Defenses turn their eyes toward Nikola Vucevic

It has been a summer of promise for the Magic. They have continued to look at the development of Victor Oladipo and reformed the backcourt with Elfrid Payton. They drafted Aaron Gordon, putting pressure on the forward positions to sort itself out.

One thing that appears to be more than constant is center Nikola Vucevic.

His position and role on the team is not questioned. There is no competition. The pressure is squarely on him to match his last two seasons and continue to improve. With restricted free agency on the horizon as well, this becomes an incredibly important year for Vucevic.

His numbers have been nice — 13.1 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 20.2 R% in 2013; 14.2 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 19.5 R% in 2014 — and pretty certainly consistent. The Magic need those numbers and that consistency. And that is exactly what opposing defenses tried to take away last year and will try to do again this upcoming season as Vucevic enters this critical season.

“You keep earning respect,” Jacque Vaughn said early last season. “That’s what you want in this league: respect from your peers. That’s bringing it on a nightly basis, that’s helping your team win games, whatever it takes. Whether they are scoring that night, protecting the rim that night, being a defensive staple for us, that’s about consistency.”

In that sense, Vucevic’s consistent numbers might not be seen so much as consistent. His numbers could very well be seen as a plateauing, his growth and development stunted by the added attention defenses gave him throughout the season.

Being, 23 years old last season, there were certainly moments of frustration. Then there was the concussion and injury that knocked him out in January. It was a slow go for the young center in a lot of ways.

Nikola Vucevic was on everyone's radar last season. Defenses know to stop the Magic, you must stop him. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Vucevic was on everyone’s radar last season. Defenses know to stop the Magic, you must stop him. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Once again this season, we can expect a renewed attention on knocking Vucevic off his game. With the Magic likely looking to take that step forward, moving inside-out will help with that goal. Orlando will have to establish Vucevic in the post more.

Vucevic averaged 12.2 field goal attempts per game last season and posted a usage rate of 21.8 percent. Vucevic was 25th in the league last year with 4.1 close shots per game (close shots defined as shots that come after getting the ball within 12 feet, minus drives). Much of that could have come on tip-ins and offensive rebounds (something Vucevic is good at). He made 58.5 percent of those field goal attempts.

Vucevic knows how important it is to get the ball and take shots around the rim. Even when the defense is tighter and more focused on him, he said during the season it was important to establish some type of offense near the basket. Vucevic is the best bet to get that.

And, of course, defense is tied into offense. Something the Magic will be leaning on this season.

“I think it would help us get set defensively if we get more shots close to the basket,” Vucevic said. “A jump shot if you miss, the ball tends to bounce off far and it’s a long rebound. Us bigs around the rim, then it’s their guards against our guards and their bigs, we’re trailing. It’s a little disadvantage.”

Yet, it always sort of seemed like Vucevic was not as involved on the offense as he could have been. He is still adept at pick-and-pops and is still developing a straight-up post game (if one can exist in today’s NBA game again).

But he is also young too. He is learning how to read defenses from the post and learning to improve his decision making. He largely made these improvements last year and there is obviously still some room to grow.

“He’s feeling more comfortable on the floor,” Vaughn said. “Even when he gets the ball in the post, the comfort level of seeing cutters and passing out of the post. I just think he’s more comfortable. What he does, and I give him a lot of credit, is he takes care of his body and he takes care of himself. He’s been really good, and I’m hoping the other guys see, the effect of really taking care of your body. What you put in it is what you get out of it.”

Vaughn noted last season that he noticed Vucevic was more comfortable with the ball in his hands, even as teams realized the talent he had. He saw Vucevic demand the ball in the post more. Vucevic has to continue increasing his physicality and presence in the paint.

NikolaVucevic_TWolves103013It is still inconsistent from Vucevic. At least, the times the Magic went to him and how Vucevic performed in isolation against defenses. He was able to get his usual clean up on the boards most nights, but his work on his own offense was still a bit inconsistent. He would follow 2-for-9 nights with 10-for-18 nights and the like. His field goal attempts and, therefore, his offense, were inconsistent.

That will be a big part of his ongoing improvement in this important year for his career.

What will not change is Vucevic’s approach. Even if he becomes a bigger part of the offense and even if he gets more shots, he always seems ready and capable of making the right play and reading the defense. Now it is about learning how to handle the added attention defenses might give Vucevic.

He is not a selfish player at all. And that will make him more dangerous when the defense puts the attention on him.

“We want him to impact the game and impact it and win,” Vaughn said. “Sometimes it won’t show up statistically. When we watch film, this is a guy if you asked his teammates, ‘Who can you trust on in the course of a game?’ I bet you top three he would be in that top three list. That’s what you want. For him to do that every single night for us, at the end of the day, I think that’s what you want.”

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