Nikola Vucevic is a growing player. If it were not for a series of injuries that knocked him out of 25 games, who knows what kind of season we would be talking about from Vucevic.
The second-year center is an extreme bright spot for the Magic. He is a capable offensive player with a solid jumper for a big man and good footwork to establish position in the post. What makes him a truly special player, however, is his rebounding ability.
“I’m just being aggressive, trying to help my team as much as I can,” Vucevic said. “Obviously rebounding is something I can do every night just being around the paint and being the biggest guy on this team. The way our offense runs, I get a lot of good looks for my teammates. I just try to be aggressive and try to finish around the rim and make jump shots.”
In that respect, Vucevic has been an able replacement for Dwight Howard (if anyone can be). In two years with the Magic, Vucevic has averaged 11.5 rebounds per game — including 11.0 per game last year. His defensive rebound rate was an impressive 27.6 percent last year and his offensive rebound rate sat at 11.5 percent.
His numbers were down last year as he took on a bigger offensive role and faced little, nagging injuries throughout the year. But even with his decreased numbers, Vucevic was among the league leaders in rebounding. He tied for 27th in offensive rebound rate and was 10th in defensive rebound rate in the league.
Vucevic still needs to improve on a lot of things to become an elite, All-Star-caliber player. One thing he is already nearing elite status in is quite clear — rebounding.
“It’s incredible. Sometimes you sit back and be like, ‘Man, I’ve never seen nothing like that,’” said Kyle O’Quinn, who isn’t too shabby himself as a rebounder. “He’s a teammate, so I’m happy he’s on our team. Sometimes he gets boxed out and he still might get the rebound. He’s an outstanding rebound and I try to learn something from him every day.”
Vucevic’s strong footwork and soft hands have helped him tip the ball around the glass and work the offensive boards. There are few players with the mobility and strength to work like he does around the basket off offensive rebounds.
A further look into his numbers reveals how strong a rebounder Vucevic is, and even where he can still grow. He was in the top 20 according to NBA.com Player Tracking stats in Percentage of rebounds per rebound chance. He grabbed 67.4 percent of his 16.3 rebound chances per game. Among players with at least 15 rebound chances per game, that ranks fifth behind luminaries like Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond.
“He’s got long arms. He’s got a late touch,” Arron Afflalo said. “It is probably more impressive offensively. Guys come into the game knowing he likes to get tips around the basket and he still finds a way to do it night in and night out. I commend him for his effort. Soemtimes he puts it together when he gets it offensively and defensively.”
For contested rebounds, Vucevic still needs some growth. That area he ranks in the bottom half of players with at 3.0 contested rebounds per game, grabbing just 34.7 percent of his contested rebound opportunities, according to NBA.com player tracking. Vucevic is good, but obviously still a young player looking to improve his strength and ability to execute in traffic.
He is a good player and a great rebounder, but still only 23 years old (he will be 24 when the regular season begins this year). That is a lot of room to growth. And this is potentially a contract year, which could put Vucevic in for an even bigger season the last two he had.
What is clear is that Vucevic’s rebounding ability is not going anywhere. He is going to be a rebounding force in the league for a while. He is so skilled and adept at that skill. It is his calling card and will remain so in this critical year for Vucevic and the Magic.
They know they will be able to rely on Vucevic to crash the glass this coming season.
“They just killed us on the board,” former teammate and then-Bobcat Josh McRoberts said after the game on March 28. “There really was no excuse for it. Vucevic, he can do that. I think he had nine in the first quarter and I saw when last year he had almost 30 rebounds in a game. He is a hell of a rebounder. That is what he does and he is a great player in terms of getting to the glass. He is tough to block out because he is so long and just has such good instincts.”
You cannot teach that.