By David Hein
When Montenegro power forward Nikola Vucevic was thinking about his future two summers ago he sought the advice of his friend Nikola Dragovic, and the Montenegrin-born Serbian power forward suggested Vucevic follow his lead and go to the United States.
Two years later, Vucevic is Montenegro's second leading scorer (13.5 ppg) and leading rebounder (12.0 ppg) at the U20 European Championship Men. He also spent his freshman season at the renown U.S. college program USC playing alongside two first round NBA draft picks in DeMar DeRozan (No. 9) and Taj Gibson (No. 26) as well as Italian national team guard Daniel Hackett.
"Nikola told me I have everything (in the U.S.) to progress as a player. For example, we have a practice gym and I can go there whenever I want. It's open 24 hours a day. That's good for me so that I can work individually every day. And I had a lot of good coaches and good players," Vucevic said after Montenegro beat Turkey 61-58 in Rhodes.
Dragovic just spent his junior season at USC's cross-town rivals UCLA. And the two players met up three times this past season, with UCLA winning twice before USC knocked off UCLA in the post-season PAC-10 conference tournament.
"The first game was a little weird playing against him because he's my friend for a long time and I never played against him. After I got used to it, it was nice playing against him, and we were joking a bit too. Like when there was a call by a ref, we would talk to each other in Serbian," said Vucevic, who also played against number one draft pick Blake Griffin last season.
Vucevic was also impressed with the size of the crowds for USC games.
"When I was playing in Montenegro we were playing in small gyms with like 200 or 300 people. And in my first game for USC I played in front of 11,000 people. It was impressive with the big arena and you're on TV and a lot of people want to talk to you after the game and ask for autographs and their pictures," he said.
The 19-year-old Vucevic, who was born in Switzerland, comes from high-level basketball family.
His mother Ljiljana played for Sarajevo club Zeljeznicar as well as the Yugoslavia national team, and his father Borislav "Boro" Vucevic was on the Bosna club which won the 1979 Euroleague crown. He also played for Yugoslavia at the 1985 EuroBasket alongside the likes of Drazen Petrovic, Emir Mutapcic and Stojko Vrankovic.
The father Vucevic played until he was 44 years old, leaving Bosna in favor of Switzerland in 1987 and playing from 1992 to 2002 in Belgium. In 2001-02 - his final season - Vucevic even averaged 12.5 points, 5.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds in two Korac Cup games for Liege BC.
After moving from Switzerland when he was two years old, the younger Vucevic fondly recalls his time in Belgium.
"Belgium is a really nice country. It's different than Montenegro but it's really nice. For me it was good because I saw a lot of different countries and a lot of different cultures. And I speak three languages - French, English and Serbian," said Vucevic.
He then spent four years in Montenegro before heading to high school in California and then on to USC.
Vucevic also remembers spending a lot of time with his father in the gym.
"He was still playing when I was growing up and I was watching him almost every day at practice," said Nikola Vucevic, whose uncle Savo was also a player and coach.
When asked what his father - more a shooter than his low post son - tells him about the game today, Nikola said: "My dad always told me to just play as hard as I can and do what I know the best and don't do stuff I don't know. And when I practice make sure that I practice hard and try to learn the most that I can."
The Montenegro U20 coach Dejan Radonjic believes Vucevic can be a big star.
"He's a great guy, an excellent talent. I think he will be a big star. He is very intelligent, and he has a good character," said Radonjic.
But there is still work for the young power forward.
"He must work very hard and get stronger and get faster and needs more experience," said Radonjic.
With his pedigree, Nikola Vucevic is bound to achieve big things.