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Vucevic, Montenegro aiming to surprise the world at China 2019
PODGORICA (Montenegro) - The return of Nikola Vucevic couldn't have come at a better time for Montenegro, a country aiming to cause some damage in their FIBA Basketball World Cup debut later this month in China.
The 28-year-old center had a breakthrough season with the NBA outfit Orlando Magic, averaging career-highs of 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 80 games throughout the Regular Season campaign.
Now he looks forward to maintaining the same level of intensity with the Montenegro red-and-yellow jersey on his shoulders.
"THE GOAL IS TO GO TO THE NEXT ROUND AND TRY TO HAVE A LONG RUN IN CHINA. WE HAVE A GREAT AND TALENTED GROUP OF PLAYERS WITH ONLY TWO GUYS OVER 30 YEARS OF AGE."
However, to make China 2019 a success for Montenegro, Vucevic, Bojan Dubljevic, Nikola Ivanovic, Derek Needham and Co. will need to surpass Group F's opponents Greece, New Zealand and Brazil.
Yet, the 2.13m (7ft) Vucevic has never felt any better to make a difference to his country.
"I am feeling very well after the season I just had," he said to FIBA.basketball. "I am feeling great in my body, great with my basketball, and I am so excited to help the national team this summer. I will need a bit to get used to playing at FIBA level, but I am ready for the training camp and for the competition to start."
Montenegro secured Europe's last World Cup spot on goal differential despite an 80-74 defeat in a home clash with Latvia in the very last minutes of the final qualifying window last February.
Seven wins out of 12 games, which were good enough to advance to the 32-nation World Cup, rank perhaps as the biggest achievement in the history of Montenegro basketball, especially after they fought back from a 1-3 mark to start their European Qualifiers campaign.
Montenegro fans from all walks of life, players, and basketball shareholders took to the streets to celebrate, but as Vucevic notes, it's time to regroup and work to try and make even more noise in China.
Bojan Dubljevic averaged team-highs of 18.2 points and 6.8 rebounds in six European Qualifiers games
Vucevic went on saying: "We have a lot of energy, a lot of motivation to do great things in China 2019. We can surprise a lot of people, a lot of teams because we are going to China to show what we can do and compete hard.
"The goal is to go to the next round and try to have a long run in China. We have a great and talented group of players, with only two guys over 30 years of age and we all want to show the world that Montenegro’s basketball is very competitive."
In order to advance to the Second Round as Vucevic envisions, Montenegro will need to finish in the first two places of group F. If they do, they move on to Group K to face the top two teams from Group E which comprises of Turkey, Czech Republic, USA and Japan.
"I LOVE MY COUNTRY AND I AM ALWAYS HAPPY TO WEAR THE NATIONAL TEAM JERSEY. IT'S A GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO COMPETE ON THE WORLD STAGE WITH THE RED JERSEY ON MY SHOULDERS."
And although Vucevic describes Greece as favorite in the group, it's a challenging that Vucevic looks forward to.
"When you look at their roster, with guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, (Nick) Calathes, and many more other players, they are one of the best teams in the competition. They have a lot of talent and a lot of experience. Brazil has a lot of players that gained experience at FIBA level in the last couple of years, and they are very competitive too. New Zealand has a good team too; they always play and fight hard to have the best result in every competition they compete at," he said.
"It's a very tough group, and we are going to do everything to go to the next round. Greece is the favorite for the first spot of the group, and the battle for the second one is going to be very intense."
Vucevic is seen here facing Latvia's Kristaps Porzingis at 2017 FIBA EuroBasket
At the end of the day, Vucevic feels any sacrifice to help his country is well worth it. All he hopes for is to make his countrymen and women proud.
"I love my country and I am always happy to wear the national team jersey, and it's a great opportunity to compete on the world stage with the red jersey on my shoulders."