The “one more year” chants echoing throughout the Galen Center on Senior Night and the smile breaking across Nikola Vucevic’s face as he prepared himself at the foul line told me everything I needed to know.
Vucevic leading the Trojans as a junior was merely a pleasant wish; his final home victory was the perfect send-off in accomplishing what he hoped for in coming to USC.
Nothing could hold him back.
Not the hope of an NCAA tournament run, not a bunch of gold-clad students pleading for him to stay, not even negative evaluations from NBA scouts. He was leaving school a year early and entering the NBA draft.
And it just didn’t feel right.
Vucevic and the 2010-11 USC men’s basketball team were a group of players you could endear yourself to because they were like the average college kid: talented and full of promise, but still vulnerable to the trials of growing up.
They fought each and every game to find a groove, only to have to start all over again after their path was derailed by adding new players to the mix or general lapses in play.
Vucevic was the leading scorer (17.1) and rebounder (10.3), and the Trojans’ most dependable and effective weapon.
And he led a rather young team.
Rather than dazzle or dominate, Vucevic was a quiet force that could only have been made louder with another 365 days of nurturing in the Galen Center’s womb.
He was a clash of worlds — part finesse, part power, but neither side breaking out into the extraordinary. Instead of wowing with dunks, 3-pointers that barely touched the net and screams that rang into the upper deck, he used a variety of solid, tough post moves and hustle plays to go along with a refined perimeter game.
He wasn’t rangy and athletic like the projectable American big men that scouts drool about, nor did he show a nasty streak by swinging elbows under the basket.
He also lacked the mystique — and subsequently inflated draft stock — typically attributed to the players cut from his mold. Skilled and savvy big men from overseas are lauded by scouts for their potential as matchup nightmares.
Contrarily, the state of the school’s basketball program helped prop the exit door wide open for the Montenegro native.
Three of Vucevic’s fellow starters would be graduating, a group of integral counterparts to his fundamentally sound game.
Donte Smith’s dangerous outside shooting was gone.
Forward Marcus Simmons’ departure took the team’s best perimeter defender away.
Alex Stepheson’s departure took away the frontcourt-mate and muscle that allowed him to roam a little bit more, have a little more space to operate on offense and an anchor with him on defense.
With three of his longest-tenured and most talented teammates leaving school, it seemed as if Vucevic’s decision to enter the NBA draft was coaxed out of him by the task of rebuilding instead of deciding to leave on his own terms.
Upon his declaration, he was projected as a second-round pick — those drafted in the second round are not guaranteed rookie contracts. With a labor dispute in the making, Vucevic could have been left jobless, hoping for negotiations to finish as soon as possible.
But thus far, he has proven me wrong.
In the last few months, Vucevic’s stock has skyrocketed. He was the tallest and heaviest player to enter the draft, measuring at just under 7 feet and 260 pounds and now projects as a legitimate NBA center, a scarce resource in today’s game.
He has also shown improved quickness, shooting ability and offensive moves.
With the draft coming up tomorrow, Vucevic has been projected to be picked as high as seventh to the Sacramento Kings and figures to be drafted 27th by the Spurs at the lowest.
He has also worked out for seven teams like the Charlotte Bobcats, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics.
The Trojans’ most valuable player’s name will be called early Thursday evening, and he should have the whole student section cheering for him again.
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