By Josh Robbins, Orlando Sentinel
5:04 PM EST, November 24, 2012
The final basket center Nik Vucevic made Friday night is listed as a "driving layup" in the NBA's official play-by-play account. But there was nothing routine about it.
The layup helped secure a win, and it also epitomized why Orlando Magic coaches and executives think Vucevic can develop into a significant asset.
Vucevic collected a bounce pass from J.J. Redick on the left side of the lane, jumped from outside the restricted circle. Using his left hand, Vucevic laid in the ball off the glass as Cleveland's Alonzo Gee cut across the paint to try and block the shot.
"All I really had to do is just extend and finish it," Vucevic said.
Vucevic is being modest. What might seem simple to him — catching the ball and going up with his off hand in one fluid motion as a defender bore down — is anything but simple for most 7-footers.
How Vucevic, 22, develops is one of the Magic's intriguing subplots this season.
He has the ball skills, smarts and size to become a player who averages double figures in scoring and rebounding.
Still, this season is a whirlwind for him — perhaps as much of a whirlwind as his rookie year last season with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Ensconced now as the Magic's starting center, each game brings another challenge.
On Wednesday, it was the Detroit Pistons' rapidly improving Greg Monroe. On Friday, it was the Cavaliers' scrappy Anderson Varejao. On Sunday night, it will be the Boston Celtics' physical and savvy Kevin Garnett, who just loves to test youngsters' toughness.
Vucevic's teammates understand what he faces game to game.
"You've got to feed him nails and hot sauce," Glen Davis said.
"That's what you've got to do with guys like that with big upside and never really had to bite nobody. You've got to get him to bite somebody and also learn mentally, because he's going to be in the game in big, key stretches."
Vucevic isn't a shot-blocker — and because of that, he's not a dominant defensive force — but his coaches marvel at his penchant for being in the right place defensively.
The coaches grade each player for his performance on each defensive possession, and Jacque Vaughn said that Vucevic almost always finishes in Orlando's top three or four.
"Nik is tops pretty much each game," Vaughn said.
Vucevic has plenty of room to develop physically. The NBA lockout prevented him from working out with 76ers strength coaches during the summer of 2011. And he hasn't had a full summer yet to work with Magic strength and conditioning coach Joe Rogowski.
"Joe's already done a great job of just working with any deficiencies that he has," Vaughn said. "He'll have a concentrated effort in the offseason, which excites me."
The 70 games ahead will give Vucevic plenty of chances to grow against a procession of NBA big men. In the next four games, he'll face Garnett, Tim Duncan, Brook Lopez and his Magic predecessor, Dwight Howard.
"It motivates me," Vucevic said. "They're all great players. It's going to be a different matchup every night. It's going to be a tough matchup every night for me. But I can only get better from it. I'm looking forward to those matchups. I'm going to give it all I have."
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