Nikola Vucevic getting the recognition and respect he has earned

The Orlando Magic will again rely heavily on their starting lineup, a group that proved successful in 2019. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic will again rely heavily on their starting lineup, a group that proved successful in 2019. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

With the Orlando Magic surging, Nikola Vucevic is finally getting the recognition he has long deserved as his stats now clearly have more meaning.

Nikola Vucevic has been with the Orlando Magic from the beginning. It is easy then for him to be the target of derision. As everything has changed with the Magic, he has remained the same.

A typical look at Nikola Vucevic’s line score reveals a similar thought — a typical output of a double-double devoid of many highlights. Just a solid everyday outing for Vucevic with consistent play.

That was never enough as the best player on the team for much of the last six years. Vucevic has put in yeoman’s work — 16.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in seven seasons — quietly doing his work without much fanfare. Those are solid numbers, for sure.

Vucevic flirted with becoming an All-Star in 2015 but the team’s record kept him from breaking through into that group. And to many, it was his play that kept the Magic from breaking out of their endless rut.

Vucevic’s role has changed over the years. He was never the central figure of the Magic’s rebuild. They were aiming for high draft picks and looking to feature players like Victor Oladipo or Aaron Gordon or Tobias Harris. Vucevic was still there putting in his work. Even as it seemed the Magic were trying to push him out the door elsewhere.

This year feels like it may be the final run for Vucevic. Orlando drafted a promising young center in Mohamed Bamba in the draft. His preternatural abilities and length seem to fit a new vision for the team. And with an expiring contract, Vucevic’s days seem numbered.

At the beginning of the year, that seemed a relief. Orlando needed to turn the page. And maybe that is still true with Mohamed Bamba waiting in the wings.

But, as it has always been, until that day, Vucevic will continue to put in his work. Only this time, it is not thankless.

Vucevic won the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week for the second time in his career. He last won it in March 2014. That was a big moment but came with the Magic already out of the Playoff race. Winning it now seems to have more weight. The season is still fresh and full of promise.

And it seems Vucevic’s season to date has had a lot more weight. The Magic are winning in large part because of Vucevic. They are playing through him to take advantage of his varied skills. And the Playoffs feel more in reach than ever. Or at least serious discussions about it.

Vucevic is currently averaging what would be a career-high 20.0 points per game and 11.2 rebounds per game. That rebounding mark would be his second-best raw rebounding total. Add in his 3.6 assists per game (on pace for a career best) and an astounding 58.9 percent effective field goal percentage, and it paints a player who is doing a whole lot more than padding his own stats. He is shooting 42.2 percent from beyond the arc to boot.

No, this is a player who is a central figure to a successful team. One who is scoring efficiently and keeping others involved.

Vucevic is going inside to feast on smaller players, returning to the post like the Magic wanted at the beginning of the season and working his skilled passing to maximum effect. When teams go big, he pops to the perimeter and hits jumpers or leaves the paint open to pass to cutters.

The Magic have a +3.2 net rating (109.7 offensive rating, 106.3 defensive rating) with Vucevic on the floor. Only D.J. Augustin has a higher mark (maybe highlighting the team’s frustrating point guard play) and he shares the floor a lot with Nikola Vucevic. Of the Magic’s top six lineups that have played at least 10 minutes this season, Vucevic is in five of them.

The biggest criticism facing Vucevic has always been his defense. He is not a rim protector — his 58.1 percent field goal percentage at the rim is not great but much better than last year’s 65.9 percent. But Vucevic has improved dramatically as a defender.

Basketball-Reference has Vucevic with 0.200 win shares per 48, by far the most he has had in his career — his previous high was 0.133. His +2.7 defensive box plus-minus is also a career best by far (he had a +2.3 defensive box plus-minus two years ago).

Vucevic has a team-high 36 deflections this year, according to His 2.0 deflections per game is at a greater pace than his 1.9 last year. It is a small sign of Vucevic’s increased activity defensively.

All this is to say, there are plenty of numbers to suggest that Vucevic is not putting up what some might call “empty stats” anymore.

The team is sitting at 9-9 and as hopeful as it has ever been. They are playing with more purpose and deliberateness. Fans are slowly starting to believe again.

Vucevic is at the center of this rebirth. Steve Clifford spoke highly of Nikola Vucevic and how opposing teams had to prepare for him early in the season. It felt in some way a bit of the coach “pumping his own guys up” and was met with a few eyerolls.

But Clifford has unlocked a lot more from Vucevic than any of Vucevic’s numerous other coaches have.

The Magic are not simply dropping the ball into the post for isolations or using him in simple pick and rolls. The team is cutting and moving off of him, creating more space for Vucevic to attack as the defense worries about cutters and allowing Vucevic to display his strong passing skills.

The Magic have covered as much distance as any team in the league to this point, according to Second Spectrum stats on All this is again to say, Vucevic is quite literally at the center of the team’s success and failures this year.

And, even with a .500 record, there have been more successes.

That does not mean the backslide cannot still happen. Everyone on this team knows just how quickly things can fall apart. Vucevic was playing similarly last December as he tried to keep the Magic team afloat amidst mounting injuries. When he suffered his own injury, he never recaptured that spark.

And the future is still in the background. Bamba remains an important part of the team’s future, even if he still has a long way to go to reach that. The Magic are not about to abandon the present just to get him playing.

Especialy not with Vucevic playing this well. And everyone seems ready to jump on board with him.

Next. Wesley Iwundu stands out everywhere but the box score. dark

At long last, Vucevic has taken his game to another level and is using it to take his team to another level. At long last, Vucevic is getting the recognition and appreciation he deserves.