Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY
Nikola Vucevic had a major skill to improve upon this offseason.
He posted the third most double doubles in the league last year, yet something was missing on the interior. It was a toughness and paint and rim protection that the elite big men have. Vucevic was only in his second year and had a lot to learn. He spent most of that season without the support of Glen Davis, a more rugged defender, behind him. The defensive onus fell on Vucevic.
There were times he played well and times he struggled.
Jacque Vaughn came into the season saying the goal for Vucevic and the other bigs was to do a better job challenging at the rim, blocking shots and protecting the paint. Already, it seems, that work has paid off with Jason Maxiell, Solomon Jones and Kyle O'Quinn able to provide some muscle behind him.
"It definitely helps having good player slike Max and Glen around you," Vucevic said. "I think we fit together pretty well — Glen and me and Jason and me. I think we are going to play well together. I think it is going to work well on the court both offensively and defensively.
"There are no easy nights in the NBA. Every night a team is going to have good players on the court."
Vucevic has already turned some heads, picking up a flagrant foul in the preseason for a hard foul and then picking up another flagrant foul in the season opener for an apparent elbow to Lance Stephenson. His pocket book probably does not like those calls, but the message was sent that Vucevic was a bit of a different player.
Vucevic has already recorded four blocks this season (much more than the 1.0 per game he averaged last season) and has looked much more active in the post on defense. Vucevic appears to have made some adjustments to his game now that the games count.
The power forward position is the most mysterious one for the Magic in the lineup right now. With the team starting Jason Maxiell at the beginning of the season and Kyle O'Quinn for much of the preseason, it is clear Jacque Vaughn is looking for a physical, defensive-minded presence behind Vucevic in the lineup.
During the preseason, O'Quinn describe Vucevic as more of the "skilled big" while O'Quinn would do more of the dirty work.
I like it because I feel we play well together offensively," O'Quinn said as Vucevic came from outside the media crush and agreed whole-heartedly. "So offensively it's a plus for us because we play well together. Defensively, we know how to work off each other. It's not you by yourself on an island. I'm going to be here, I have your back. And I know he has mine so I think we work well like that. Coach likes it, we love it."
The added physicality has been the big emphasis for the Magic this offseason when it comes to their bigs and Vucevic specifically. Much of the offense runs through the bigs and so they will have to fight off the defense's attention.
Both Vucevic and O'Quinn are young and are learning every day from guys like Maxiell and Davis how best to throw their weight around and avoid fouling while still providing that physical presence. Vucevic mentioned taking an early hard foul at the beginning stages of the game. He did that and sent somthing of a message.
It is a work in progress.
"I think overall we've been pretty physical," Vaughn said during the preseason. "The majority of games we have probably outrebounded the teams we have played against. The fouls have to translate into being smarter fouls. So you have the physicality and being smart at the same time. I think we will be able to hone that in the right direction.
"[Saturday] was probably our most physical practice since i have been a coach here. And I love seeing every bit of it. It was great to see our team excited about practice and the competitiveness that was brought out in practice. It was good to see. Hopefully it is a mind set and you see it translate it onto the floor."
The Magic hope that physicality becomes a team hallmark and translate into better defense for the team. Through two games, the Magic have shown both that they are still learning and that they have the potential to accomplish this goal.
For Vucevic to continue his improvement, this will have to continue to be an area of growth for him.