Nikola Vucevic’s size proving critical early for Magic

When the Magic acquired Nikola Vucevic from the 76ers as part of the Dwight Howard deal, nobody quite knew who this kid was. The second-year center from USC was in and out of the lineup in his rookie year, appearing in 51 games (starting 15) and averaging 12.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per 36 minutes. Solid numbers, but he was never consistent enough to crack Doug Collins' rotation and was left out of it.

So when he arrived in Orlando, nobody was quite sure what this young player could do. Would he develop into a true center? Would he be more of a hybrid power forward/center who could stretch the floor some? Could he handle the daily grind of playing the biggest and, sometimes, roughest, players the NBA has to offer.

Through three games, the Magic have seen some of the glimpses of what Vucevic can become. He is averaging 13.3 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game in 31.3 minutes per game. His rebound rate has stayed pretty consistent — a moderate drop from 16.8 percent to 15.4 percent from last year — despite the increased minutes and, supposedly, tougher competition as a starting center. His per-36 minute numbers also are pretty steady even with the increase in minutes.

Vucevic has been impressive in the early going and has provided a wealth of potential for the Magic to develop throughout the season. Orlando is not as weak at center as initially believed.

Jacque Vaughn has gone to him early in the year. In one of the key adjustments of Sunday's win over Phoenix, Vaughn put Vucevic on Luis Scola. Scola scored 16 of his 24 points in the first half. Vucevic struggled some with Scola's post game early but settled down in the second half and slowed Scola down — he was 4 for 8 with just two rebounds in the second half. It was key to the comeback Orlando put forward in the second half of that game.

And Vucevic's defense, something he was not known for at USC or in Philadelphia, got singled out and praised by Vaughn after the game.

Kim Klement/US Presswire/Bleacher Report"I think the glaring importance tonight was how big [Vucevic] is," Vaughn said after the win Sunday. "Scola got going a little bit and Glen [Davis] had three fouls. I put Nik on Scola. He did two things: he rebounded the ball for us and I think he did a pretty good job guarding Scola. The points, the screens, all that he’s going to do. The ability to be big for us and be a defensive stopper, that was fun to see for us tonight."

Offenisvely, Vucevic will need to continue to come along. Tuesday night in Chicago, Vucevic scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He struggled some with his shot, making on only 5 of his 13 attempts. Vucevic was only 1 for 4 on shots away from the rim against the Bulls and, for the season, Vucevic is shooting 4 for 13 away from the rim. Offensively, he still has some improvement to make.

But his size has helped him out defensively and provided a necessary bulwark for the Magic's defense. And his versatility and his comfort, if not his efficiency, stepping away from the basket and working in the elbow area and screening for cutters that make this offense really go in the half court.

Vucevic said what worked Sunday was the team did a good job crowding the paint and rotating when players got beat. The Magic's defense is getting better and playing more together with crisper and quicker rotations. The Magic are understanding where they need to be more and more.

The Magic know how much potential Vucevic has within him and the promise he could bring for the team. He earned his starting spot with the Magic in training camp.

Jacque Vaughn sees him as a player he can rely on this season, even at this early stage.

"Nik is starting, so I would say his contribution thus far has been great on both ends of the floor," Jacque Vaughn said before Friday's opener against Denver when he was asked about what newcomers had impressed him. "He has been a welcome addition for us. He’s a guy, in my opinion, that we’re going to lean on."

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily