Not long ago, BallinEurope handed out mid-season grades for NBA players representing The Continent; rookie Nikola Vucevic was awarded a solid 3 out of 5 – a 3.5, really, if only this self-imposing grading system weren’t so harsh. BiE assessed that “subjectively speaking, Vucevic has been particularly impressive for the surprisingly impressive Philadelphia 76ers; if he were getting more playing time, there might be mutters about the former USC Trojan vis-a-vis Rookie of the Year honors.”

Today, Sam Chadwick takes a look at Vucevic in the form of a “draft review” column and, crunching a few numbers, echoes BiE’s contention. Chadwick deduces that the sky’s the limit for this rookie who could in fact become a top-level NBA big. How good is Nikola Vucevic? How about Dwight Howard-level good?

Name: Nikola Vucevic
Country of birth: Switzerland
Nationality: Montenegro
College: University of Southern California
Position: PF/C
Height: 7’0” (2.13 meters)
Age: 21 (born October 1990)

Vucevic quietly made a name for himself at the University of Southern California, where he had career averages of 11.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists across three years while shooting 51% from the field and 30% from three-point range. He made the All-Pac 10 second team in his second season and All-Pac first team after averaging 35.0 minutes, 17.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists in his junior year. His junior year also saw him make the Fox Sports All-American third team and become the first player to lead the Pac 10 in rebounds in consecutive years.

At the 2011 Draft Combine, he came in taller than anyone expected, actually measuring taller than any other player there, with an official height of 6’11.75” and an impressive 9’4.5” standing reach. Thanks to his increased height, he moved up the NBA draft boards and was selected 16th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, a team desperately in need of a new big man.

Vucevic came home for the summer to compete in the Eurobasket tournament for Montenegro; behind a veteran lineup, Nikola got few minutes but did not necessarily disappoint, averaging 5.0 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.6 steals in 14.0 minutes per game.

Once the NBA lockout came into play, Vucevic decided to return to Montenegro and ultimately played 14 games cumulative in the Adriatic League and Eurocup competitions. In the Adriatic, Nikola nearly averaged a double-double, with 16.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game across 10 outings; he also managed to dish 1.0 assists per, while blocking 1.1 shots and thieving 1.1 steals. In the Eurocup, his numbers were similar: 16.8 points and 7.0 rebounds to go with 0.5 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.8 blocks.

So far Vucevic’s NBA career has been better than many expected; I for one did not see him having this much impact and being among the league’s top rookies. He may not be an assist machine like Ricky Rubio or Kyrie Irving, but Vucevic is an incredibly important role player on a playoff team that no one expected to be so good. His NBA averages of 6.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 0.8 bpg impress me, and his per 36 minute numbers equate to a double-double (more on this below).

Looking at individual games his six-point, six-rebound NBA debut against the Phoenix Suns while teamed with a front line of Marcin Gortat, Markeiff Morris and Channing Frye was not a bad start to his career. Following this was an 11-point, eight-rebound outing against the rising Indiana Pacers in just 17 minutes of action on January 9, another game in which Nikola helped his team to a win. Vucevic has shown solid improvement all season long, doesn’t seem to have hit the rookie wall, and Wednesday night’s game against the Boston Celtics was his most impressive to date, as he notched his first NBA career double-double, with 14 points, 12 rebounds (including five offensive), one steal and one block in 30 minutes of playing time while helping his upstart team take control of the Atlantic Division.

When you compare this rookie big man to fellow European NBA draft picks, you realise just how good he is. Below run five stat lines, including Vucevic’s, adjusted for 36 minutes of court time. Can you match the identities of the players with their numbers? (Hint: Four are European; the other is Dwight Howard.)

Player 1: 13.9 points per game; 10.5 rebounds; 1.3 assists; 0.9 steals; 1.9 blocks per game; 51% overall field-goal percentage; 55% free-throw shooting percentage; 38% three-point shooting percentage.

Player 2: 13.9 ppg; 8.6 rpg; 2.0 apg; 0.9 spg; 1.3 bpg; 53% FG; 73% FT; 0% 3s.

Player 3: 13.2 ppg; 11.1 rpg; 1.0 apg; 1.0 spg; 1.8 bpg; 52% FG; 67% FT; 0% 3s.

Player 4: 14.5 ppg; 6.1 rpg; 1.8 apg; 1.1 spg; 1.0 bpg; 41% FG; 77% FT; 21% 3s.

Player 5: 11.5 ppg; 9.8 rpg; 2.0 apg; 1.6 spg; 1.5 bpg; 48% FG; 69% FT; 0% 3s.

Certainly we can agree that each of the lines would be welcomed by essentially any franchise in the big league. Potential is a slippery thing, but if Vucevic can live up to his numbers then he’s in a class with NBA all-stars: reason enough to say that the 76er will develop into one of the best European big men in the NBA – and that right there is an Official BallinEurope Fearless Prediction™.

(In the above five stat lines, Vucevic’s is the first. The others are Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki and Joakim Noah, respectively.)

Sam Chadwick is the co-head coach of the Solent Kestrels U14 basketball team, along with dividing the remainder of his time among an assistant quantity surveyor job, university studies and sportswriting. Chadwick is now a contributor at BBLfans.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @chadwick9.

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