A return to form in the mid-range, increased comfort from 3 and sustainable improvements in other areas predict a strong 2018 season from Nikola Vucevic.
It is no secret Nikola Vucevic’s 2017 season was not a particularly good one. Questions about how he fits in the modern pace-and-space NBA have always ensured he is the subject of trade rumors, and last season only intensified those rumors.
By many statistical measures, Vucevic played worse in 2017 than at any point in his career aside from his rookie year. His true shooting percentage (49.8 percent), win shares (4.0) and free throw percentage (a surprising 66.9 percent) were all at his Orlando Magic career lows.
There were a lot of players who felt out of place in last year’s mishmash of a roster. Vucevic, who also averaged just 14.6 points per game and 10.4 rebounds per game in a seeming statistical regression last year, was probably caught in the middle as much as anyone.
But given what we know about statistics, it is not quite time to panic yet about whether Vucevic is a useful player or a long-lasting player for this team under this new management. At the very least, there is a case to be made that he’s likely to bounce back in 2018.
On offense last year, Vucevic indeed played poorly. It was most noticeable in his shooting:
At all distances, he shot the ball at a worse clip than he had in 2016 (51.0 percent to 46.8 percent last year), but it was particularly apparent in the mid-range where he usually demonstrates good touch. In 2017, he shot 41.9 percent, down from 48.2 percent in 2016 and a 44.1 percent career mark.
His overall percentage on 2-point shots fell more than three percentage points from 51.2 percent in 2016 to 48.1 percent in 2017.
Some of the decrease might just be random variation, which will even out over time. A player, especially one who has been in the league as long as Vucevic and appears to be entering his prime, is likely to return to his career averages — 50.2 percent shooting overall and 50.7 percent on 2-pointers.
Some of it might be growing pains. Playing under head coach Frank Vogel for the first time and figuring out how to play in the occasional two-center lineup (with Bismack Biyombo or even Serge Ibaka) probably were not easy adjustments.
That will also improve with time. Especially as the Magic move to more smaller lineups and position Vucevic closer to the basket with less clutter from another big.
Another factor could be Vucevic was in the midst of diversifying his game last year in a major way by attempting more threes. And that emphasis also pulled him further away from the basket.
Vucevic attempted 1.2 threes per 36 minutes last year. His previous high was from his rookie year with the Philadelphia 76ers when he attempted 0.4 per 36 minutes. With Orlando, the most he has ever attempted was 0.2 threes per 36 minutes (during the 2016 season).
As a result of this diversification, his average field goal attempt was from 11.4 feet last year, a 1.6-foot increase from his 9.8-foot average field goal attempt distance in 2016.
Analytics generally hypothesize being able to shoot threes is a valuable skill for any player to possess, even for big men like Vucevic. His 30.7 percent clip last year on threes was pedestrian. But it was also clearly his first time incorporating it regularly into his game. And while he continues to work on adding to his game in this way, there will be bumps in the road.
But those bumps will be fewer and farther between as he gets more experience with his expanded repertoire. The worst is likely out of the way now after this first year of making a concerted effort to shoot from long distance. He will gradually become more comfortable getting the ball in new spots — or abandon that part completely and return to his usual efficiency.
Obviously shooting more from beyond the arc may hurt his overall percentages and take away from his reliable post ups. But he should still see improvements.
Vucevic’s career percentages suggest last year’s lackluster mid-range shooting was probably somewhat fluky. And his decrease in post-ups may change now too without another big in the lineup. Once his mid-range touch comes back to complement his increased range, he will become a plus on offense again because other parts of his game, like passing, are improving in sustainable ways.
His assist rate has increased every year to a career-high 16.9 percent last year. And his turnover rate has decreased every year since he has been in Orlando (career-low 9.6 percent turnover rate last year). The only offensive realm in which he has not improved is offensive rebounding. But even that is negated somewhat by his overall rebounding numbers still holding steady.
Gradual improvement is likely to be sustainable while sharp drop-offs are not. But this is not the only place Vucevic could see improvement.
On defense, Vucevic last year actually played better than he ever has. Even if it did not always feel like it.
He set new career-highs in defensive rebound percentage (31.3 percent) and overall defensive metrics such as defensive win shares (3.1 defensive win shares) and defensive box plus-minus (2.3 defensive box plus-minus). For context, Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder is often thought of as a good defensive center. Last year Adams posted 3.1 defensive win shares (his career high, too) and 1.2 defensive box plus-minus.
These stats do not definitively prove Vucevic is as good defensively as Adams. But they suggest perhaps Vucevic’s poor reputation on that end of the floor colors perception of his improved play lately.
And encouragingly, these career-high numbers are not unsustainable jumps from his previous numbers. For example, Vucevic put up 2.9 defensive win shares in 2013 (his first year with the Magic).
So if you want to buy low on Vucevic stock, now is probably the time to do it.
He still must show he can integrate 3-pointers effectively and do it without negatively impacting other parts of his game. That might be a key question for the future. But as long as he gets back to his usual percentages in his patented mid-range game, even modest improvement from long distance means Vucevic will be dangerous again on offense. And defensively, improvements are there, if not always easily perceptible.
Perhaps some of the overall frustrations with Vucevic stem from how he has nominally led the Magic for the worst five-year stretch in the team’s history. Or possibly because he does not fit the modern mold of the rim-protecting center. He gave up 54.4 percent at the rim last year and had a 2.8 percent block rate. It is probably true if he is the team’s best player, the Magic will never be much more than a team scrapping to get into the playoffs.
But Vucevic is very likely still a useful, starter-caliber player. Last year, he posted a below-average 0.088 win shares per 48 minutes (league-average is 0.1). But that is the only year he has been below average by that metric. We can call last year an outlier for now.
A probable return to form in the mid-range (the good kind of regression to the mean), increased comfort from long distance and sustainable improvements in various other areas (including on defense) suggest Vucevic will bounce back next year.