Orlando Magic 2nd Quarter MVP: Nikola Vucevic

Nikola Vucevic has had an expected regression this season. But he is still producing near star numbers to solidify the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic has had an expected regression this season. But he is still producing near star numbers to solidify the Orlando Magic. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Nikola Vucevic returned from an injury and provided the consistency that turned him into an All-Star and kept the Orlando Magic in the playoff chase.

Nikola Vucevic had found his rhythm as the Orlando Magic tried to jumpstart their season when everything came crashing down.

Nikola Vucevic had just been named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week after averaging nearly 30 points per game across an undefeated three-game week. The All-Star Vucevic that keyed the Magic to the playoff spot last year — and now seemingly had some help in Jonathan Isaac’s defense and Evan Fournier’s revitalized offense — was returning to form.

Why it took such a slow start was fairly unclear. Vucevic had a nagging injury during training camp and perhaps some fatigue from the more physical brand of FIBA basketball he experienced during the FIBA World Cup.

But here Vucevic was beginning to deliver for the Magic at the level everyone — including himself — expected. The only way to get the sour taste of his poor 2019 Playoff performance and further erase lingering doubts about his game was to get back and prove them all wrong.

But the Toronto Raptors had his number, going 1 for 7 in the first 10 minutes against his archnemesis in a late November game. And then everything came crashing down.

Vucevic suffered a sprained ankle and bone bruise on the Scotiabank Arena floor. It felt like the season might crash down with him that night. He would miss 11 games and roughly a month of play, watching the Magic stay afloat at 5-6 during that stretch.

The team was still in the playoff hunt even if it was a disappointing start to the season for the team and its star player.

Vucevic waited his turn to come back. As Orlando always seems to be, the team was patient recognizing their star player had to be back and back for good for the team to achieve its ultimate goal.

Vucevic finally stepped back onto the floor Dec. 15 as the Magic started a West Coast swing against the New Orleans Pelicans. He scored 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting, grabbing nine rebounds in the blowout win. Vucevic did not quite pick up where he left off, but he started to look more like the All-Star player that guided Orlando through the playoff run.

The Magic rarely need Vucevic to put up the big scoring numbers. They need his consistency more often. And that is what Vucevic started to provide in the second quarter of the season.

In 16 games, Vucevic led the team in scoring with 20.3 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game. He once again was one of the best passing big men in the league with 3.1 assists per game.

After starting the season as inconsistent as he has been in his eight seasons with the Magic, Vucevic got back to his consistent levels. He got back to playing at an All-Star level in many ways.

Vucevic scored less than 15 points just twice in this 16-game span and recorded nine double-doubles, including a 24-rebound effort in a big win over the Brooklyn Nets. That game was special because he did so in one of his rare poor scoring games. That showed how he has learned to impact games even when he is not scoring consistently.

The Magic were nearly at their worst when Vucevic was off the floor. The team was -3.0 points per 100 possessions when Vucevic was off the floor. The team was only worse with D.J. Augustin off the floor.

The second quarter of the season saw Orlando find its level a bit. The team went an identical 10-10 (the Magic were 10-11 in the first quarter of the season). Nikola Vucevic’s return did not necessarily impact winning in the same way Evan Fournier’s outburst while Vucevic was hurt did.

He never really stepped up to the plate. He just chugged along with his steady progression.

Vucevic is more valuable for his consistency than his outright impact on winning. He provides a solid base to jump from and grow from.

Vucevic is still not without his flaws. The team is better with him in the game, but he is not the clear-cut best player on the team like he was last year. This season has exposed some of his flaws and has (rightfully) raised questions about just how far this team can go running its offense through him and with him as its best player.

Vucevic shot just 44.4 percent from the floor as he continues the worst shooting season of his career. But a lot of that comes from him shooting more from the outside — 5.6 3-point attempts per game in the second quarter of the season.

Vucevic is having more poor shooting performances. Something still feels off about this season for him. That is at least partly because of the weight of expectations for Vucevic. He set a new standard for himself. One that he has not quite reached this year.

The Magic break even with their season average defensively with Vucevic on the floor. He is still a solid defensive piece, but not an impactful one in many ways. He is a lane container which will not create shot-blocking opportunities. And it always seems Vucevic is one bad step or wrong guess on a pick and roll from getting beat. Jonathan Isaac is no longer behind him to save him.

Everyone likely knew all this about Vucevic already. The question for the Magic has always been how to make the most of the team they have with Vucevic there — and then figuring out how to get better.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Orlando is still in the top 10 in the league in defensive rating, coming on late in the second quarter of the season after a noticeable slip. That is at least the foundation for the Magic’s success. And Vucevic certainly has played a role in that.

Vucevic has played well. But even he would probably admit the real test awaits him again in April. Orlando has to get there first.

There remains an outside chance Vucevic makes the All-Star team (more as a reward to the Magic for having a playoff-caliber season rather than based on Vucevic’s play). But it is clear Vucevic has regressed some to his mean.

That does not mean Vucevic is having a poor season. Other players have stepped up and the flattening of the Eastern Conference has allowed Orlando to control its playoff destiny in a way it did not last year. The Magic, as a team, are certainly much better meaning they do not need Vucevic as much as they did last year.

The difference in his second quarter of the season was Vucevic returned to the level of consistency in his raw production that marked his All-Star season. The Magic need his consistency, but it is everyone around him that determines if the team will win.

Getting Vucevic back to consistency was vital to the team maintaining its record and hovering around .500. Orlando will still need more from Vucevic moving forward. His impact has to be much clearer and much more positive.

Orlando will need Vucevic to score more efficiently as he continues to put up All-Star-level numbers

For the last 16 games, Vucevic has gotten more consistently to that level. That has provided a good level to help the Magic stay in front in the playoff race. Orlando knew what it could rely on from Vucevic once again.

Next. Injuries have stretched the Orlando Magic's depth thin. dark

That is what the Magic must rely on from him once again as the season continues and the team hopes to make another late-season push.