The Magic's trade in August was ostensibly an exchange for centers (except Denver who got Andre Iguodala). The Lakers got Dwight Howard. The 76ers got Andrew Bynum. The Magic got an unheralded rookie named Nikola Vucevic.
Nobody really knew what to expect from him when he arrived. His rookie season was uneven to say the least and Doug Collins never really trusted him to do much. Vucevic was certainly the least accomplished of the three centers exchanged in the Dwight Howard deal.
Vucevic was going to get thrown into the first for the Magic in his second year as the top center on the team's roster. And, unbelievably perhaps, Vucevic has been the most consistent of the three centers (Howard's numbers are down and Bynum has yet to play this season). Orlando has been able to rely on his 11.4 points per game and 11.0 rebounds per game.
And then there are his big games — like that franchise record-setting 29-rebound game against the Heat or the 20-point, 12-rebound game against Chicago he followed that up with. Consistency is not about having one stellar performance, but putting it back-to-back and doing it every night. It is about improving.
Take Vucevic's two games against Utah. In the first matchup, Vucevic gave up 31 points and 15 rebounds to Al Jefferson. In the second matchup, Vucevic bounced back in a big way. He recorded 16 and 16 while giving up only 12 points and nine rebounds to Jefferson. Unfortunately, both games ended in a Magic loss.
Still, the lesson was well taken for Vucevic as he has improved at every step for the Magic this season.
"I just go aggressive on the boards," Vucevic said following that pre-Christmas Day loss to the Jazz. "I’m the biggest guy on the team so I have to do that in order for us to have a chance to win. We do a good job on the defensive end and it doesn’t matter if we don’t get the rebound afterward. I just try to go hard and get those rebounds. I know it is all about effort."
All those are part of those key words that the Magic want to hear from their young player. That he is focusing on the things his team needs him to do — like rebound — and that he is playing hard.
His rebounding has been perhaps the biggest surprise. And that has actually what has gained the most notice.
Vucevic is averaging 11.0 rebounds per game, but is posting a 19.9 percent total rebound rate. That number is actually up from last year when he posted a 16.8 percent rate. Perhaps even more amazing is that his defensive rebound rate is up to 27.0 percent, meaning approximated three of every 10 defensive rebounds end up with Vucevic. For reference, Dwight Howard's career defensive rebound rate is 29.3 percent and he was in the low-30s during his rebounding "peak."
Evan Dunlap of Orlando Pinstriped Post and Brett Koremonos of Grantland go into more detail on Vucevic's rebounding prowess. As Koremanos writes, Vucevic has already returned on Orlando's investment in him:
The extended playing time has turned Vucevic loose as a double-double machine. After a slow start, the USC product averaged 12.1 points and 12.8 rebounds in December. In three games so far this month, Vucevic has upped those averages to 16.0 and 14.3, respectively. Numbers like that would be impressive for an established veteran starter, much less a 22-year-old still adjusting to the NBA game. Unlike Orlando’s slew of picks, none of which is guaranteed to yield a player this productive, Vucevic has already provided great value.
His value though goes beyond the raw numbers — which have actually been better in January as he continues to play well, posting 15.2 points per game and 14.4 rebounds per game in five games this month. It is his consistency, I would argue, is providing his greatest value.
"I think I’ve been saying it since [Vucevic] has been in the starting lineup. He has done it on a nightly basis," Jacque Vaughn said in December. "He had a small stretch of a few game shwere things didn’t go right for him. Besides that, he has been extremely consistent and has a great approach every single day."
Vucevic has had 10 rebounds or more in 22 of Orlando's 36 games. He has had five of those 14 games since December 1, and three of those five he grabbed nine boards. Scoring-wise, Vucevic has reached double figures in 24 of 36 games, but has been in double figures in eight of the last 10 games.
Again, the problem perhaps is that Vucevic is playing well despite the Magic's recent record. But Orlando has been fairly comfortable knowing what it will get out of Vucevic on a nightly basis. And Vaughn has said he always has confidence in Vucevic when he is in the lineup.
Of course, Vucevic still has plenty to improve on. He is still a finesse player who sometimes does not finish emphatically at the rim. This is something Glen Davis constantly harps on him.
“You got to feed him nails and hot sauce," Glen Davis said after a game in late November. "That’s what you got to do with guys like that with big upside and never really had to bite nobody. You got to get them to bite somebody. And also learn mentally because he is going to be in the game for big, key stretches. Learning both sides fo the ball and learning how to play without the ball and using his athleticism and his length to his advantage."
His rebounding relies on positioning a lot because he does not have the athletic explosion to go up and get the really difficult rebounders. No one is confusing him for Dwight Howard, in other words.
Then there is his pick and roll defense, which is still a source of consternation. That is something Vucevic will learn with experience in the NBA and as he increases his ability to read the offense as a defender.
Vucevic's numbers will likely decrease some once Glen Davis comes back. Still, Orlando has found itself with a great steal after trading away its franchise center.
And Vucevic, already pretty good and consistent, seems only to have improvement ahead of him.