Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic elevated his game to an entirely new level during the 2018-19 season, emerging as a first-time All-Star by posting career-highs across the board (20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.1 blocks).
The 28-year-old’s hard work and huge strides paid off in a major way when the Magic offered him a four-year, $100 million deal on Sunday. Several other teams were interested in Vucevic, but the center knew exactly what he wanted and agreed to Orlando’s terms as soon as possible.
HoopsHype caught up with Vucevic, who’s currently home in Montenegro, to discuss his free-agency experience, why he decided to remain with the Magic, how Orlando can build off of their 2018-19 success, his offseason training plans and much more.
First of all, congratulations! Has it sunk in that you just agreed to a contract worth $100 million?
Nikola Vucevic: Uh, I mean, yes and no. I think it will really sink in once I actually sign it. I don’t know. But it does feel really good. I feel rewarded for what I’ve done – not just last season, but what I’ve done throughout all of my years in Orlando. It means a lot for the team to reward me with this nice contract. It was important for me to be able to continue [my career] there and I’m glad we were able to agree on a deal that keeps me in Orlando for four more years. Now, we just need to keep the team rolling.
Do you have any big purchases in mind now that you just agreed to this huge deal?
NV: Nah, I’ve already had my first “big deal” before this one, so I don’t think I’m going to get anything crazy right now. I’ll probably get a couple nice gifts for my family and friends and all of the people who are close to me, but that’s about it. I’m not going to do anything too crazy. I’m a low-key kind of guy, so I don’t need to do anything extravagant. I’ll get gifts for my wife and my son and my friends, but just some little things.
We’ve talked about this before, but you have a very supportive wife and a father who’s helped you a lot over the years since he was a pro basketball player too. How did your family react to this news?
NV: They’re just so happy for me, especially because they know how much work I put into this so they’re really happy to see that I’m getting rewarded for it. Everybody is really happy for me. They’re also really happy that I’m staying in Orlando because they know how much I like it there and they know that I wanted to continue building what we started. My wife is really happy as well. She really enjoys her life there. Our son was born there, and my wife has a lot of friends in the area now too. Like me, she’s happy that we get to stay in the same place. Everybody is really happy with how this worked out.
Fans sometimes forget that professional athletes are people too, so relocating across the country – especially with a baby – is really stressful. By staying in Orlando, you guys are already comfortable and familiar with the city. Did that factor in to your decision-making?
NV: That was important. With me being there so long, we had built this certain life and that was also a factor. But, for me, the main factors obviously had to do with the stuff on the basketball court. I think this is going to be really good for me and I think the team is going to be really good. Those [on-court reasons] were the two main factors. After that, you do obviously look at how comfortable you are and the quality of life and things like that – and obviously when it comes to all of that stuff, Orlando has been great to us.
How much did it help that you made the playoffs this year? You even won a game against the Toronto Raptors in the first round! You’ve always talked about wanting to stay in Orlando, but stressed that the team needed to be winning too because you’re at the point in your career where you want to compete at a high level. Did Orlando’s playoff berth and improvement this season make your decision to stay a bit easier?
NV: Yeah, for sure, because we finally made the playoffs and we finally felt like we were heading in the right direction. Because of that, it felt right for me to stay there and continue this. Being one of the best players on the team, I wanted to come back and keep this thing going. And I’m glad that we were able to agree on everything, so I could come back and do that.
What were the negotiations with the Magic like? It seems like they went smooth and moved quickly.
NV: As far as I know, they went pretty smooth. I told my agent what I would like and he talked to the Magic. I wasn’t in the meeting or too involved in all of that. There were some other teams showing interest, but I just let my agent handle all of it. My agent and the Magic were able to get a deal done pretty quickly. They came to tell me that everything was good and that we had a deal, and I was really happy about that.
One year ago, we were texting during the 2018 NBA Draft and your future with the Magic was a up in the air since the team had just drafted Mo Bamba with the No. 6 overall pick. Do you ever look back at how crazy this past year was – from feeling that uncertainty to emerging as an All-Star to becoming a father to signing this lucrative deal?
NV: Yeah, it’s been a great year for me. There were a lot of moments that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Most importantly was the birth of my child last December, which obviously tops everything; that is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. But also on the professional side, I had a great year – the very best year of my career. A lot of credit goes to Coach [Steve] Clifford for that and the way that he used me this season and the positions he put me in. Everything really clicked for me – we played well as a team, we made the playoffs, I made All-Star, [the negotiations] went great. Everything was great, Thank God. It was a really big year, but hopefully next year can be even better.
What can you do to build off of last season’s success and have an even better follow-up year? You and Coach Clifford should have some more chemistry now that you’ve gotten to know each other well, buy what can you do to duplicate or top last year’s success?
NV: I honestly think the biggest thing is that we have that continuity with Coach Clifford and with the players as well. We expect to have a similar team and that will help, just when it comes to continuity and familiarity with the system. We know how he wants us to play. We know how he wants us to approach each game. That’s going to be huge for us. We’ll all have a little bit more experience too; we’ll all have an extra year of experience behind us, which is going to help. I think we’re all going to have a great summer and then when we get back [to Orlando], we’ll be ready and we’ll get to work. I think we’re [expecting to] have a good year now; our confidence is higher. When you take all of these things and add them up, I think we’ll have a really good year. Things are obviously going to change around the league, so it won’t be the exact same – some teams will improve – but I don’t think we expect it to be easy. We just want to come in and show improvement from [where we were] last year.
Now that this Magic team got a taste of the playoffs, how much hungrier are you – and the rest of the team – to go on a deep postseason run?
NV: Absolutely. Absolutely. We finally made it to the playoffs and a lot of us had been there in Orlando for a while and now we want to keep it up and do even better. Sure, once you get that feel for it – once you know what it feels like to actually get that win and do something – you want to keep that up. Of course, I know everyone here is hungrier than ever and wants to do better.
You always put in a ton of work during the summer, but have you decided what aspects of your game you’ll be working on this summer? What will your offseason training look like?
NV: Honestly, I’m working on all aspects of my game; I’m not focusing on any one in particular. A lot of it will be three-point shooting, so I can keep getting even better in that area because I think that can open up a lot of things for myself and the team. But I’m just going to try to work on everything. I want to go back and look at [film] of things I didn’t do well and find those things I can improve on as a player. I want to work on my body, my skill set and things like that. I’m going to just keep working on a lot of different things. If you put in the work, you can never stop getting better.
When this deal is up, you’ll be about to turn 33 years old. I may be getting ahead of myself, but given this long-term commitment and how you feel about Orlando, can you see yourself finishing your NBA career with the Magic?
NV: I’m sure, yeah, but I haven’t even started this contract yet! (Laughs) But yeah, we’ll see what happens. I’m not saying I wouldn’t enjoy that, but we’ll see. Four years is a long time from now!