevic used to adapting to change


As a child, he watched his father run up and down the court, unaware of the sights and sounds that passed him by.

When he grew old enough to appreciate the significance of sports, it was soccer — not basketball — that first caught his eye.

But for USC’s junior power forward Nikola Vucevic, whether in the serenity of a soccer field in Belgium or under the bright lights of the Galen Center, adaptation has always been there to throw the Swiss-native a well-timed assist.

Basketball has always been in the bloodlines of the Vucevic family.

The 20-year old’s mother, Ljiljana, was an interior staple for the Sarajevo club team Zeljeznicar in the 1970s, while also staring for the Yugoslavian national team.

His father, Borislav, personified the word “longevity” with a career that spanned three decades and lasted into his mid-40s. He too was well-known for being a proud member of Yugoslavia’s national team.

One would have thought these glaring examples of hoops-dominated genetics would be enough to seal the deal for an impressionable child whose early years were defined by the uncertainty that often hangs over a professional athlete’s family.

But as his dad starred as the small forward for the up-and-coming Okapi Maes Aalst of Belgium’s premier basketball division, it was the grass-stained glory and a very different kind of dribble that pulled at the heart strings of the defiant child.

Soccer is a predominant aspect of Belgian culture, second only to the nation’s lightly crisped waffles. And so, where rudimentary skills of left-handed layups and chest passes would have seemed appropriate, Vucevic’s attention was fixated on the public pitches in Aalst or neighboring Brussels.

Yet, as the sport kept growing in fanaticism, so did Vucevic in height.

“I just got too tall and really was better at basketball,” Vucevic said.

It was an appreciation, however, that was not inherited but learned.

From tricks his father taught him after the family moved back to Montenegro, to the insightful lessons he received from his mother, to the nuances he picked up from watching Michael Jordan or Serbian star Dejan Bodiroga, basketball went from a budding passion to a clear-cut aspiration for the future.

Although his teenage years were adorned by newspaper clippings and refrigerator-bound individual rankings, the once basketball-oblivious child turned 6-foot-10 boy wonder knew back in 2007 that dreams of the collegiate and professional levels could only be achieved with another international adaptation.

For Montenegro’s 2007 Best Young Player, life had been measured as much by on-court achievement as by the miles logged during his 17-year trek — to the tune of 1,100 miles between his birthplace in Switzerland, childhood home in Belgium and teenage years in Montenegro.

But another language barrier, schooling system, lifestyle change and strenuous acclimation process were not enough to deter the soft-spoken Vucevic from clinging to his transcontinental goals.

In October 2007, he enrolled in Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, Calif. Within seven months, former USC coach Tim Floyd had seen enough and offered him a roster spot on the USC basketball team. Soon after his letter of intent was signed in June, Vucevic had become fluent in the English language in a blink of an eye.

Yet, what appeared on paper to be a seamless transition turned out to be the first of many hard-fought adjustments in the Serbian’s new American life.

“People live differently here than they live in Europe. Everything is quick here, especially in L.A.,” Vucevic said. “The biggest adjustment I had here was to learn how to do things quick — get a schedule, go to school, then practice, then tutoring. It was a little tough adjusting to a quick life.”

Although the hustle of cosmopolitan life initially caught the diffident big man off guard, eligibility issues, crowd sizes and incoming big man recruits made his first year at USC less than ideal.

His name no longer created a stir, his exploits on the U18 team in Montenegro largely were an afterthought and his presence on the court was often criticized, not celebrated.

But Vucevic stayed the course.

He got stronger in the weight room, adjusted to the physicality and up-tempo nature of basketball in the United States and became a student of back-to-the-basket moves and rebounding tendencies.

“I knew I had to make a major step in my game,” Vucevic said. “I worked harder in the summer, got more mature and when I got on the court I knew what I could do well and what I couldn’t.”

Before last season, USC’s nationally recognized revolving door saw the exit of forward Taj Gibson to the NBA, Floyd to the temporary unemployment line and Williams to more peaceful pastures in Tucson, Ariz. And in a small, unnoticed twist of fate, the role of interior offensive presence was not left for the defensive-minded senior forward Alex Stepheson, but in the raw, unproven hands of Vucevic.

First-year USC coach Kevin O’Neill recognized the talent and bevy of potential he had in his new starting power forward.

On the surface, Vucevic’s 2009-2010 campaign was a coming out party. He finished the sanctions-marred season second on the team in scoring (10.7 points per game) and first in the Pac-10 in rebounding (9.4 per game). He was awarded the conference’s Most Improved Player Player Award in March and captured the same honors at USC’s banquet weeks later.

But a glance deeper at the first-year starter’s numbers and it is evident that adapting to the rigors of a 30-game season was a fight that Vucevic struggled to survive.

There were double-double nights and moments where future potential became a showcase in the present, but Vucevic limped into the off-season with four straight games of single-digit scoring outputs and nearly half a season of performances in which he recorded three field goals or fewer.

Last summer, however, there was no time to stare at the new hardware adorning his Los Angeles apartment. Seniors said their goodbyes, inexperienced freshmen said their hellos and a new role was thrust upon the now blossoming forward: the go-to guy.

The subtle mental and physical changes that came with the promotion signaled another opportunity for Vucevic to show how far he’d come.

“I have been here one of the longest on this team, and I definitely need to be a leader,” Vucevic said. “I just want to try and talk to my teammates on the floor, tell them how to improve if they are doing something wrong. When I was a freshman, all of the guys were quick to help me. Now I get that opportunity to do the same.”

And if Saturday’s season opener against UC Irvine was any indication, the new and improved forward provided a telling sample of his perseverance.

Held to a mere two points on 1-of-3 shooting in the first half, USC’s big man did what he knew best: He adapted.

A few baseline spins and a put-back jam later, and the proud member of this year’s John R. Wooden Preseason Top 50 List finished the 62-49 victory leading all players in points and rebounds, with 19 and 14 respectively.

Monday night, he continued to impress against Santa Clara, posting a career-high 22 points accompanied by a surprising zero fouls committed.

As the line between his collegiate and professional careers grows ever closer, each step forward lets Vucevic know that for once it’s OK to stop and smell the roses.

For now, adaptation it seems has lent itself to some much-needed stability.

“For The Love Of The Game” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at dulberg@usc.edu.

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