Nik Vucevic celebrated his 22nd birthday Wednesday.
Some party that turned out to be. For a gift, he received a matchup against Memphis Grizzlies All-Star Marc Gasol.
Vucevic might as well embrace nights like that one. The year ahead will be the most challenging — but also possibly the most rewarding — period of his basketball career. The 7-footer almost certainly will begin the regular season as the Orlando Magic's starting center, which means he'll have plenty of future clashes against the Gasols, Andrew Bynums and, yes, Dwight Howards of the world.
"You can't really replace Dwight," said Vucevic, a second-year player the Magic acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers in the deal that sent Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"He's the best big man in the league, and you can't replace him," Vucevic added. "So what I'm going to do is just play my game and do my best to help the team win. And, hopefully, that's good enough."
Jacque Vaughn thinks it's more than good enough. The coach likes what he's seen from Vucevic this preseason, which will end when the Magic host the Houston Rockets on Friday night at Amway Center.
Some 7-footers enter the NBA with questionable hand-eye coordination, but Vucevic possesses an array of effective low-post moves and a shooting touch that extends to 15 feet.
"Nik is extremely skilled," Vaughn said. "He can shoot from the perimeter. He's legitimately big — a good wingspan on him. He knows how to play the game. He has a good touch around rim."
Vucevic wasn't the tallest player on his first youth basketball team, so his coaches played him at point guard for about two years.
Meanwhile, he received plenty of tutoring from his parents.
Borislav Vucevic, his father, played 24 years of professional basketball and even played on Yugoslavia's national team alongside future NBA player Drazen Petrovic. His mom, Ljiljana Vucevic, played pro basketball for a team in Sarajevo and the Yugoslavia national team.
Nik considers Montenegro home, but because of his father's profession, he spent 12 years of his childhood in Belgium.
He's fluent in Serbian, French and English.
As a kid, he looked up to Vlade Divac, but he was a self-described "huge fan" of Michael Jordan, so much so that most of the clothes he wore as a kid bore the Nike Jumpman logo or Jordan's image.
These days, Borislav watches all of his son's regular-season games via the World Wide Web.
"He's like my personal coach," Nik said. "He tells me what I can do better. I don't always enjoy talking to him about it, but he gives me good advice. He's been doing it my whole life."
Vucevic — pronounced VOOCH-uh-vitch — wants his dad to visit Orlando and watch him play this season.
Vucevic was projected to start at center even before fellow big man Gustavo Ayón suffered a thumb injury that will keep him off the court for at least two weeks.
Vucevic held his ground Wednesday night against Gasol. While Gasol scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, Vucevic contributed 16 points and collected nine rebounds.
A good effort.
"I think if you play hard, you can compete," Vaughn said. "I don't think you have to scowl to be considered a competitor. I want Nik to be who he is. I like Nik the way he is."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun