Nikola Vucevic filling a box score is not enough for an All-Star

Nikola Vucevic put up an impressive-looking stat line. But there is more he has to do for the Orlando Magic to succeed. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic put up an impressive-looking stat line. But there is more he has to do for the Orlando Magic to succeed. (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Nikola Vucevic is having a difficult season despite solid raw production. For the Orlando Magic to win big, they need Vucevic to star again.

114. 38. Final. 120. 149

There is something that goes with the moniker of being a NBA All-Star.

For the Orlando Magic, a team that has no clear-cut star, that moniker carries even more weight. The team needs someone to be consistent. The team needs a safety valve to release pressure and get an easy shot. Someone who can force good plays out of nothing on occasion.

This, of course, is tougher for centers. The center does not bring the ball up, someone has to get it to him. He is inevitably reliant on other players to put him in a position to score and contribute in many ways. The way he assists others can be through screens and being a presence in the paint.

At the end of games, it will still be guards dominating play because of their ability to create shots.

For better or worse, Nikola Vucevic is the Magic’s star. The one they rely on.

And as the clock started winding in the Orlando Magic’s 120-114 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, the Magic were trying desperately to find an answer. They could not break free. Suddenly their best players looked very small.

They bounced around from player to player — Evan Fournier turned it over, then Markelle Fultz, then Aaron Gordon missed a pair of free throws and Evan Fournier a 3-pointer — and no one seemed able to step up.

This is where the star — the best player — is supposed to make his presence felt. In some way, whether it is offensively or defensively, Nikola Vucevic had to make his presence felt. With the Magic down by three with 2:45 to play, the Magic tried to force the ball inside to Vucevic. Chris Paul was on his back and Nikola Vucevic had a favorable matchup.

But Paul pulled the chair. Vucevic went to body up and get to the rim and fell backward into nothing, losing the ball. The Thunder would hit a pair of free throws on the other end.

Things only got worse from there. The Thunder opened up a six-point lead by the 30-second mark with Vucevic committing a critical and silly reach-in foul with 1:36 to play to give the Thunder a four-point lead they would never relinquish.

Orlando looked rattled. More importantly, in the big moments, nobody stepped up. Most especially their star player. He was nowhere to be found to impact the game and give the Magic that stability.

"“We had a chance,” Terrence Ross said after the game. “Even though we had turnovers and they made some tough shots, we still had a chance to tie or take the lead. We just didn’t make enough plays.”"

Close games and close moments are not the end-all, be-all of a game. Consistency throughout the 48 minutes matters most. There has to be something the team can rely on. Someone who can make big plays when called upon.

Consistency is what Vucevic has staked most of his career on. He may not finish games, but he will pace the team enough to get there. This is perhaps where Vucevic has struggled most in his follow-up year to his All-Star 2019 season.

Vucevic has put up respectable numbers all season. He is averaging 19.0 points per game and 11.1 rebounds per game. He remains one of the best passing big men in the league with 3.4 assists per game.

Even Wednesday, Vucevic put up more-than-respectable numbers throughout the game. He scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, adding five assists and three steals for good measure. He made 10 of his 20 shots and three of his seven 3-pointers.

That all points to a solid game.

It certainly might look solid on paper. But it was not his strongest performance by any stretch.

The Thunder made a living in the paint with 54 points in the paint. The Magic’s perimeter defense on pick and rolls was poor, but so too was Vucevic’s defense defending the lane. The Thunder caught Nikola Vucevic in no man’s land on several occasions and hit Nerlens Noel for at least four lobs to the rim.

When that got boring, they caught Nikola Vucevic dropping in the lane (as part of the Magic’s scheme) and spaced the floor for Mike Muscala to drain 3-pointers (four of them for 14 points).

This was not a good game for Vucevic and at key moments, Vucevic did not step up to the plate. The box score numbers hid a difficult performance.

"“Obviously he struggled on both ends,” coach Steve Clifford said. “It wasn’t one of his better games. He is a really good player and he didn’t have a very good night.”"

Again, while Vucevic’s raw scoring and rebounding numbers look good, his efficiency is way down. He is shooting just 45.1 percent from the floor, the lowest since his rookie year with the Philadelphia 76ers when he barely played.

Some of that is certainly because Vucevic’s 3-point shooting is up — 4.7 3-point field goal attempts per game is a career-high. But Vuceivc is also missing shots he should reliably make. Wednesday’s game could have turned earlier if Vucevic had hit some of the open threes he missed or done a better job establishing himself in the post.

Additionally, Orlando is using him differently. He is taking more 3-pointers than ever before and he is in the post a whole lot less, in addition to his decreased efficiency at every level.

Vucevic is eighth in the league in post-ups per game with 3.8 per game, according to Synergy. He scores 0.72 points per possession on those plays. Those are still down from last year when he averaged 5.4 post-ups per game and 0.93 points per possession.

It has been a down year for Vucevic in almost every way as the Magic have used him differently and Vucevic has struggled to take advantage of opportunities he has had.

"“I am sure some of the plays I usually get under the basket, I’m more efficient from there,” Vucevic said. “I have to find my ways. I have to try to get more easy baskets. Those usually get me going. I think the ones that every player likes and gets you going and gives you confidence. I think the easy ones — off the glass, the deep seals and things of that nature. Obviously, when you catch in the post, the defense is more focused and there is less room for me to work.”"

Clifford said he has to do a better job getting Vucevic cleaner looks in the post and has to remember to keep working it in there.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But the onus at the end of the day is still on the player to make a play. It is still on the player to hit shots and lift his team up. And Vucevic, fairly or unfairly, holds that responsibility. He has to contribute to these big moments in one way or another.

His poor play — because he will get the shots either naturally through the offense or because he is so vital to making the offense work — can sink the team. And when the Magic are struggling it is ultimately Vucevic who has to lead the way and lift everyone up.

For him, that might be more difficult on defense. And the Magic put him in a lot of bad situations with poor perimeter defense all night. But Vucevic did little except in a few pockets to help cover up his teammates’ mistakes.

Late in the game, all of the Magic’s best players dropped the ball in big ways.

"“Our last six minutes we clearly made mistakes on offense and defense,” Michael Carter-Williams said after Wednesday’s game. “We are going to need to be better down the stretch. As a team, it wasn’t anybody individual. But I think it says something that we’re able to keep fighting and put ourselves in a position to win. Now we’ve got to execute down the stretch.”"

The Magic certainly lost as a team. But if they want to continue progressing, it is Vucevic who has to step up the most.

It is not merely raw production. Vucevic can put up numbers. That has always been the case.

Grades: Oklahoma City Thunder 120, Orlando Magic 114. dark. Next

It is something more. It is efficiency and poise on both ends that will matter most. The Magic need their rock and their All-Star to make the most of this season.