The best player nobody talks about: Nikola Vucevic
MANILA (Philippines) - The basketball world gets hectic at times. Media coverage goes crazy. Records are broken on a daily basis. Stars are acting. Pundits reacting. Waves are made, but rarely are they generated from the small Adriatic Sea country named Montenegro.
Even though there's a 2.09 (6ft 10in) beast called Nikola Vucevic over there.
Think of elite scorers these days. What kind of a profile did you imagine if you would like someone to pour in 20+ points on any given day? Do you need a low block threat? Somebody who can attack with his face to the rim, off the dribble? A solid spot up shooter? Good screen setter and roller? A vertical option, to spend time above the rim?
Nikola did all of that in his first game at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023. Any time Mexico sniffed a chance to get close, Vucevic would go to work, torturing their centers on the left block and the right block, getting to the rim.
They backed off, closed that option, so he settled for his jump hooks and soft touch fadeaways. Okay, now the defense is up in his face to prevent it - not a problem, dribble drives to the left and the right. Backing off again? Well, Nikola can shoot it from way beyond, going a perfect 3-of-3 behind the arc.
It was an offensive display that drew "oohs!" from nearly 7,000 fans in the Mall of Asia Arena.
A complete game, as Vucevic finished with 27 points on 11-of-15 shooting from the field, 2-of-2 from the line, with 10 boards, an assist, a steal and two exclamation mark blocks in the final quarter to keep Mexico at bay.
So, if somebody can put up all those numbers, why aren't more people talking about him?
"Ah, trust me, I don't know," Montenegro coach Bosko Radovic said.
"It comes with the territory when you think of Montenegro, you know, as a smaller country," Kendrick Perry added.
"We weren't given a lot of attention all summer long, that's just the way it is. It's probably up to that, because his quality is not in question, at all," longtime teammate Nikola Ivanovic explained.
That's one part of the equation. The other is just the humble profile of the 32-year-old giant.
"I JUST WANT THE FANS TO REMEMBER ME AS THIS VERSION OF NIKOLA VUCEVIC."
"One thing I've gotten to know about Vooch in this short amount of time: He's not worried about whatever the outside may be. He's keyed in on who he is, he's comfortable and confident in who he is as a person, as a player. At the end of the day, that's the most important thing," Perry offered, now that he played his first official game with Vucevic.
He also said Nikola makes his job as a point guard a lot easier, which is something that the others in this Montenegrin squad are used to.
"I've known him for years now. I was the assistant coach back in 2011, in 2017 and in 2019, so I already knew what it was like to have this guy on a team. Nikola, even though he wasn't around for four years, brought a whole lot of quality to our squad, and you saw it yourself. No need for me to waste words about it," coach Radovic again.
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"It means a lot to a team, when you know you have that kind of quality player you can rely on. Even now, whenever Mexico was getting closer, he took the ball from the top of the key, he attacked from the short corner, he pushed on the low block, and he scored. It's a boost to all of us, and it means a lot to us," Ivanovic agreed.
Vucevic has been a rock solid scorer in the NBA throughout his career, peaking at 24.5 points per game with the Orlando Magic in 2020-21, before more flirting with the 20 point mark over the last three years with the Chicago Bulls.
AS LONG AS I CAN PLAY ON A HIGH LEVEL, I'LL PLAY.
His consistency is something everybody is used to. People get shocked to learn that he'll turn 33 in a couple of months. It feels like he went from a young prospect to a seasoned veteran overnight, especially with Montenegro.
"Oh it's not really 'overnight.' I've been here since 2010, and I missed just one FIBA EuroBasket, played all the other major events, plus the Qualifiers. But I didn't play last year, so when I returned to the team now, it did take a while to figure out that I'm one of the older guys now," Nikola said.
He just signed a new three-year deal with the Bulls. No time to talk about slowing down and getting ready for lesser roles, limited minutes, load management or moving to a bench role.
"I'm feeling really good physically. I'm still as motivated as ever, and nowadays it's not the same as before, when you were 33, 34 and finishing your career. These days, with a bit of luck, if you avoid injuries, you can really prolong your career."
And you can be the second best player of the day at the World Cup, trailing only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander by just a single point in the efficiency department. The Canadian superstar had 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals, giving him a rating of 36, while Vucevic's 25-10 line was good enough for 35 in efficiency.
That's not just a high level, that's the highest level over here in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.
"As long as I can play on a high level, I'll play. It doesn't have to be this high, like it is right now, like it's been for the past few years as the high point of my career. I just don't want to end things where it's not me anymore. Because of myself, because of the people, the fans - I want them to remember me as this version of Nikola Vucevic."
Shouldn't be a problem. Especially for those lucky enough to witness it up close in the Mall of Asia arena.