Our editor and chief Carey Smith was correct during the 2011 True Hoop mock draft, when he selected Nikola Vucevic, the 7-footer out of USC.  Rod Thorn and the 76ers grabbed the big man from Montenegro with 16th pick in last night’s Draft and potentially filled the enormous hole in the middle for the 7-6.

While I trotted alongside Vucevic (Voo-CHAY-vitch) as he made his way to the media room at the Prudential Center, it actually wasn’t his height that I first noticed but rather his weight.  At 260 pounds, the big man is literally just that; someone who potentially could be a brute force down low for the 76ers.  A source within USC told me he put on at least 50 lbs. since enrolling at the university.

Many scouting analysts were stunned when Vucevic entered the draft this year as a junior.  He had just come off of back-to-back Pac-10 rebounding titles – a feat no other player in the history of conference had ever achieved.  It seemed as if he was just harnessing his talents.  Experts had pegged the Trojan as an early second round pick at best.  But Vucevic impressed several teams because as Ed Stefanski put it “he’s a stone-cold center.”  His workouts catapulted him all the way into Lottery territory of some mock drafts.

“I think I learned how to play tough and aggressive in college,” said Vucevic in his post-draft press conference. “Coming to America helped me a lot.  I think I will be able to play the position in the NBA.”

I get that most Sixersfans will have a sour taste in their mouth about this pick for months. I did for the first 20 minutes too. I ripped most of the international guys in my pre-draft posts here on Philadunkia. Bloggers and fans are going to have it out for the 20-year-old Vucevic. They’ll will argue that he can’t jump, he’s not much of a shot blocker and of course he is a long term project. Then I started thinking harder. Go ahead and look back at the board. Who else could the Sixers have taken that made as much sense as this?

Now that moving Andre Iguodala is no longer imminent due to the lockout and ownership situation, playerslike Chris Singleton, Tobias Harris, Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton would have been drafted on a ‘what-if’ type of scenario. ‘What-if’ AI9 stays a Sixer, then where do they fit in? Now Vucevic automatically fills the role of at least Tony Battie and this pick becomes motivation for Spencer Hawes to trains his ass off during the offseason. Vucevic added in about himself that he’s “better defensively than people give him credit for.”

Here is some proof on that last quote. His coming out party of this past season was against Texas, where not only did he pour in 24 points and nine boards, he dominated the number four overall pick Tristan Thompson, holding him to six points and four fouls. We now have a player I’m not shaking my head at when I see him attempt to guard Dwight Howard. At least Vuceviclooks the part. The former Trojan is still known more as an offensive player with some range on his jumper. Wouldn’t you rather have his jumper and mass over the frailness of Donatas Montiejunas, a 7-footer weighing in at 215 lbs? I sure would.

Evan Turner rode the pine last year much more than you or I expected. He jumped into a crowded situation and then all of the sudden the team started winning when Jodie Meeks took his spot in the starting lineup. Lots of people on draft night last year expected Turner to challenge John Wall and Blake Griffin for the rookie of the year award. Scouts thought he was NBA ready, but it took time.

You can almost say the exact opposite of what will become Vucevic’s circumstances once pro basketball resumes in Philadelphia. Unlike Turner, the 7-6 have no true center on the team outside of the ageless wonder Tony Battie. And NiVu(is it too early to nickname him?) enters the League with little to zero expectations from fans and most media members. It is kind of easy for me to predict that he’s going to become a rotation guy during 2011 and if his play is even average at best, he should have a major chance at seeing more minutes than Hawes come 2012.

Nikola knows he’s got a long climb ahead of him. He called being drafted “by far the greatest moment of his life.” Doug Collins is now here to nurture the big man. The Sixers made this pick as a long term solution for their gaping hole at the center position. Don’t be surprised though if you see Vucevic in a much larger role most other first round rookies. The Sixers were desperate for size. They got their wish with the 16th pick.

I grade this pick a C+. No, he’s not ideally who most of us wanted to end up. Yes, some of his question marks are nauseating on paper. But to make the second round of the playoffs in the NBA you need a 7-footer. You won’t believe me now but I think the 76ers front office got this one right.

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