Nikola Vucevic is not an All-Star, still the Orlando Magic’s star

Nikola Vucevic is not likely planning a trip to Chicago in mid-February. But he remains the most important player for the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic is not likely planning a trip to Chicago in mid-February. But he remains the most important player for the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

Nikola Vucevic is not likely to make a second trip to the All-Star Game this year. But he is still the most vital piece of the Orlando Magic’s success.

Nikola Vucevic has seen a lot in his time with the Orlando Magic.

The one thing he has not seen with this team is a successful January.

The start of a new year is typically paired with a long West Coast road trip and so it has been a wasteland for the team. The Magic have not won more than five games in January in Nikola Vucevic’s seven years with the team.

That was last year when the team went 5-11 in the month. That is how the Magic hit their bottom at 20-32. The rest became history for him and the team. He at least repaired some of his legacy with the team in guiding them to a playoff berth and becoming the team’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard departed.

With a new contract freshly signed, Vucevic now carried with him All-Star and playoff expectations. He certainly was not satisfied with his lackluster playoff performance.

More than anyone else, Vucevic seems like the guy who could do something to change this narrative. He already had in leading the team to the playoffs last year. That new contract made having an encore performance the norm.

But matching that All-Star performance and stepping back out of the shadows was always going to be difficult. Vucevic is not quite the All-Star he was last year. As expected, his numbers have trailed off.

That has not lessened his impact on the team. And while it seems extremely unlikely that Vucevic will get a repeat All-Star appearance, he is still very much the team’s star.

He gets treated as such by opponents as much as the team looks to him to deliver consistently.

"“People are always going to treat you once you get that All-Star badge,” Terrence Ross said after shootaround before last week’s game against the Washington Wizards. “I think it’s more teams dialing into him and trying to take away some of his stuff. He’s still out there making an impact.”"

Last year, Vucevic averaged 20.8 points per game and 12.0 rebounds per game. Both were career highs. But his consistency was more important. He was reliable for that amount almost every night. And he played in 80 of 82 games — one for paternity leave and the other to rest in the final game of the season with the playoffs already secured.

That consistency within coach Steve Clifford’s system earned him a four-year contract and a seemingly fresh start with the team. Now the Magic had playoff expectations and Vucevic had an All-Star reputation behind him.

This year, Vucevic’s numbers have dipped.

He is averaging only 18.5 points per game and 11.3 rebounds per game. Vucevic is hitting only 45.2 percent of his shots, a low since joining the Magic. Orlando is putting him beyond the arc more than ever, as he is shooting 4.5 3-pointers per game.

Throughout that, Vucevic dealt with some nagging injuries left over from the FIBA World Cup before missing 11 games in November and December with a sprained ankle. There has been a lot of starting and stopping for Vucevic.

That might have slowed him down some. But he is slowly starting to pick himself back up and regain much of that All-Star touch.

In the 15 games since coming back from his injury, Vucevic is averaging 20.0 points per game and 11.0 rebounds per game. He is still shooting a poor 45.3 percent. But interspersed in there are some games that were reminiscent of his star presence.

More important were games where he contributed outside of his scoring.

He grabbed 24 rebounds in the Orlando Magic’s critical win over the Brooklyn Nets last week. Vucevic has strung together 20 points or more in six of his past eight games, including a 29-point effort against the Washington Wizards.

The All-Star player is still in there. But it is his impact elsewhere, even as he gets the rest of his game in tow that will matter for this team.

"“He always does extra in the weight room,” Clifford said after the team’s practice last Tuesday. “And he always has a routine that does here with [assistant coaches] Mike Batiste and Bruce Kreutzer.“One of the things that’s happening for our team and it’s helping us a lot is he is shooting more threes. You look at it, the more threes he shoots, the more his assist numbers will go up because he opens up the whole floor. The thing we have to do is, which is more me, is we still post him enough because we’re still scoring off his post-ups too.”"

That change has perhaps disrupted some of Vucevic’s balance. It has certainly led to a decrease in his field goal percentage.

That career-high 3-point field goal attempts has also come with Vucevic averaging 3.4 assists per game, on pace for his third straight year averaging more than 3.0 assists per game.

It has not been as good a season for Vucevic as it was last year for sure. There is no debating that.

But there is still no debating his overall impact on the team and that he makes the team better.

The Magic are +3.9 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents with Vucevic on the floor, the best mark among the Magic’s regular rotation players. Orlando holds a 103.6 defensive rating with Vucevic on the floor, the best mark among the team’s starters.

It is this defensive impact that is often the biggest criticism for Vucevic. Orlando has created a defensive schemed that puts him in positions where he can succeed and the team’s defense is again among the best in the league with Vucevic as its surprising anchor.

Opponents are shooting 58.0 percent at the rim against Vucevic this year, according to Second Spectrum. They were at 56.2 percent last year and 65.9 percent in 2018.

Like everywhere else, Vucevic has seen his individual statistics slip here. Even overall, last year the Magic had a +4.0 net rating with Nikola Vucevic on the floor (trailing only Michael Carter-Williams among rotation players).

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Still, the Magic and his teammates expect him to perform like an All-Star. They need him to do so to win. That was what made his game against the Nets so impressive. He dominated the game defensively more than offensively with his shot not falling.

And teammates still understand how that can impact the game.

"“The things he does like 24 rebounds, he’s supposed to do that,” Wesley Iwundu said after shootaround before the game against the Wizards. “That’s just Vooch for you right there. That’s the type of player he is and what he brings to the team.”"

That has been different this year. This year, Vucevic still seems to be seeking his rhythm. He has not reached those heights from last year.

Others have stepped up to fill some of that void — Evan Fournier is having a career year and Markelle Fultz‘s emergence has changed many parts of the team — but no one can do everything Nikola Vucevic does. No one can grab the defense’s attention and force them into the kind of difficult decisions that opens up play for everyone else.

Vucevic has done plenty to work on his weaknesses and expand his game. Vucevic is still the most vital cog of the entire Magic system. They need him playing defense at a high level and contributing in multiple ways offensively.

So far this season, Vucevic has certainly dropped in production. Perhaps more than expected.

Next. Stars continue to make Orlando Magic's life hard. dark

But the more he contributes and the more the Magic get him going, the better they ultimately will be. He is still the star player for the team.