Before he had the opportunity to taste his first authentic Philadelphia cheese steak, or even capture a glimpse of the Liberty Bell, Nikola Vucevic fell in love with the Philadelphia 76ers.
“The Sixers were definitely my favorite team coming into the draft,” Vucevic said. “I wanted to get picked by them. I really liked coach [Doug] Collins, the rest of the staff, and the players I met.”
The Sixers reciprocated Vucevic’s admiration, drafting him with the 16th pick of the first round at the 2011 NBA draft on Thursday.
When the Sixers called his name, Vucevic wiped away a few tears and walked up to the stage at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. to shake hands with NBA commissioner David Stern and receive his Sixers hat.
“It was by far the greatest moment of my life,” Vucevic said. “It was something that I dreamed about since I was little.”
The Sixers became enamored with Vucevic at the annual NBA draft combine in Chicago. He surprised scouts by measuring just under 7 feet tall in shoes, making him the tallest player at the combine. Vucevic weighed in at a muscular 260 pounds.
“The combine in Chicago gave me a great idea about where I was,” Vucevic said. “I saw that I was better than some of the guys ranked in front of me.”
Vucevic also had a brief, one-day workout with the Sixers in Philadelphia prior to the NBA draft, where he was able to get a better understanding of the organization.
“They have a great young team, and I fit in pretty well and want to help them,” Vucevic said.
At a press conference, Collins called Vucevic “a hard working, skilled big man with a desire to succeed, who gives us more size in the front court.”
Vucevic is expected to compete with Spencer Hawes for the Sixers’ starting center position.
“I will be able to play the [center] position in the NBA,” Vucevic said. “I learned how to play tough and aggressive in college.”
As a junior at USC, Vucevic averaged 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, as the Trojans earned an NCAA tournament berth.
Vucevic came a long way from when he averaged 2.6 points and 2.7 rebounds per game as a freshman. He was named the Pac-10 Most Improved Player as a sophomore and All-Pac-10 First-Team as a junior before declaring for the NBA draft.
Sixers forward Andres Nocioni currently wears uniform No. 5, Vucevic’s jersey number at USC. At his introductory press conference, Vucevic held up a No. 8 Sixers jersey.
Vucevic became the fifth Trojan selected in the first round of the NBA draft in the last five years, after Nick Young in 2007, O.J. Mayo in 2008, and DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson in 2009. Only four schools have produced more first-round picks during those years.
The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Kyrie Irving out of Duke with the first overall selection. Two Pac-10 players, Derrick Williams from Arizona and Washington State’s Klay Thompson, were selected ahead of Vucevic.
Former Trojan guard Marcus Simmons and forward Alex Stepheson were not selected in the NBA draft but could still sign free agent contracts or play overseas.