Nikola Vucevic has seized the title of “best player nobody knows about.” Playing for a lottery team in Orlando can do that to a guy. The title cuts both ways: It gets you buzz, including All-Star buzz, but it doesn’t necessarily inspire a national audience to pay any attention. There is a kind of collective nod until the team improves: “I hear that guy is pretty good. I think the Sixers had him once?”
Vucevic spent some time with Grantland to discuss his All-Star case, life in Orlando, his taste in cars, and the rebuilding Magic.
Should you make the All-Star team?
[Agonizingly long pause.] I don’t like talking about myself in these situations. I’ve played well this whole year. I’ve been consistent. I’ve made huge improvements since last year. I wish my play helped the team get some more wins, and hopefully that will come with time.
The most important thing is to be consistent. There are so many games, it’s hard to play at a high level consistently.
I thought for a second you weren’t going to answer the question. You really don’t like talking about yourself, huh?
I just don’t like it. I like other people to talk about me. I’ll admit if I do well or not after a game. I just don’t want to compliment myself. My dad1 is like that, and I’m like that.
A former professional player in Europe.
Do you have any plans if you don’t make it? Hit a beach in Mexico or something?
I don’t really want to plan that. In the back of my mind, I’m really hoping I’ll be in New York. That would be a dream. I don’t want to do anything to jinx it by making plans for something else. If I don’t make it, then I’ll have enough time to plan.
Do you like the long All-Star break?
It’s a good idea, especially for the guys that are involved in the events and the game. When it was only four days, and you go, you don’t really get a break — not with all the stuff with the NBA, all the meetings.
But it’s gonna be different for the guys who don’t make it. You sit around for eight days, and you could really lose it and get out of shape. You gotta be careful.
You can’t just party.
Exactly. But I think it will help. The season just has so many games, and so much travel.
This is a very serious question. Better Magic hair-related feature: Elfrid Payton’s hair or Kyle O’Quinn’s beard?
That’s a tough one. It is a very serious question. My answer might change the franchise. Kyle’s beard is always nice — he really takes care of it. It’s a huge beard, but it’s always clean. Elfrid’s hair is not supposed to look clean. It’s supposed to be a mess. This is hard.
Kyle told me last year that you’re his beard monitor. You’ll tell him if it gets out of control.
I will. Last year, he went a little too big on it. I told him that he should trim it down. I’m not a fan of just huge beards. I can’t deal with that. I can’t even grow a beard like that. No way. I’m not mature enough, I guess.
You have a good left hand. Are you one of those secret lefties, or did you just work at it?
It’s a little bit of both. I was always using my left hand for some things, and my dad is a lefty. I’m righty when it comes to shooting, but I do a lot of stuff with my left. But I did really work at it. It’s very tough for defenders.
What kind of stuff do you do lefty? Do you write lefty?
I write right-handed. I play soccer with my left leg. When I hold stuff — like a bag or a plate or something — it’s better if I have it in my left hand.
The knock on your game is rim protection. Guys are shooting in the mid-50s against your team at the basket when you’re around the rim. How would you grade your progress in that part of defense?
I’ve gotten better each year. It’s going to come with experience — learning from my mistakes, watching film, seeing what I’m doing wrong. I need to make a lot of improvements in that area. As a big man, it takes time. You can’t just stand in the paint. You have to move. I sometimes react late to the ball, or I’m a little late moving from the weak side.
I’m obviously never gonna become a Dwight Howard or Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan that goes and blocks a lot of shots. But I need to be a better presence in the paint. I do think my one-on-one defense and my defense in the post has improved.
You’re the no. 1 option for long stretches on offense. Is it hard to do that and bring energy every possession on defense?
It’s part of playing. It is what you are supposed to do. There are other players who have been able to do that, and I think I’m capable. Honestly, offensively, the way I play in our system, I don’t have to work that hard. It’s not like it makes me so tired I can’t play defense. I would never use that as an excuse.
I’m capable of doing both at high intensity. You play as hard as you can, and then you get subbed out. And with all the timeouts we have in the NBA, I can stay fresh.
I heard you bought a Porsche …
And your teammates made fun of you because you can’t fit in it? So you had to buy a Range Rover?
The Porsche is like my fun car. It is smaller, but I can fit in it. I love cars. My Range Rover is my everyday car. People are always asking me how I can fit in the Porsche, but I can. I mean, I’d never buy a car that I had trouble driving, you know?
But there was some trash talk, right?
There was a lot of “How can you fit, man?” I had to actually show them that I could fit. Of course, getting in and out is not easy, because the car is so low to the ground. It looks funny because I’m huge and the car is small.
They would literally ask you to get in and out of the car?
Yeah! “Come on, prove you can fit!” I was like, “All right, OK. You guys saw me drive it! I wouldn’t be able to come to practice if I couldn’t fit!”
You guys have been running a lot of spread pick-and-roll lately, with you screening, Elfrid or Victor Oladipo handling the ball, and three guys spotting up. Do you like playing that way?
I do. It helps us, especially when we have Victor and Elfrid on the court to get the rim. Guys help on them, and they make plays for others. For me, it helps because I can get a couple of good rolls early in the game, and once my guy starts helping, I’m able to get a post-up in a better position than just straight post-ups when you throw it into me.
We’ve been playing well out of it, especially with Channing [Frye] being a spread power forward. He puts the defense in a tough position, because you can’t really help off of him.
It’s an interesting fit for you, because you’re not a catch-and-dunk guy like the centers you mentioned before. But you can pick and pop, or do those little short rolls where you take floaters.
Yeah, I’m not the hard roller like those guys that can just catch it and dunk. But on those short rolls, the half-hook or half-floater — whatever you call it — is really good for me. I can also pass it pretty well.
I just try to find ways. And Elfrid is a really willing passer. Sometimes I just kind of follow behind him, and he finds me.
Payton does have a weird rhythm to his game — in a good way. Hesitation dribbles, herky-jerky pauses. He keeps defenses off balance. But did it take you time to get used to the way he plays?
It takes time to get used to anybody. Jameer Nelson was used to Dwight, and Dwight can catch any pass. I’m not as athletic, obviously. Jameer had to get used to me. So it takes time. But with Elfrid, his ability to create, his hesitation — it keeps the defense on their heels. You don’t know what he’s going to do — whether he’s going to shoot or pass. And he throws those late passes, where he goes up and looks like he’s going to shoot, but then he passes. He’s tricky.
He’s going to be really good. It’s going to take time, but he’s gonna be good.
You have a lot of different big-man partners. Channing’s a shooter, but you guys have struggled defensively together. Jacque Vaughn tried starting O’Quinn with you for defense, but he can’t space the floor the same way. Tobias Harris has been a good small-ball power forward for you, but not as much this season. Which do you prefer?
They all have their own little ingredients. When we first traded for Tobias, he was playing power forward a lot, and we played pretty well together. I think we were pretty good with me and Kyle. They really all bring something different. I’m comfortable with all of them.
Channing spreads the floor a little more than the others. Tobias can create on the dribble. And Kyle is just so unselfish. He’ll always give you an extra effort.
Your preferred nickname: Vucci Mane, Vooch, or something else?
Vucci Mane — I do not like that at all. Fans like it, and around Orlando, they always ask me about it. For some reason, I’m sorry, I don’t like it. It comes from Gucci Mane. I don’t know. I just don’t like it.
And when the crowd here says “Vooch,” they extend the “oooo” — it sounds really nice, especially when they announce the starting five. That feels pretty good. So I guess it’s Vooch.
I’ve always used Vooch, but that might be because I don’t really know who Gucci Mane is.
Please, please keeping using that one. I might have to tweet it: “Fans, please don’t call me Vucci Mane.”
What’s the best Orlando theme park?
I’ve been to all of them. I love Gatorland.
I assume alligators are involved?
Yeah, I guess it’s not really a theme park. They don’t have rides. It’s like a zoo with only gators.
But all of them are fun. Disney World is obviously fun. I really like Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And all the studios are really cool. I’m a huge Star Wars fan, so they have a lot of stuff from that.
I actually really like SeaWorld. They have this thing called Discovery Cove, where they created a pool where you can swim with dolphins and see all sorts of fish. That was pretty fun.
You grew up on the coast of Montenegro, right?
Yeah. I spend a lot of time on the beach when I go home. That’s what we do.
Did you ever play water polo growing up? It’s huge all over the region.
I played with my friends. It’s one of the hardest sports that I ever played. We would just put two goals in the sea and play. The games are supposed to go to 10, but it’d be 3-2, and everyone would just want to go home. You have to battle people. You have to swim up and down so much.
Some guys play dirty, too.
When they show the underwater camera at the Olympics, you see there’s a lot of stuff going on under there.
Wait, wait. Did you not go to the Harry Potter theme park yet?
I did! Actually, I’m a big Harry Potter fan. There’s a good ride where you get a broom and you kind of fly around the room. That’s a cool ride.
Back to hoops: You guys have tried all kinds of styles of play over the last few seasons. Do you have an identity yet? Is there something you can hang your hat on — “This is what we are”?
I think the way we are playing lately with the pick-and-roll and a fast pace — that can be our identity. The main issue is that we are focused too much on running and trying to score, and we forgot that we have to play defense.
Yeah, I saw Jacque was angry about the defense after a recent game.
I agree with him. We all talked about it privately, as players. The pace has everyone talking. It’s fun, and we’ve been scoring over 100 points. But you can’t win without playing defense.
You shot 3s in college, and you’re a good jump-shooter. Would you ever want to shoot 3s in the NBA, or does that take you away from your strengths?
First of all, I’m 2-for-3 this season, so I would already consider myself a very good 3-point shooter. Just kidding. I think I’m capable of shooting it — especially the corner 3. Or if it’s late in the shot clock, or I’m trailing the fast break.
I’m not going to make it a big part of my game, because it would take away from the other stuff that I do. But I’m capable. I shoot them pretty well in practice. Maybe I could make it a bigger part of what I do without taking away from other things. Who knows. But playing inside is always going to be my focus. Maybe we can run a play for me to shoot a 3 sometimes, just as a surprise.
Do you check the standings? You guys need to go on a big run at some point to get back in the playoff race.
It’s out there. You’ll know about it even if you don’t want to. I know where we are at. I know that we still have a chance, but we do have to get hot and get on a streak. I think we can do it, but our focus can’t be on trying to make the plays on offense. It has to be on improving our defense. If we can get a couple of wins, then maybe then we can talk about the playoff standings. We’re not there yet. It’s not impossible, but we have to improve on defense.