Monday, September 2, 2013

Nikola Vucevic - EuroBasket Montenegro Preview

For your casual basketball viewer, the season ends in mid-June and doesn't start up again until October. I'll kindly disagree with that mentality. You have the NBA Draft, then July is all about Summer League. August is really truly the only typically 'quiet' time (and Dwight has crushed that theory the past two offseasons), and even then international friendlies take over whether it's in preparation for the Olympics, the FIBA World Championships (now referred to as the 'World Cup'...ugh), EuroBasket, and the FIBA Americas Championship. August 30th we're back on the 2-year cycle of the FIBA Americas tournament hosted in Venezuela this campaign, and on the 2-year cycle of EuroBasket hosted in Slovenia beginning September 4th. The end goal of participating in EuroBasket and the FIBA Americas is to qualify into the Olympics and FIBA World Cup. However, there's tremendous prestige in winning these 'qualifying' tournaments. Don't tell that to USA basketball who very rarely participates in the FIBA Americas Championship simply because they typically dominate and win gold at the Olympics and FIBA World Cup and have the options to elect not to send a team to the FIBA Americas tourney.

The top 6 finishers of the now expanded 24-team EuroBasket four-group format punch a ticket for Spain in next year's FIBA World Cup. If Spain finishes in the top 6 (Spoiler Alert: They will), then the team that finishes 7th also gets an automatic invitation without having to endure a crummy qualifying campaign to get into the tourney. The top 4 finishers in the 10-squad FIBA Americas two-group competition earn automatic berths for next year. Remember, the U.S. already has their invite by virtue of winning the London Olympics. Expanding from 16 to twenty-four teams for the first time ever at EuroBasket may water down the quality in the first round, but it's still known as a more entertaining tournament than the Olympics or the FIBA World's. The FIBA Americas tourney is shorter and less grueling on its competitors. But the atmosphere and passion lacks in comparison to the other tournaments discussed. Still, it's fun when your country competes or your player(s) is out there. 

So for this Magic man international preview let's check in on our favorite center, Nikola Vucevic. 'Vucci Mane' last season managed to fill the abandoned shoes of Dwight Howard well enough to where we can focus on the future instead of dwelling on the unfortunate past of the 'Superman saga'. Nik was the anchor of a Magic squad that went through a lot of changes and injuries throughout the '12-'13 campaign. Because of his steadfast nature, the starting center position is locked up in Jacque Vaughn's system and we can now see how Vucevic can fair in Montenegrin national team duty.

With Nikola Pekovic electing to sit out EuroBasket in favor of getting paid - which the Wolves did, and rightfully so - Vucevic will be thrust in a first-man role on offense and defense. The 22-year-old has come a long way in growing up on the parquet court since his debut with the Montenegrin senior squad at EuroBasket 2011. It was a ho-hum tourney for a kid just months removed from attending USC. It showed statistically with his 5.0 ppg and 3.2 rpg averages mirroring a big man not yet fulfilling his talent just yet. I'd bet a lot of money that those stats are much higher once 'Vooch' and company begin Group B play Wednesday versus FYROM

Side note: Can FIBA please not promote a fake Vucevic Twitter account?

Notice that Montenegro's average roster age is almost 4 years younger than Turkey's. 

Montenegro is led by Head Coach Luka Pavicevic who last year led his roster (that had Pekovic but not Vucevic) to qualify for this EuroBasket by dominating the qualification period and finishing with an outstanding 10-0 record. Let's see how Pavicevic handles the pressure of a bigger stage. 21-year-old Bojan Dubljevic was a revelation in that campaign. The possible problem with this is that Dubljevic and Vucevic both play center. I would hope that Pavicevic realizes that it's in his best interest to go into twin towers mode with his two best players. It's not quite Pekovic-Vucevic, but Bojan was named Eurocup Rising Star of the Year for his outstanding first season work with Spanish side Valencia. Funny enough, Bojan was drafted #59 in this summer's Draft by...yep, the Minnesota Timberwolves. 

I haven't been able to view this squad in action. No one has. All I can work off of is an occasional box score here, an update there, and some shot charts. Nik's maintaining strong rebound numbers and is shooting about 50%. It's all about efficiency of your time on the court. Whether for the benefit of keeping Vucevic fresh, Nik has rarely cracked more than 25 minutes per exhibition contest. I hope Pavicevic isn't shy to run his offense through his solid post-up players. Inside-out is your friend. 

Another 21-year-old beast in the making Marko Todorovic couldn't heal himself quick enough and will miss the tournament. That means Nik and Bojan will be looking at 26-year-old naturalized guard Tyrese Rice to step up as a third scorer. The Boston College alum is a EuroBasket newcomer and will be tasked with sticking toe-to-toe with some high-caliber competition (Bo McCalebb, naturalized Bosnian and Herzigovian Zachary Wright, Nemanja Nedovic, and Mantas Kalnietis to name a few). Other big men, Vladimir Dasic and Blagota Sekulic will be asked to scored. If you can't read between the lines, Montenegro needs immense help at forward and more depth at guard. The roster balance appears nonexistent. Marko Popovic and the Sehovic brothers must step up if this country wants a chance at winning its first ever major competition medal. Which leads to...


Near impossible - and that's me being kind - unless Vucevic and three of his teammates go berserk in overachieving their expected output. If Nik somehow visibly leads his country to the knockout stage, I'll begin the hype machine to get Vucevic into his first NBA All-Star Game immediately. Sadly, realism won't allow for this pipedream to come true. In fact, I don't even see Montenegro getting to the second round robin stage of Group E. I am curious to see if Montenegro can at least hang in games with superior fitness...something Jacque Vaughn would appreciate. But, I'm getting ahead of myself a bit. Let's look at who is in the 6-team Group B along with Montenegro.

Oh boy. It sucks that Montenegro couldn't be in the extremely weak Group A. That first match on Wednesday against FYROM is a proper gauge of what to expect. If Pavicevic's squad can prevent McCalebb and Pero Antic from going off while using their size advantage, the Montenegrins may be viewing at accomplishing quite the first day upset. Day 2 pits Vucevic's side with Latvia. Davis Bertans and Andris Biedrins are missing in action for the always pesky Latvians. That's a must-win game for either country's dream of still being a factor in the competition. Same can be said for Day 3 when Montenegro matches up with Bosnia-Herzigovina. Keep an eye on one-man show Mirza Teletovic's potential sky-high point totals. Lithuania will annihilate Montenegro, especially coming off a day off. I'm mostly curious about the status of Jonas Valanciunas odd facial hair. 

The fifth and final contest for Montenegro and Serbia may mean nothing...or it may mean everything. Coached by legend Dusan Ivkovic, the 2009 EuroBasket silver medalists have underachieved in the last few competitions. For this EuroBasket, they're even weaker, missing Milos Teodosic, Milan Macvan, Dusko Savanovic, Vladimir Lucic, Zoran Erceg, Novica Velickovic, and Vladimir Micov. But I think they're still good enough to earn one of those top 3 pots in the group with Nedovic and Nenad Krstic among notable names participating. BUT if Serbia is struggling and we find that September 9th will determine who of Montenegro or Serbia stays in Slovenia or goes home, that alone would be an accomplishment for Montenegro. They'd have no pressure on them while Serbia would be clawing to avoid choking in another tournament.

I predict that Montenegro will beat Latvia and Bosnia-Herzigovina, but that a 2-3 record will only be good enough for fourth place in Group B points standings. I have Lithuania, FYROM, and Serbia in that order moving on to the second round robin stage of Group E. Even if Montenegro gets to Group E, and say they get to the knockout stage, Montenegro would be the weakest team remaining and any opponent Montenegro faces in a Quarterfinal match would be favored to beat their inexperienced foe. 

If you read my Hedo preview of Turkey, you know what 8 teams I have reaching the knockout stage, and which of those will earn an automatic qualification bid to the FIBA World Cup in Spain next year. Again, I just can't envision Montenegro even sniffing the Quarterfinals. Then again, we're witnessing Uruguay making a hell of a FIBA Americas run early when I had predicted they wouldn't even get out of Group A. So who is to say teams like Serbia or FYROM can't stumble? Look, as long as Vucevic stays healthy, Nik will be all the better for having to take a first-option scoring and defensive role. I just don't think he has a chance at helping earn Montenegro its first-ever medal. Not this year. Stats don't mean as much in national team duty as they do in the NBA, but I want to see Nik average a double-double in the 5 (or more) games he plays. If you don't have a cheering interest in EuroBasket, the nation of less than one million people needs all the support they can get.  

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