SALT LAKE CITY - People may tell you to jump into the ocean because "the water's great," but until you dive in, there's usually much trepidation.
Doug Collins kept telling anyone who would listen that he loved the game of rookie Nikola Vucevic and that he would be a great help to his team.
When the Sixers fell behind the Portland Trail Blazers in the season opener and had to play catch-up basketball for the rest of the night, Collins didn't feel comfortable enough to send Vucevic into the water. Wednesday night in Phoenix, however, with 2 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter of a one-point game, Collins summoned the USC product for his first taste of an NBA game. When the rookie deposited his second basket toward the end of the quarter, the Sixers had taken a seven-point lead in what eventually became a 20-point blowout.
Vucevic looked very comfortable in his 20 minutes of play, scoring six points, hauling down six rebounds and dishing a couple of assists. He had a nice tip-in, worked a give-and-go, scored on a fastbreak. All the while, Vucevic showed about as much emotion as a sleeping baby.
"I believe in him, our guys I believe in him," Collins said. "You can see that he has a great feel for the game. He made some nice passes. Unfortunately he had some turnovers there late, but he's in the right spots defensively, he can shoot the ball, he can run the floor. He's got a really good feel for the game, and he has a big, strong body. He's going to be a nice addition to our group. He gives us another big, strong guy who can play out there. We're not a very big team. If you look at it, Spencer's [Hawes] got some size, but he's thin. E.B. [Elton Brand] is a little undersized, and so is Thad [Young]. So we needed another big body. It was good to see Nik get out there and get his first win."
Vucevic's game is very similar to that of the player he'll replace a lot of times this season - Hawes. Both are thinking players, big men who are able to step away from the basket and make good passes from the perimeter, but still able to bang inside.
"We have such similar games, and that's helpful to me," Vucevic said. "I can watch what he does in certain situations and know that I can go in there and try to do the same things. I just try to learn from him or if I don't understand something, I ask him. He knows the system, and he can always help me."
Hawes, a mentor at age 23. Just another example of how young this team is. And if the first two games are a significant barometer, Hawes might be in for a very good season. He has grabbed 25 rebounds, scored 19 points and dealt 12 assists. He is doing exactly what the organization envisioned when it brought him here before last season. And now not only is the team benefiting, so is Vucevic.
"He's played well for the team, he's scored, rebounded, passed the ball, made plays for others," Vucevic said of Hawes. "He is a really good, all-around player. I think I can only learn from him by watching him. I talk to him a lot. He helps me a lot with different things we can do on the court and what coach wants me to do."
As Vucevic sees more minutes, you also can see his teammates' increased confidence in him.
"It was good for Nik to get some heavy minutes, for him to get tired and then see what a second wind feels like," Andre Iguodala said. "The good thing that the coaches are doing with him is trying to enhance his confidence and keeping him above water. That rookie wall can hit you, and your confidence can start wavering. So they're always getting on him about shooting the ball [more], and I think that's the right approach, as far as him being able to help us out."
After banging his right knee late in Wednesday's win, starting point guard Jrue Holiday "practiced to tolerance" yesterday after receiving treatment. Holiday continuously said after the game that he was fine, that he wouldn't miss any time. He should be good to go tonight in Utah.
The team practiced at Arizona State University yesterday before boarding a flight to Salt Lake City for tonight's game with the Jazz. After tomorrow's game against Golden State, the Sixers will return to Philadelphia and get in a couple of practices before heading to New Orleans on Tuesday for Wednesday's game.
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