Nikola Vucevic‘s career-best scoring performance was powered in large part through his three-point shooting, a skill he added this past summer.
Nikola Vucevic reportedly was working on expanding his shooting range to the three-point line over the summer. It is a familiar story over several of the past summers. He had always been a good mid-range shooter, last season notwithstanding. But he never felt comfortable taking one more step back to get behind the arc.
Last season, he averaged just one 3-point attempt per game and ended up making 23 of 75 (30.7 percent). Those 75 attempts were still more than he had taken his entire career to that point. Vucevic needed some encouragement. Vucevic said the Orlando Magic encouraged him this offseason to integrate long-distance shooting more completely into his repertoire.
That work was not necessarily apparent on Wednesday when Vucevic missed all three of his 3-point attempts during the season-opening win against the Miami Heat. But in Friday night’s 126-121 road loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Vucevic erupted for a career-high 41 points and his 3-point shooting (6 of 8) played a large role in it.
Vucevic looked very confident with his stroke whether popping out to the 3-point line after setting screens or simply spotting up. His shooting motion, although still somewhat deliberate, was smooth and controlled.
It became obvious for the first time this year Vucevic had shot lots of 3-point jumpers this offseason. He was confident with the stroke and looking for it.
The Magic looked to incorporate his new abilities into the offense. He shot so well on Friday that it almost felt like he should have taken the three on the Magic’s last possession. Orlando drew up a play for him to get one a few possessions before.
He actually had a chance to take it, but the kick-out pass to him was low and difficult to corral, so he passed it instead to an open Evan Fournier in the corner (which is a shot the Magic should want, even if Evan Fournier’s shot was just a bit short this time).
If Vucevic’s long-range display is a sign of things to come, the Magic will reap many benefits as the season progresses.
Given that the Magic have lacked outside shooting ability for the past few years, they will gladly accept it from anyone on the roster.
Adding *anyone* as a third shooting threat to the starting lineup (in addition to Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross) will help clear up driving lanes for others to attack the rim. But the fact Vucevic is the additional shooting threat means that big men normally tasked with protecting the paint will instead sometimes have to chase him out to the 3-point line. This opens the paint even further than if it was Elfrid Payton who became a good shooter from the outside.
This is exactly what happened in the win Wednesday. Hassan Whiteside dominated the paint throughout the fourth quarter going up against Bismack Biyombo, a paint-bound center with no offensive game. Once Vucevic came in, the Magic’s offense ignited again. It enabled them to get the win. Whiteside had to make some difficult decisions as players like Fournier attacked.
This development also presents a dilemma to opposing defenses.
The big men who guard Vucevic are not generally comfortable defending so far away from the basket. But Vucevic can still go back to the post if smaller defenders are thrown his way.
His outside shooting was the story against the Nets. But Vucevic was also assertive and successful with his jump hook against the several Nets bigs guarding him on Friday. When the Magic needed a basket, they dumped the ball to Vucevic and he converted time and time again.
Vucevic still needs to demonstrate his newfound range is sustainable. This was a single game.
Until he does, he will probably continue to get good looks at threes like he got against the Nets. Teams would still give that shot up, for now. At least, until he proves some consistency.
When defenses start to respect his range and start to close out harder on him, he then needs to be able to respond. It remains to be seen whether he can pump fake and step into a mid-range shot, take a couple of dribbles and make good reads on a rotating defense. Those are the skills typically associated with guards. Vucevic is a skilled passer for a big man. But he has rarely had to make passes on the move or off the dribble.
For now, Vucevic’s potential as an inside-outside threat is intriguing. Even though it came in a loss, Vucevic’s career night opens up many possibilities for the Magic.