Where Last Left the Orlando Magic: Nikola Vucevic, All-Star, Returns

Nikola Vucevic struggled to match much of last year's All-Star consistency. But the Orlando Magic found a way to unlock him as the season wound down. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic struggled to match much of last year's All-Star consistency. But the Orlando Magic found a way to unlock him as the season wound down. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic got a bit of a downgraded and inconsistent Nikola Vucevic for much of the season. They reset his usage and the All-Star returned.

Nikola Vucevic’s 2019 season was one where he got the recognition he seemed like he had been working for and deserved to some extent in the course of his six previous years with the Orlando Magic.

He became a NBA All-Star and had the full trust of the coaching staff and the offense, delivering the team to their first Playoff appearance in that long rebuild that Nikola Vucevic had been a part of from the start. His individual success led to a team success and the team finally broke through.

He earned a new four-year, $100-million contract. His consistent play proving valuable and delivering a small measure of success to the franchise he grew up with. He helped anchor a defense that was in the top-10 in the league for the entire season.

Vucevic shed so much doubt during that season. And then the Playoffs seemed to bring them up all over again.

Vucevic’s 2019 season also seemed to be a confirmation of many of his ultimate weaknesses. And there remained a ceiling and a place he could not quite lift his team.

The Toronto Raptors successfully took Vucevic completely out of the game, grounding the Orlando Magic’s offense completely. The Magic bowed out of the series with a small whimper, taking a gentlemen’s sweep.

The series, even if the result was expected, left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. Most especially when it came to Vucevic. And all the questions about his defense and his ability to lead the team and be a part of the team’s future came up as he signed his new contract.

The question for Vucevic entering the season was whether he could copy his All-Star success. That is always the question for first-time All-Stars. And it is extremely rare for first-time All-Stars at his age to repeat.

This season in so many ways was about chasing last year’s success. The team as a whole was trying to do last year’s success over again. Vucevic most of all.

Just like the team, that has been a difficult task all year long. Vucevic has not been as good as last year — the Magic have used him differently — and injuries slowed him down especially in the season. But the end of the season, where we last left the Magic, saw Vucevic begin to regain his All-Star form.

Among the many reasons the Magic’s offense began to surge, Vucevic’s return to form and return to the post inside the 3-point line was a part of it.

Vucevic’s winding road

Last year, Nikola Vucevic reached the All-Star team averaging 20.8 points per game, 12.0 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists per game while shooting a career-best 54.9-percent effective field goal percentage. According to Second Spectrum, opponents shot 56.2 percent at the rim against Vucevic, the second-best mark on the team.

It was a breakthrough season in every way. Vucevic had very few games where he did not provide a consistent level of production. And his defense was solid enough to boost everyone else and fit the scheme. The Magic had a top-10 defense in the league.

The Playoffs were a different story.

The Raptors did a good job isolating and crowding Vucevic at every turn. Vucevic struggled to move Marc Gasol and the Raptors just swarmed Vucevic, daring every other player on the Magic to make a shot.

Vucevic could not give the support the team needed to carry them. That is the star’s burden.

The kind of hyper-focus a Playoff series gives to any star player reveals both their strengths and weaknesses. Vucevic needed some redemption after averaging 11.2 points per game on 38.8 percent effective field goal percentage.

Everything for the Magic — and especially — Vucevic was gearing up toward the postseason. That is ultimately where the Magic would get judged on their progress as much as where they finished in the regular season.

The season has not given many answers — especially for Vucevic.

Vucevic is averaging 19.5 points per game and 11.0 rebounds per game on a 51.5-percent effective field goal percentage. Opponents are shooting 60.2 percent at the rim against him this year, according to Second Spectrum.

All those numbers are slightly down from his All-Star year. But not significantly down. But he has not matched last year at all.

Even getting back to that level has been something of a journey.

Vucevic missed 11 games with a sprained ankle starting in late-November. Until that point, he was averaging 17.1 points per game on 45.0-percent shooting with 11.6 rebounds per game. It was a solid but not spectacular start. Vucevic’s poor shooting hurt and he was still rounding into some defensive rhythm.

His return was certainly welcome to bring some balance back to the lineup. But he still was not making a huge impact. Or not the All-Star impact.

Orlando Magic change Nikola Vucevic’s attack

The Orlando Magic changed some of their usage with Nikola Vucevic.

He took more 3-pointers than at any point in his career, shooting 4.6 3-point field goal attempts per game. The Magic tried to open the paint up for their guards and left Vucevic on the perimeter.

His post-ups dropped from 5.4 possessions per game last year to 3.9 this year. NBA.com’s tracking data does not allow to filter by date. So it is not easy to find out just how much his post-ups increased.

However, before the All-Star Break, Vucevic took 379 of his 731 field goal attempts within 10 feet of the basket — 51.8 percent. After the All-Star Break, 100 of his 179 field goal attempts came within 10 feet of the basket — 55.8 percent.

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That little bit goes a long way.

Just like everything else after the All-Star Break, things changed for Vucevic. In the 10 games after the break, Vucevic averaged 21.8 points per game and 12.0 rebounds per game. He shot 52.0-percent from the floor and 3.4 3-point field goal attempts per game.

Four of his seven highest-scoring games of the season occurred after the All-Star Break. And the results obviously speak for themselves from the team.

The Magic’s offensive surge was certainly a byproduct of everyone shooting a whole lot better. But like Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic was shooting worse than 30-percent from beyond the arc.

Instead, the difference was really about where Vucevic’s shots came from. He took fewer 3-pointers and worked more closer to the basket. That increase in efficiency helped keep the driving lanes the Magic need and got him scoring more effectively around the basket.

As always too, the Magic do not run a ton of straight plays for Vucevic. He gets a lot of his offense through screens and pops on pick and rolls. Just now he is finding ways to dive to the basket and stay inside the 3-point line.

The Playoff question remains

The question though still remains with Vucevic.

The Orlando Magic’s defense struggled after the All-Star Break. He still needs to be in something of a defensive rhythm and have his timing down to defend at a higher level. Whether Vucevic regains this timing when the season resumes will be one of the bigger questions facing the Magic.

The other question will be how Vucevic handles the pressure and attention of Playoff defense once again. Especially if the Magic get a rematch with the Raptors, they can expect much the same defensive pressure against Vucevic.

And Vucevic averaged only 4.0 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game in the Magic’s three matchups to date with the Raptors (he only played in two of those games and one was cut short with his early-season injury). Even a thinner Marc Gasol probably still has a few tricks up his sleeve for defending Vucevic.

And ultimately Vucevic will get judged on how he performs when the games count the most.

But when the season came to a close, Vucevic had regained his spot as the top scorer on the team and had regained the All-Star touch that lifted the Magic.

Next. Steve Clifford is back in the office. dark

Whether that will continue or will be enough is a question the rest of this season and the offseason will answer.