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Nikola Vucevic has made headlines over the past few weeks for his rebounding prowess. He’s pulled down at least 12 boards in the last eight Magic games, which is the second-longest streak in the NBA (Anderson Varejao did it 12 straight times earlier this season). And Vucevic set a Magic franchise record by pulling down 29 rebounds against the Heat on December 31.
Because of the nature of fans and analysts to declare a “winner” in a blockbuster trade, his recent play has led many to compare him to the center he replaced — Dwight Howard. While those comparisons are absurd, it’s hard to deny the impact Vucevic is having or the improvements he’s made as an offensive player in his second season.
The Magic grab 51.3 percent of all available rebounds when Vucevic is on the court and 49.2 percent when he’s off, per NBA.com. That isn’t a big difference, but it’s the highest differential of any player on the Magic. Individually, Vucevic leads the Magic in rebounding rate on offense, defense, and overall. By wide margins, too.
Vucevic has made strides as a scorer this season as well. A glance at his numbers show a spike in efficiency — his True Shooting percentage is up from last year’s 46.2 percent to 51.9 percent. But beyond the numbers, he’s been finding his offense in a wider variety of ways. Not only has he become a better scorer in the paint, but he’s improved his efficiency from midrange in several areas of the court as well.
Here’s his 2011-12 shot chart from his rookie season in Philly:
And here’s his chart from this season:
In 38 games with the Magic, he’s already taken 100 more shots than he did in 51 games last year with the Sixers. This is largely a function of going from playing limited minutes on a playoff contender with other capable bigs to starting and playing 32 minutes per game on a lottery team. But it’s an encouraging sign that his efficiency, versatility, and confidence has gone up in addition to the greater workload.
Vucevic’s defense is, at this point, the main barrier to him reaching his full potential. The Magic are 5.3 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he’s on the floor, per NBA.com. And opponents have had very little trouble scoring against Vucevic in the post, shooting 49.3 percent against him on post-ups (67-for-136), per Synergy.
Even though Vucevic’s isolation defense hasn’t been good either, his pick-and-roll defense has been excellent. However, he hasn’t accumulated enough possessions on either play type for a definitive assessment to be made at this time, so a small sample size disclaimer should be noted.
Even with his defensive concerns, however, there’s no denying that Vucevic has surpassed all expectations the team had for him when he was acquired as part of the Dwight Howard trade. His 17.0 Player Efficiency Rating is a career-high and he’s averaging a double-double.
It’s tough to peg Vucevic’s ceiling. He could develop into a solid starting center once the Magic are back in contention, but it’s far from a given. That being said, he’s become a rebounding machine and diverse scorer for a big man, and is a great piece for the Magic to rebuild around.