Nikola Vucevic 2.0 is the Best Version Yet

Nikola Vucevic is the last man standing from the 2012 blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard from the Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers. (Vucevic went from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Orlando Magic in that deal; Andrew Bynum, Andre Iguodala and Arron Afflalo were all involved as well.)

The 28-year-old is in a contract year during his eighth season with the franchise. The parading mediocrity of Orlando’s center depth has been concerning over the past five years, including Bismack Biyombo, Mareese Speights, Dwyane Dedmon, Kyle O’Quinn and Channing Frye. Vucevic has remained the constant. Yet, Vucevic once again seems to be an afterthought on a team that had drafted Mo Bamba in the lottery this past offseason.

Nonetheless, perhaps he represents a bridge between a failed rebuild and hope for a better future in Orlando.

Vucevic is averaging 21 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, with a 62.0 true shooting percentage (per Basketball-Reference). He’s averaging all-star like numbers on an Eastern Conference team expected to be in the lottery.

Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton told the Los Angeles Times, “(Vucevic) is a very, very good player. From coaches, players who have to play against him, when you watch tape on him, he can score all over the floor on you. And he’s a nightmare to match up with.”

Post Scoring

Vucevic has always been an above-average scorer with his back to the basket. He has one of the NBA’s smoothest hook shots from either hand, yet he has taken his post-game to new heights.

Here, Vucevic takes the ball off the dribble for an easy hook shot.

In this clip, Vucevic grabs the offensive board and comes around for a pretty floater.

Vucevic currently ranks sixth in NBA post-up points per Synergy Sports. During the 17-18 season, he didn’t even crack the top 20. His estimated field goal percentage is in the 74th percentile among big men, coming in at 59.2 percent (Cleaning the Glass). And he’s shooting 74 percent at the rim, which ranks in the 87th percentile among other bigs per Cleaning the Glass. This is elite post scorer production.

Three-Point Shooting

Much like how Brook Lopez added a deep threat into his eighth NBA campaign, Vucevic has added the three-point shot to his scoring arsenal this season. He’s hitting 40.9 percent from deep on 3.4 attempts per game. It’s helped spread the floor immensely for the Magic, who have no other playing shooting above 35 percent from three-point territory.

Here, Vucevic runs back on the break, trailing for a wide-open 3-point shot at the top of the key.

“I’ve been able to shoot from the mid-range really, really well, playing inside-out,” Vucevic told the LA Times. “The only adjustment was to work more from the three. I knew I was capable. I knew I’d be able to make the adjustment. I just needed to work on it, get reps and mentally train in my head that this is something I do. Before, it was almost forbidden for a big to shoot.”

Playmaking

Vucevic is reinventing and modernizing his game before our very eyes. Good thing, too, as the center position has been a’changin’. Teams are looking for bigs who not only stretch the floor but distribute the ball as a key part of the offensive scheme. (All-Star center Nikola Jokic for the Denver Nuggets has helped usher in a new era: the big man who can drive, shoot and kick it out with ease.)

Orlando is no longer using Vucevic isolations and pick and rolls, instead using off-ball screens and movement all around Vucevic, creating space for the big man to feast and even pass along a drumstick or two.

He finds Augustine on the back door cut.

He hits Augustine again off a post up.

He assists Jonathan Isaac off a drive for an easy lay-in.

Vucevic’s usage is in the 94th percentile among bigs(25.5 percent). Assist percentage is in the 95th percentile among bigs, (20.9 percent) per Cleaning the Glass. He’s seventh in the NBA in screen assists, averaging 4.4 per game per NBA.com. This is indicative of a player who, when he isn’t scoring, moves and dishes the ball out at a high and effective rate.

His overall offensive impact is even more ridiculous. Vucevic ranks in the 96th percentile among bigs in Net Rating, with +17.8 (Cleaning the Glass). He ranks in the 95th percentile in half-court offense and 86th in transition offense per Cleaning the Glass. Regardless that the Magic likely won’t be fighting for a playoff spot, the statistic output is remarkable. Offensive production isn’t “bloated” if it is this efficient.

Steve Clifford’s keen eye has made Vucevic the lifeline of Orlando’s offense.

“His ability to pass the ball, especially because the lane is so open since he’s not down there, is the added quality that he brings to offense that not many people possess,” Clifford told the Ringer. “Our best games are when we score a lot of cutting baskets, and a lot of that comes from his ability to make those passes.”

Going Foward

Vucevic’s defense, which is the weakest part of his game, has improved markedly as well. His +2.7 defensive box plus-minus (Basketball-Reference) is also a career best by far and Vucevic has a team-high 36 deflections this year (NBA.com). He’s disrupting passing lanes and playing fundamentally sound within Coach Clifford’s scheme.

The Orlando Magic are at a crossroads. The future of their franchise is around young assets Mo Bamba and Aaron Gordon. If they were to trade Vucevic away, would they be letting go another very talented starting piece? (See, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris)

The Magic should have enough room to give Vucevic another extension with the cap rising to about $109 million and the luxury tax set for $133 million. Would extending and keeping him around delay the development of prospect Mo Bamba? Could they spend money elsewhere and sign a veteran guard or two?

These are pressing questions GM John Hammond and company will have to decide in the coming months. In the meantime, Vucevic has the opportunity to increase his value by continuing the best season of his professional career.

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