Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
In the Magic’s season opener in Indiana, Andrew Nicholson was a human blowtorch. He lit up the Pacers for 18 points (all in the first half) and set basketball Twitter ablaze with his scoring prowess. Nicholson unleashed his full arsenal of moves — some old, some new. A lefty hook here (old), a corner 3 there (new!), and midrange jump shots (old) everywhere. It appeared that Nicholson was primed to build off his impressive rookie campaign.
Through the first month of the season, Nicholson looked every bit like a player that was naturally progressing in his second year in the NBA. He added a 3-point shot (specifically from the corners) and he was improving as a rebounder. His defense still had a long ways to go, but that’s the case for almost any youngster in the league. Nicholson included.
Then something unexpected happened after that first month. Nicholson regressed.
One of the biggest factors is that Nicholson stopped getting steady minutes. For players in a developmental stage, consistent playing time can have transformative effects and can help them reach their potential. And Nicholson was deprived of that.
After missing 21 of the Magic’s first 22 games of the season with a high ankle sprain, Tobias Harris returned from injury on Dec. 13 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Five days later, he was reinserted into the starting lineup at the small forward position.
At first, Nicholson was still coming off the bench as the back-up power forward. But in late December, Harris began soaking up minutes as a stretch four with the second unit. Bit by bit, Nicholson’s playing time waned.
Just when it seemed like Nicholson was falling out of the rotation completely, Nikola Vucevic suffered a concussion on Jan. 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers. Because of Vucevic’s injury, that forced Harris to start at power forward while Glen Davis slid over to the starting center position. Consequently, that opened up minutes for Nicholson to be Harris’ back-up. It also opened up a spot for Kyle O’Quinn, who backed up Davis.
But Nicholson didn’t take advantage of the playing time. O’Quinn did.
O’Quinn earned coach Jacque Vaughn’s trust by making impact plays on both ends of the floor, while Nicholson struggled and went into a deep funk offensively. By the time Vucevic fully recovered from his concussion, O’Quinn had played his way into Vaughn’s rotation while Nicholson played himself out of it.
With Harris back to playing the stretch four position with the reserves, and O’Quinn alternating between back-up power forward and center, Nicholson was officially out of the rotation. Just when it looked like Nicholson was firmly planted on the Magic’s bench indefinitely, he got another reprieve.
Recognizing that the Magic needed to continue to develop their young players, GM Rob Hennigan bought out Davis’ contract shortly after the trade deadline expired. The move was meant to free up minutes for Harris, Nicholson, and O’Quinn.
Harris could become a full-time power forward (a position he thrived in last season after coming over from the Milwaukee Bucks in the J.J. Redick trade), with Nicholson as his back-up, and O’Quinn could back up Vucevic at center. While Harris and O’Quinn have flourished in their roles, Nicholson’s struggles continue.
So what gives? Is it a confidence problem that’s led to Nicholson’s dip in production? Are the Magic mishandling him?
The biggest issue is that Nicholson is playing further and further away from the hoop.
In his rookie season, Nicholson wowed everyone with his refined low post game. He had an array of post moves more fit for a veteran than a rookie. He was also a wonderful pick-and-pop player that could step out and make midrange jumpers with consistency. Those are the skills that Nicholson flashed in his rookie year and the expectation was that he would continue to build on his existing offensive skill-set, which was already polished.
During the offseason, Nicholson made an effort to add a 3-point shot to his repertoire, which was seen as a wise move. As the NBA becomes more and more a perimeter-based game, it made sense for Nicholson to expand his range and stretch the floor further. Big men like Serge Ibaka and Chris Bosh, who have trusty midrange shots, have added the corner 3 to their arsenal (in the case of Bosh, he went even further and has become a full-fledged 3-point shooter).
The problem is that Nicholson has overcompensated this season. In expanding his range, he’s lost sight of his strengths. He’s a low post player, first and foremost, not a perimeter guy. Yet that’s what he’s become this season. He’s operating more on the perimeter and it’s not working.
But worse yet, his confidence is shaken. Nicholson no longer looks fluid when he is in the post. Instead, he’s rushing on his hook shots instead of taking his time and being deliberate like he was in his rookie year.
And while his percentages from midrange haven’t dipped too much year-over-year, Nicholson has struggled beyond the arc. This isn’t to say the Magic should abandon the 3-point experiment with Nicholson. Bosh’s 3-point percentages weren’t that great either when he started shooting them with more frequency last season. He got better with repetition, and so will Nicholson if he puts in the work. But it’s clear that Nicholson’s shot chart is all out of whack right now.
The numbers are damning.
This season, Nicholson has been no better than a replacement-level player and that’s caught the attention of Magic fans. The common criticism levied isn’t even about him. There are those within the Magic fanbase who feel Nicholson’s development has been affected negatively by the fact he’s been in and out of the rotation all season, and hasn’t seen consistent playing time.
It’s certainly a valid criticism to an extent. For much of the season, Nicholson performed like a player that didn’t know when he’d expect to get the nod from Vaughn. When he did play, it always felt like Nicholson was trying to score 20 points a game to make up for lost time.
That’s a big reason why the Magic ultimately bought out Davis’ contract. To give a player like Nicholson the minutes he needed to further his development. But that hasn’t happened. Nicholson is still not playing up to his potential.
For all the good that the Magic have done this season in developing most of their young players, the failure of Nicholson has been glaringly obvious. The Magic can only hope they can rebuild Nicholson’s confidence so he can get back to being the player he was in his rookie season.