Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Over the past two seasons, Nikola Vucevic has shown us he has the ability to be a serviceable — if not great — big man for the Magic in the coming years. He has continued to refine his offensive game since coming into the league, shooting a touch over 50 percent from the floor this season, and improving his midrange jump shot to the point where he is able to provide some floor spacing, as well as showing off a solid low post game.
One area offensively that Vucevic struggled with this year was in the pick-and-roll, only converting on 42.8 percent (77-for-180) of his field goal attempts as the roll man in this situation. Granted, he spent most of his time with rookie Victor Oladipo playing point guard — a player who had spent minimal time at this position prior to this season — but a number that low, for somebody that size, is worthy of investigating.
Vucevic was often hesitant to attack the rim once he caught the ball on the roll, both in looking to put himself in a position to score, or to make a pass for a teammate to be in a position to do so. This was particularly evident against teams that would “trap” the pick-and-roll — a defensive method which is becoming increasingly outdated in the NBA.
See here, against Cleveland, as his man and the ballhandler’s man trap the ballhandler (Oladipo).
Oladipo is still able to slip the pass to Vucevic, who wisely rolls to the foul line. This puts him in a great position to attack the only remaining help defender in Spencer Hawes, where Vucevic could either score for himself, or make a pass to Kyle O’Quinn.
Look at the great position he is in as he catches the ball, essentially in a 2-on-1 situation, yet he settles for the midrange jump shot.
He did, however, display a great ability to finish strongly over help defenses out of the pick-and-roll. Here, he takes on the help defender instead of settling for the midrange jumper.
And again here, as he finishes over the help defender (Cody Zeller).
Despite this, the hesitancy to attack the basket and instead take a jump shot was a recurring theme when he would catch the ball in 2-on-1 situations. Here’s another instance of it.
Fortunately for the Magic, this was a trend that became less frequent as the season progressed, with Vucevic seemingly becoming more comfortable in various situations as the roll man.
Ironically enough, defending the pick-and-roll was also the area Vucevic struggled with defensively more than anything else. However, this was more a result of the system, rather than a lack of skill.
Jacque Vaughn would have Vucevic defend pick-and-rolls by sagging down in the paint, a common method around the league these days that’s been made famous by the Indiana Pacers with Roy Hibbert. The ballhandler’s defender would decide whether he wanted to fight over the screen or go under it, and Vucevic would contain any drives. In this system, it was the midrange jumper — the shot that many defenses are designed to give up the most — that Vucevic struggled to defend against.
Staying in the paint during a pick-and-roll leaves you vulnerable to giving up a pick-and-pop shot, usually a long two for the players that Vucevic guards, but sometimes 3-pointers as well.
For Vucevic, 46 out of the 57 pick-and-rolls he defended that resulted with the roll man taking the shot ended with a jump shot, per Synergy Sports. Vucevic stays sagged very far down in the paint, so that combined with him not being incredibly quick allowed for a lot of open midrange or 3-point shots for his opponents. This can be seen here against the Cavaliers, as Spencer Hawes finds himself with a clean look at a 3-pointer in a pick-and-pop situation.
And here against the Bobcats, where Al Jefferson takes advantage of Vucevic patrolling the paint and gets a wide-open midrange jump shot.
This isn’t something the Magic should want to change drastically. As previously mentioned, these long twos are the shots that defenses are designed to give up. You don’t want to have Vucevic’s defensive positioning be too high in the paint or he’s at risk of being beaten to the hoop by the ballhandler. However, it would probably be beneficial for him to be a few feet higher, so he is in a position to contain the drive, while also being able to recover back to his own man and contest the shot.
The potential is all there for Vucevic to be a great two-way player, and we have certainly seen flashes of it, particularly offensively. Vucevic has the size and strength to be a threat on both ends of the floor, especially once he becomes a bit better with rotating defensively.
Most of the areas that need work can be taught by reviewing film, and from good coaching and practicing the right things. The opportunity is there for Vucevic to continue his steady improvement that we have seen throughout his first three seasons.