Orlando Magic will go only as far as Nikola Vucevic demands

Nikola Vucevic is set to return to the Orlando Magic and will need to elevate his game. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic is set to return to the Orlando Magic and will need to elevate his game. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic are eager to see their young players take charge. But a return to the playoffs depends on Nikola Vucevic elevating his game again.

Nikola Vucevic’s stat lines at the FIBA World Cup were fairly meager. They hardly looked like that f an All-Sar player. Indeed, Nikola Vucevic’s play was sometimes reminiscent of a new player trying to fit in rather than an All-Star recognizing he is the best talent on the team.

He averaged a team-high 14.6 points and second-best 6.4 rebounds per game. Solid numbers, but hardly anything to stand out. He made sure to let everyone get involved and played within the system.

There have been times when he has taken over and defenses have definitely given him respect, shading him with multiple defenders. Teams knew Vucevic was the most dangerous weapon for Montenegro.

But Vucevic largely played quietly in the background until the team’s final two games when his scoring took a big leap. Overall, Montenegro was a better team when Vucevic was on the floor.

He finished with a big flourish, scoring 20 points and grabbing seven rebounds in a loss to Turkey. His scoring burst to open the game — he scored more than 10 points in the first quarter — staked Montenegro a lead they would not give up until the fourth quarter.

He picked up where he left off in the first quarter against Japan on Monday, scoring nine of his 18 points in the opening frame of Montenegro’s historic 80-65 win.

He cut down the lane for layups, stepped into jumpers and played with an energy and aggression that said, “This is my team” and we are not going to lose. Or a determination to make sure his team got off on the right foot.

That is the kind of attitude and play Vucevic will need to lead the Orlando Magic this year. He will need the ability to push his team higher and to elevate his game. The Magic will only go as far as he takes them.

Vucevic still has a lot to learn. And that was evident in the playoffs.

His 20.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per game in the regular season seemed meaningless next to his 11.2 points, 8.0 rebounds per game on 36.2 percent shooting in the postseason. The Toronto Raptors effectively crowded and pressured him out of the game and the Magic’s offense withered without him.

If there is a concern for the Magic’s future it is that they again will rely on Vucevic playing at an All-Star level. And even further the concern that at 28 years old, he can reach another level to his game.

There are not many players who arrived to stardom this late and few who kept that fire burning as they reached into their 30s.

Of the eight previous players to reach their first All-Star Game at 28 years or older, only Kyle Lowry, Paul Millsap and Zach Randolph have returned to the All-Star Game. Lowry has returned four more times and is on a streak of five straight All-Star Game appearances. Marc Gasol made his first All-Star Game at 27 years old and has been back twice.

Vucevic’s team’s performance will have a lot more to do with gaining that honor once again. And, at this point in his career, that is all that should matter to measure his success.

But to get there, the Magic will need Vucevic to do more than he even did last year. He has to rise to the moment and improve others around him.

How Vucevic deals with “stardom” and the attention that comes with it will be a key narrative for the Magic. While the Magic’s young players develop to take the team to the next level, Vucevic will still be the consistent base from which they grow.

Vucevic’s tendency to be passive — including perhaps his penchant to hang on the perimeter rather than dive into the post — was on display during his run with Montenegro at the World Cup. That is a running criticism for Vucevic throughout his career.

Yet it was still clear throughout the tournament, Vucevic could do more. Or at least be a bigger emotional center for a team that lost its composure and lost at least two games they led late.

Montenegro’s talent level was going to make it tough for them. The team is still a developing nation and did not have the depth to keep up with the best teams in the tournament.

But even with Vucevic having a relatively meager output, he was clearly the team’s best player. When he had his game rolling and found his ways to score, Montenegro was at their best. And he was strong defensively in the same way he was for the Magic last year.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

He will have to have the same kind of positive effect for the Magic. And in the big moments, he will have to step his game up more.

Vucevic handled the double teams he faced throughout the World Cup well. He quickly passed out of the post before the double arrived and re-established his post position. Several of his scores came from attacking this re-post quickly. He found other ways to score off rolls.

But he remained largely absent in fourth quarters as Montenegro struggled to finish.

Vucevic has already established himself as an All-Star in this league. He has led a team to the Playoffs. He can check those ticks off his career accomplishments.

Vucevic will have to grow from that and learn to be more aggressive in the moments that matter. And that is a task that may not come until April. There is a long journey ahead.

Vucevic was the spoke around which the Magic offense operated. But he has to be more. He has to elevate his team on both ends of the floor.

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And that remains the big question for him.