DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic comprise two-fifths of the tight-knit fraternity of former USC basketball players currently competing in the NBA.
Before a mid-November game between DeRozan’s Toronto Raptors and Vucevic’s Orlando Magic, the two former Trojans reminisced about their lone season as collegiate teammates.
According to Vucevic, “DeMar said, ‘Man, you have come a long way. When you were a freshman, nobody knew who you were, and you did not play a lot. Now you are starting in the NBA.’”
“I did not really think about it until then,” Vucevic said.
With DeRozan starring for the Trojans during the 2008-09 season, Vucevic averaged only 2.6 points per game as a skinny freshman. He struggled to earn playing time and was still adjusting to American culture after arriving from Montenegro the year before.
DeRozan declared for the NBA after only one year, and Vucevic began to blossom under Kevin O’Neill, who had replaced Tim Floyd as USC’s coach.
“I pushed him every day,” O’Neill said, “because I knew he could be better.”
Vucevic put on muscle and developed his outside shot and was named the 2010 Pac-10 Most Improved Player. The next year he was named to the All-Pac-12 first team and led the Trojans to the NCAA tournament.
He went on to be selected by the Philadelphia 76ers as the 16th pick in the 2011 NBA draft.
Traditional rookie hazing was far from the only grief Vucevic received from his 76ers teammates last season.
Playing alongside four players who competed at Pac-12 schools — California’s Francisco Elson, Washington’s Spencer Hawes, UCLA’s Jrue Holiday and Arizona’s Andre Iguodala — Vucevic received numerous reminders that his Trojans were struggling through a 6-26 season without him.
“[USC] did not win a single game against those teams,” Vucevic said, “so I had to do a lot of extra favors for the veterans.”
On the court, Vucevic averaged 5.5 points in only 15.9 minutes per game. Despite his limited action, he played well enough to attract the attention of the Orlando Magic, who acquired him as part of the blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Vucevic was working out when he received a call from his agent informing him to pack his bags for Orlando.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for me,” Vucevic said in the Magic locker room before Sunday’s game against the Lakers. “I knew I could have a chance to play on such a young team.”
Vucevic has excelled, starting all 16 games for the Magic. He is averaging 9.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, statistics that prompted several of his former USC teammates to draft him on their fantasy teams.
“He is in a great situation,” O’Neill said. “If he was on the Lakers, he would not be putting up those numbers.”
Vucevic has scored in double figures in all 10 games, when playing more than 26 minutes this season.
“He is a very talented big man,” Magic teammate Arron Afflalo said. “You can see his growth mentally from last season in terms of how hard he plays.”
Vucevic no longer has O’Neill shouting in his ear during practices, but has nevertheless been able to maintain a consistent level of intensity.
“The Magic coaching staff pushes me hard,” Vucevic said. “Probably not as much as [O’Neill], but they are working me hard so I get better every day.”
New Magic coach Jacque Vaughn has noticed Vucevic’s work ethic and praised the center’s offensive potential.
“I love coaching him and his approach at practice everyday,” Vaughn said. “He can shoot the basketball and he is very skilled offensively.”
With Vucevic playing so well, on-court reunions with DeRozan could soon become commonplace — and fierce.
“[Vucevic] can really dribble, pass, and shoot,” O’Neill said. “He has the chance to have a long, successful career in the NBA.”