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Vucevic makes a quick rise

The 6-10 sophomore forward is USC's leading scorer and rebounder. Now if he can only stop fouling.

November 27, 2009|Pete Thomas

Nikola Vucevic did not figure on becoming a star player for the USC basketball team so quickly.

The sophomore forward, after all, started only three games as a freshman last season and averaged 2.6 points and 2.7 rebounds per contest.

This season, after two games, he leads the team in scoring (18.5 points) and rebounding (9.5) and has established himself as a starter with a prominent inside presence.

He has played 78 of a possible 80 minutes in those games -- a win and a loss -- and his only apparent flaws are a tendency to commit unnecessary fouls (he has eight in two games) and to experience momentary lapses in intensity.

"Nik is a very unassuming guy," new Trojans Coach Kevin O'Neill says of the 6-foot-10, 240-pound player from Montenegro. "I'd love to see him play harder all the time. But I forget he's still 18 years old as a sophomore in college. He should be coming out of high school."

Vucevic corrects his coach by stating he turned 19 on Oct. 24, and acknowledges that his sudden rise is because the Trojans' roster is so depleted this season -- especially early on, with several key players sidelined because of injuries or eligibility issues.

But seizing opportunity seems to have become a way of life for a young man who, from a basketball standpoint, is following in the footsteps of his father and mother.

Both parents played professionally in Europe. Borislav Vucevic played for 24 years and was a star for the Yugoslav national team.

Nikola, who was born in Switzerland and raised in Belgium before moving to Montenegro as a teenager, idolized his father.

"When I was a kid I watched every single practice and every single game," he says. "He was a really good player with a really good shot. I would look at how he would act and I would try to do the same stuff."

Nikola set his sights on a professional career in Europe and was a star on Montenegro's under-18 national team.

But his uncle, who was coaching in France, had other plans for a nephew who had reach and was developing a soft shot. The uncle contacted his friend Babacar Sy, the coach at Simi Valley Stoneridge Prep, and arranged for Vucevic to try out for the team.

He was embraced, despite having only a faint grasp of English, and became the team's leading scorer (18-point average) and rebounder (12), and one of the nation's premier fifth-year senior players.

"I was homesick, but people were really nice to me," he said. "Any time I would need something, they'd help me, and I did extra work to improve my English and writing skills."

Vucevic was recruited by Tim Floyd, who resigned as USC coach in June amid an NCAA investigation into possible violations that caused all high-profile recruits to abandon the program.

That shake-up, preceded by the early departure of three star players, prompted concerns among USC's young players, Vucevic included.

"At first I was worried," he says. "And losing those recruits was obviously hard because we were supposed to have a really good team."

But the players have embraced O'Neill and his aggressive, physical brand of basketball. And Vucevic, like most of his teammates, maintains with sincerity it still is a good team, but one that needs to become full-strength and mature over the course of the season.

When that happens, Vucevic might play fewer minutes but he'll still figure prominently in whatever success the young team achieves.

Says O'Neill: "Nik is a numbers guy -- he's going to put up numbers for us. He's had some bad fouls and needs to be smarter along those lines, but that will come."

--

pete.thomas@latimes.com

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