Manila, Philippines – Among the NBA players who undoubtedly have not disappointed so far in the 2023 FIBA World Cup there surely is Nikola Vučević. The Chicago Bulls center is now playing in his second World Cup but the experience in the Philippines has gone so far in a much smoother way with Montenegro being one of the five teams who have qualified to the Second Round already on Gameday 3, securing also a place in next year’s Olympic Qualifying Tournaments: “We’re very happy, for us it’s a big achievement also because it’s our second World Cup overall”, he says in an exclusive interview with Sportando. “With the way we’re playing there are a lot of positives that stand out. Now we have some games against high level teams so we will need to work harder and have a great attention to details. Our first focus was on winning against Mexico and Egypt, and we did our job and we’re happy where we are right now. I think that now there is a little bit of less pressure on us, and that might be a good thing but we can’t think about relaxing. We’re extremely motivated, now the pressure of being favorite is not on us so there is room for improvement”.
“This is our second World Cup so we have a better understanding of what it means to play this competition”, Vučević continues. “In our first World Cup there were a bit of unrealistic expectations on us, and that created some extra pressure especially when things didn’t go our way. This year we were more relaxed, with an understanding of the importance of just being here. This, added to the experience and the growth of some players, has led to a better chemistry and in general a better building of the team. It was our focus, we are unselfish and we play as a team. Now focus is on Lithuania and on the games that’ll follow in the upcoming days. And we will see where we are”.
Next on the line for Bulls center there is a much awaited matchup against Jonas Valančiūnas and his Lithuania NT: “It will definitely be different to play against him in the FIBA context”, he says on facing Pelicans’ center. “NBA has much more space and the play is quicker, something that fits me more. In FIBA the paint is more crowded and the pace is slower, that may advantage him. He’s a really good player, we’ve played against each other for several years not only in the NBA but also with National Teams and even at a European club level. He’s a physical, smart player. It will be a great battle but it’s not only a matchup between us, there’ll be another 11 players for each side”.
Regardless of what the rest of the tournament has in store for Montenegro, they will have the chance to compete next year for a spot in Paris Olympic Games by playing in the OQT: “It’s an amazing achievement, those tournaments are very difficult but even have the chance to compete in there is huge as it will be our first time ever playing in it. The Olympics are the dream of every athlete, so being able to participate it’s great and when the time will come I’ll surely be extra motivated”, Vučević affirms.
His efficiency has definitely improved so far in the game, and Bulls center is able to pinpoint his development: “For me FIBA has always represented a tricky context to adjust in, the way I play in the NBA it’s hard to replicate here especially when it comes to the style of our team”, Vučević says. “In the past I’ve always had a hard time to adapt, overthinking things and being at a level that is not mine. Once I’ve learned how to do that, once I figured it out, I’ve stored this understandings and be ready to come out and playing at my best. This summer has been a much better experience, I’ve seen that I’m able to impact the games even if I don’t have the same stat line. Against Mexico I felt good and scored a lot, but against Egypt I was able to contribute even though I scored less. My mindset this year has been to keep playing, keep focusing on the game and on how I was able to contribute in the best possible way. I probably was putting excessive pressure on myself, now I know what I achieved and what player I am, that helps in being better focused and motivated”.
His growth is not to be underestimated as we’re talking about someone who hasn’t miss a single game in the last two NBA seasons: “Over the years I’ve developed a better understanding on how to take care of my body, besides putting hard works and knowing what works for me”, Vučević says about his condition. “The key has being to work, not having injuries and focusing on improving and recovering. It’s something you learn over the years and these days you have access to way more information. I finished the season in April and it gave me time to rest and recover properly in order to approach the World Cup in the best possible way. The older you get you have to be smart in managing yourself”.
Montenegro star concludes the interview indicating who, in his opinion, stood out in the World Cup so far: “Canada has impressed me a lot. It’s their first year playing at this level like that and they have been really impressive against France and Lebanon. They play good together and they’re a young team that can play with this core for years to come. Them and also Germany, who have been playing really great”.