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As the 2012-13 Magic were tipping off, I named the performance of Nikola Vucevic as one of the five biggest questions for Orlando this upcoming season.
Vucevic was given the inside track to the Magic’s starting center position almost by default and cemented his status as the team’s man in the middle with a strong preseason. But after his rookie season in Philadelphia consisted of two opposite poles of play, the Magic couldn’t be sure which Vucevic they were getting.
Well, the early returns from Vucevic have been similar to those of the entire squad — wildly encouraging. Vucevic has sustained many of his rookie season strengths while either improving or going away from his weaknesses. He’s been a huge cog in Orlando’s offense as a passer in the high post and looks like a mainstay within the Vucevic-Nicholson-Harkless frontcourt core.
The first thing that jumps out of the page with Vucevic is his rebounding numbers, which were a strength last season as well. Vucevic is snaring 24.6 percent of all available defensive rebounds, which ranks him 14th in the league, and has been a huge part of Orlando excelling on that end. He complements that mark with an offensive rebound percentage of 11.1 percent. Any way you look at it, Vucevic is one of the league’s prime rebounders: he’s 15th in the league with a total rebound percentage of 18.1 percent (right behind Dwight Howard ironically enough) and 15th in rebounds per game at 9.5 rebounds per game.
Vucevic’s rebounding is incredibly important because his offensive game is still, at points, raw. He’s finishing well at the rim, shooting 65.4 percent (league average is 63.9 percent), and is taking much more of his shots from that shot location compared to his rookie season. But Vucevic’s midrange shot is still a work in progress: he’s hitting only 26 percent on 2.2 attempts per game from 16-23 feet after shooting 36 percent on 1.8 attempts per game last year.
Vucevic has already made more free throws (19) than all of last season (18), with his free throw percentage jumping up from 53 percent to 73 percent, but this could just be a small sample size fluke. And he still doesn’t get to the line nearly enough, which results in a mediocre True Shooting percentage of 50.1 percent.
He has a nice little hook shot when he goes down in the post, but he doesn’t utilize it nearly enough, instead going too often to a turnaround jumper that just isn’t there yet. He’s hitting only 41.9 percent of his hook shots, but a horrendous 33.3 percent of his jumpshots (the hook mechanics subjectively look much smoother). As a result, Vucevic is averaging just 0.58 points per possession in the post, per Synergy. A fairly horrendous number.
However, he is an excellent high post passer, which has fit in well with Jacque Vaughn’s offense. He’s shown good chemistry with J.J. Redick, Glen Davis, and Arron Afflalo. The downside is a huge jump in turnovers from last season, which is at least partially a result of moving from Doug Collins to Jacque Vaughn –- Collins is a notorious micromanager and his Sixers squads have had historically low turnover numbers, whereas Vaughn seems to give his players much more freedom on the offensive end.
Defensively, Vucevic is obviously huge at 7-foot, but he’s still learning how to leverage those attributes into a team-wide scheme. While his individual numbers on Synergy are encouraging, the team has been 8.8 points per 100 possessions better on defense with him off the floor, per NBA.com. An alarming trend. And opposing centers have posted a 18.2 Player Efficiency Rating against him, per 82games.
Vucevic has been better lately, though — the Magic allowed 108.8 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor in the first 10 games. Now Orlando allows 97.9 points per 100 possessions with Vucevic on the floor in the last 15 games. And as mentioned, he’s an asset cleaning the boards. He’s also cut down his mammoth fouling numbers as a second-year center. His fouls per game are basically the same, even though he’s playing twice the minutes compared to last season.
All in all, depending on your perspective, it’s very easy to see both the good and the bad of Nikola Vucevic. It’s also very easy to persuade yourself that your side is the correct one.
A lot of Vucevic’s problems — understanding team defense, shot selection, turnovers — are one’s that are correctable with age. A lot of his flaws — he’s not a good shot blocker, he doesn’t get to the line, his shot comes and goes — are one’s that can mainly be traced to his lack of athleticism and might not be correctable.
It’s hard to project where Vucevic goes forward from here, but for a player who couldn’t get on the court after the All-Star break last season in Philadelphia, he’s definitely made huge strides.