The Orlando Magic need Nikola Vucevic to play at All-Star level in Playoffs

There is optimism Nikola Vucevic will have a better playoff run than last year. The Orlando Magic need Vucevic to be the player he was before the hiatus.

With the season resuming soon, all eyes turn to the remaining eight games and the Playoffs.

Everyone is eager to see what teams will look like and what the basketball will look like. Everyone is eager just to see the games being played.

There is no telling what kind of rhythm the Orlando Magic will be in once the season returns. And that is a shame because Orlando was playing well before the season went into hiatus. There is no getting that back.

Nikola Vucevic is no exception. He was returning to the player he was last season after finally recovering from the ankle injury he endured in November.

And he will remain incredibly important as a consistent offensive option. The Magic will be relying on Nikola Vucevic more and more throughout the course of the bubble — even if he is not going to be able to play his same minutes.

Vucevic’s struggles in the Playoffs last year are well documented though. He averaged only 11.2 points per game and shot a 38.8 percent effective field goal percentage. The Toronto Raptors completely locked him out of the game.

After a stellar All-Star season that saw him pace the team all the way to its first Playoff berth in seven years, Vucevic faced all the same questions that dogged him during those down years after just five games.

The 2020 season saw him fall back to Earth in many ways. He struggled early on — most especially in his lone full game against the Raptors, shooting 1 for 12 in a 5-point, 12-rebound performance on Oct. 28.

An ankle injury in November kept him out for 11 games and he needed time to get himself back into rhythm. Vucevic is averaging a still-respectable 19.5 points per game (the second-best of his career behind only last year) on 51.5-percent effective field goal percentage (about his career average).

It is a solid season for Vucevic — above-average overall, in fact — but not the All-Star performance he put in last year.

A late bounce back

The Magic were always going to need more from their leading scorer once they reached the Playoffs. The good news was before the hiatus, Vucevic was turning the corner and getting to that level.

In the Magic’s last 20 games, Vucevic averaged 20.3 points per game and 10.9 rebounds per game. He posted a 53.8-percent effective field goal percentage.

These numbers are a little short of the 21 and 12 he put up last year. But that is to be expected since his usage rate is down from 28 percent to 25.8 percent. The Magic have varied their attack more, relying on other elements within the offense and a more balanced scoring attack. But Vucevic is still getting his points and production.

Coach Steve Clifford has always said that part of what makes Vucevic such an appealing offensive weapon is his ability to work without running many plays for him. The Magic can move around him in pick and rolls and sets from the high post to get others free. And Vucevic naturally becomes open.

This is the version the Magic will rely on most when they enter the bubble.

The question is what version of Vucevic the Magic will get once the season returns.

Making the most of Nikola Vucevic

The Orlando Magic need the Nikola Vucevic who can be a dangerous offensive threat. This will help create space for players like Markelle Fultz and Evan Fournier, who like to get to the basket.

Vucevic is a capable 3-point shooter as he is shooting 33 percent on 4.6 attempts per game.

If opposing teams are going to clog the paint to keep Fultz out, Vucevic is going to have to hit open threes.

This is also where Vucevic is fairly effective though. He is good in reading the defense on pick and rolls and finding the pocket in the defense to take a shot.

He is shooting a career-high 4.6 3-point field goal attempts per game this year. Vucevic is not the best spot-up shooter, but it is an area he is improving.

Vucevic is scoring just 0.91 points per possession on spot-up opportunities, according to NBA.com’s tracking statistics. He is making just a 45.0 percent effective field goal percentage on these opportunities. Vucevic posted just 0.88 points per possession on those same plays last year.

As the roll man in pick and rolls — this will include dives to the basket and not just his jump shooting – Vucevic posts 1.13 points per possession on a 57.7-percent effective field goal percentage. This mark is slightly above the league average.

Last year, he was at virtually the same marks.

This captures only part of his shooting potential. Defenses have to respect him from the outside. This will be important to get shot-blockers out of the paint to have to guard Vucevic. It spreads the floor and opens up other options.

Vucevic will also have to be able to get into position and finish around the rim.

He was having trouble earlier in the year getting into a rhythm there. But as the season has progressed, he has been able to be more effective around the basket, and he must be a versatile scorer for the Magic.

The Magic have tried to use Vucevic in pick and rolls like this. It is one area where he is above-average offensively. They have used him less in post-ups.

On post-up plays this year, according to NBA.com’s tracking stats, Vucevic is posting 0.80 points per possession on 41.1 percent shooting. That puts him in the 23rd percentile in the league.

The Magic have not been able to rely on Vucevic in the post this year. And they have gone away from that — only 20.1 percent of plays involve a Vucevic post-up.

Last year, Vucevic posted 0.93 points per possession on 49.4 percent shooting, with a 26.9-percent frequency. That put him at the league average.

There is no denying Vucevic has dropped off. But it is also clear the Magic can use him more effectively and he can deliver.

They will need that Vucevic more and more now that the season has entered this strange, final phase.

Vucevic taking attention

If Nikola Vucevic can be a multi-dimensional scorer, then the Orlando Magic will be able to have different looks. This also helps Vucevic as a passer.

He is one of the best passing big men in the league. His 3.7 assists per game — in line with last year’s career-high 3.8 per game — are sixth among players NBA.com’s list at center.

For a center, he has been an underrated playmaker for this team.

He can pass out of the block and from the high post. This is another reason so much of the offense runs through Vucevic’s hands — he leads the team with 68.5 touches per game according to Second Spectrum.

He has gotten better at passing before a double team can stop the possession and reading where players will cut and what the defense is giving him. When Vucevic is playing well as a passer, that is when Vucevic is playing at his best.

Playoff redemption

With all of that being said, Nikola Vucevic had an All-Star season last year, but he still struggled in the playoffs. That left such an empty feeling for him and his team.

While the Magic and Vucevic have struggled throughout the 2020 season, it has all been building toward the postseason and that chance for redemption in a way.

For Vucevic to be successful this year, he has to be ready for the toughness of the playoffs. He has to be the leader the Magic need if they are going to achieve their goals and play a competitive series and perhaps be the shock of this resumed season.

He was not able to get into position or rhythm last year. And that broke down the Magic’s offense.

But this season the Magic are going to be more dangerous offensively, so that should give Vucevic more room to operate.

There is optimism Vucevic will have a better playoff run than last year — whether that is his improved standing and experience or the potential matchup with the Boston Celtics or a skinnier Marc Gasol.

The Magic need Vucevic to be the player he was going into the stoppage in play once the season resumes or the Magic are going to once again struggle in the playoffs.