His advanced post game made him a player who could instantly get inserted into the lineup and produce for the Magic. Orlando could trust him with the ball to score more often than not. It was refreshing to see from the rookie that he was able to contribute almost immediately.
Nicholson though has recently found himself buried on the roster with Tobias Harris taking over the starting power forward spot and Kyle O'Quinn pushing his way into the rotation. Nicholson even had to cede time for a while to Al Harrington in his cameo this season.
Nicholson's playing time has often been a yo-yo between ample playing time and no playing time — between starting and sitting. It can be tough for a rookie to go through these wild swings. Even in this latter stage of the season where Orlando is playing more of its rookies, Nicholson has seen his minutes limited and he has struggled to crack the starting lineup.
"I’ll do it [find minutes for Nicholson]," Jacque Vaughn said after Nicholson did not play against the Sixers on March 10. "At one point, we had six bigs able to play and we found ways to do it. Can I promise Andrew that he is going to play every game? No. [. . .] Those promises won’t be coming from me.
"We’ll continue to practice. Guys will get opportunities to play and I’ll be fair like have been all year and communicate with the guys. Each guy needs to be ready to play each and every night."
Since the Feb. 21 trade deadline, Andrew Nicholson is averaging 16.9 minutes per game in 18 games. That is slightly above his season average. But considering the vast amount of increased playing time for youngsters like Maurice Harkless and Kyle O'Quinn, Nicholson's increase is relatively modest.
The one thing you can say about Nicholson is that he has stayed relatively consistent. Since the deadline, he is averaging 8.4 points per game (compared to his 8.1 per game on the season). Nicholson's numbers have had slight increases even that seem commensurate with his slight increase in playing time.
The question that has to be asked with all the emphasis on development for the rest of the season is why isn't Nicholson seeing the floor more? It seems like he and Harris should be spliting more time at power forward so both can get the necessary experience.
Harris' emergence has made the issue more complicated.
"It just makes it tough defensively [having Nicholson and Harris on the floor together]," Vaughn said after the Magic's loss to the Rockets on March 1, showing that Vaughn largely avoided the lineup for a month before trying it. "You have those two in the game, who is going to guard the 5-man? It’s just matchups rotation-wise and the ability for us to be in an advantageous position. With those two on the floor, it would make us a little small because Tobias can play the three or the four and we’d put Andrew guarding the five and most fives are a little bigger than Andrew."
Jacque Vaughn experimented Wednesday night with a lineup that featured Harris at small forward and Nicholson starting at power forward. The lineup did not work as the Magic found themselves in a hole early agains tthe Spurs that they were digging out of the rest of the way.
Nicholson was not the sole reason for this happening. Far from it. But you could sense the discomfort from the rest of the players as they tried playing together against a strong Spurs team for the first time. We will see if Vaughn goes with that lineup again next time out in Chicago on Friday.
Perhaps the reason it seems like Nicholson is playing worse is that his numbers have not taken the leap that Harkless and Harris and even O'Quinn have. Nicholson came into the league a pretty productive offensive player and has not shown the kind of improvement perhaps that observers might want to see.
Jacque Vaughn said it is Nicholson's defense that needs the most work and is keeping him from perhaps realizing his full potential at least this year.
"He realizes that he can get more minutes if his defense improves," Vaughn said after the Magic defeated the Wizards last week. "He’s a smart individual and he is working extremely hard at improving his defense. He can score the basketball, that is a given."
Defensively, there is a ton of room for improvement for Nicholson.
According to SynergySports, Nicholson is giving 0.97 points per possession and is giving up 1.27 points per possession when defending post ups. Synergy's numbers do not look at help side defense or team defensive numbers, but in the other area of one-on-one defense post players need to be good at, Nicholson struggles too. He gives up 1.12 points per possession when guarding the roll man in pick and rolls.
Again, these numbers only look at one on one defense but it clearly shows that Nicholson has a lot of work to do. And for the moment, this is perhaps holding him back and keeping him from getting more playing time. Tobias Harris has proven in his short time with the Magic to be the better defender (0.87 points per possession allowed and 0.85 points per possession allowed in post ups).
Nicholson still has improvement like all the young players on the team do. This is just his first year. Nicholson has a lot to learn defensively to match his offensive mastery — and even there he can still improve.
"But he is doing his work early, that’s what you have to do," Vaughn said. "If a guy is stronger than me, I have to do my work early. I have to anticipate. I have to be really locked in on the play and know if it’s coming for me. I have a chance to do my work early and make them respond to what I’m doing. He’s learning that right now."
Nicholson's playing time in the future will be dependent upon his improvement on defense. For now, he is going to learn by doing and probably struggling some. It may affect his playing time the rest of the year or his minutes could continue to fluctuate wildly depending on matchups.