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Nikola Vucevic turned out to be everything the Magic could have hoped for and more in his first season with the team. After all, if the Dwight Howard saga was an attempt not to make the same mistakes when Shaquille O'Neal left and be left without a center or a rotating door of centers for more than a decade, then Vucevic accomplished that goal.
The second-year center averaged 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. He finished second in the league in rebounds per game and fifth in defensive rebound percentage. It was a breakout season for him and everyone expects even more now in his second year with the Magic. Everyone appears to see a promising young center ready to grow and break out.
And his development will play a big part in whatever team goals the Magic have — whether that is the Playoffs or simply improving upon last year's 20-win record.
"You think about the growth of NIk, that's one of the biggest parts of what I've seen," Glen Davis said. "You've got Nik going out there getting 30 rebounds, 20 rebounds, that is most definitely going to help any team. If we can add to what he's already been doing and with the addition of Tobias, you are looking at a team that can compete especially with Arron at the 2 guard who can defend and Jameer who has always been in the mix. Then you got veterans like Maxiell, who is solid, and Ronnie Price and Victor Oladipo and the athleticism he has. We can definitely do some damage."
That is not to put everything on Vucevic. But the Magic are in desperate need of some defensive improvement too. And a lot of that can start with the defense played around the rim and at center. This is one area where Vucevic could use some major improvement.
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Vucevic averaged only just a block per game. According to Synergy Sports, Vucevic gave up 0.89 points per possession on post ups. And according to Synergy, Vucevic was the second worst pick and roll defender among centers with a minimum of 300 plays defended, giving up .886 points per possession on such plays. There is no doubt one thing Vucevic could stand to improve upon is his defense.
Jacque Vaughn is quick to point out that it does not mean Vucevic has to become a great shot blocker. It could mean players coming in to take charges more or getting into better help position quicker or even perimeter players doing a better job to give Vucevic and the other forwards the time to rotate and help.
Vucevic said he does want to become a little more aggressive as a rim protector. He said he feels like he gets to the right spots and has good enough timing to improve in this area — even if it means just changing a few more shots and not necessarily getting more blocks.
He said he gained confidence in himself this summer and improved a lot of his game. Experience helped him prepare for this upcoming season, but so too did the work he put in over the summer. Magic fans did not get to see that at Eurobasket — and Vucevic did not mask his disappointment that he did not play more for Montenegro, but he did not want to get into it too much — but he seems confident he made major improvements this year.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," Vucevic said. "I've been here already for a year so I know the whole system and how it works. I feel more confident, I feel more comfortable. I know the guys, I know how coach works and what he wants. It will be a lot easier for me to get into training camp."
This rim protection goes beyond just Vucevic. One of the reasons the team brought in Jason Maxiell was his athleticism and his tendency to block shots. He averaged 1.9 blocks per game last year and has a solid track history — not mention highlight reel for blocking shots.
The Magic liked him for his veteran leadership. There is some hope Maxiell can teach Vucevic some of the tricks of the trade to become a better shot blocker and rim protector in the paint.
Maxiell said he was always impressed with the way the Magic played hard last year and never really gave up. He said he thinks Vucevic is very talented and that he does a good job despite his lack of explosiveness.
That shouldn't prevent Vucevic from continuing to improve and build off of last year.
The end of the season for Vucevic especially showed what he can really do. He averaged 17.4 points and 14.8 rebounds per game in the final 10 games. It was a strong way for his season to end and momentum for the offseason.
"I think the way I finished last year," Vucevic said. "I think that's a great way for me to keep playing. Be aggressive and be confident, just do what I do best and believe in myself. I think when I do that, I look a lot better on the court."
Undoubtedly, this is a big year for Vucevic to continue to build and grow.