2020 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Nikola Vucevic’s game continues to evolve

Nikola Vucevic's game continued to evolve as he built off an All-Star appearance in 2019. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic's game continued to evolve as he built off an All-Star appearance in 2019. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

Orlando Magic star center Nikola Vucevic added more perimeter shooting to his already impressive offensive skillset this season, setting himself up to stay relevant in the ever-evolving modern game.

From the second the Orlando Magic stepped foot inside the NBA’s campus, Nikola Vucevic was on a mission.

This mission, dating all the way back to October 2019, was focused on two things: building upon his All-Star campaign from the previous year and, this time, proving he has what it takes to perform on the biggest stage.

The 2019 regular season was an impressive one for Nikola Vucevic. He averaged 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists on his way to an All-Star selection — the first selection for the franchise since 2012.

All was trending upward until a run-in with the eventual champs in the first round. Vucevic struggled mightily versus the Toronto Raptors and the team lost the series in five games. Vucevic averaged only 11.2 points per game on a 38.8-percent effective field goal percentage.

Vucevic wanted to prove himself in the playoffs again. He had to wait to get there.

Although the team results in the now finished 2020 season are much of the same, a five-game series loss to the higher-seeded Milwaukee Bucks as the 8-seed in the Eastern Conference, the outlook for Vucevic is much more positive moving forward.

The star center showed drastic improvement on the big stage during the seeding games in the bubble and put together a great five-game stretch versus the Bucks.

If it were not for a lack of consistency in the supporting cast, Vucevic may have even been able to stretch the series to six or seven games.

Vucevic is the most consistent thing the Magic have going for them. Although underappreciated by fans and the national media, Vucevic is a great player and a franchise centerpiece. It would serve the team best to continue to build around their star big man.

And 2020 proved his 2019 efforts were not a fluke. He was capable to matching and continuing to play at that high All-Star level.

The statistical story

In his eighth year with the team, Orlando Magic fans are no stranger to Nikola Vucevic’s offensive output.

Per Game Table

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Generated 9/27/2020.

Playoffs Per Game Table

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Generated 9/27/2020.

Despite early-season injuries, Vucevic still put up an impressive stat line in 62 regular-season games. He averaged 19.6 points per game, 10.9 rebounds per game and 3.6 assists per game, with a 52.5-percent effective field goal percentage.

The numbers are down just a little bit compared to his all-star season of 2019, but anyone who watched this team on a nightly basis knows that Vucevic’s play did not drop off at all.

In fact, from the All-Star break until the season’s postponement in March, he was averaging 21.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists.

Some specific stats also point to Vucevic’s offensive role evolving during this season. During the regular season, he attempted almost two more three-pointers per game on 34-percent shooting.

He could still use some improvement from deep and he sometimes defaults to his 3-point shooting and mid-range game rather than rolling to the paint — he popped on 54-percent of his pick and rolls, according to Basketball Index. But Vucevic is still one of the better 3-point shooting big men in the league.

This increased even more during playoffs, as he attempted 8.8 threes per game, making 3.6 of them. You will hard-pressed to find many centers that will shoot 40-percent from three.

The way Vucevic is getting his shot attempts has also changed. During the series with the Bucks, 61.3-percent of his attempts were “catch and shoot.” Only 28.8-percent of his attempts came within 10 feet. That is at least a product of the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense, which deters any foray into the paint.

This means that Vucevic was living in the mid-range, mainly off pick-and-pop action with Markelle Fultz or D.J. Augustin.

Some may say this points to a flaw in the Milwaukee Bucks defense, as they elect to give up open jumpers instead of paint touches. I would say it goes to show that Vucevic is more comfortable stepping outside to create offense.

This is still an area Vucevic has to improve. He is not good at getting all the way to the rim. And while he was effective around the basket, he still could be better making shots at the rim, especially for a big man. His 59.2-percent shooting on paint touches according to Second Spectrum is the best on the Magic but not the best among centers — Nikola Jokic, for instance, shot 71.7-percent on such shots.

Vucevic remained effective as a volume scorer, finding holes in the defense and reading opponents in the pick and roll. But he is by no means elite at them even with his breakthrough playoff appearance.

Related Story. 2020 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: Nikola Vucevic. light

An improved skillset

Nikola Vucevic’s game is evolving in the best way for the Orlando Magic. Despite not being elite at anything, his skills are varied enough to make him a unique weapon in the NBA.

It was never more evident that Vucevic possessed an improved offensive skillset than in Game 1 versus the Milwuakee Bucks.

In what was the team’s best win of the season, Vucevic poured in 35 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 assists.

As showcased in this game, Vucevic operates best operating as the fulcrum of the offensive action.

This can include involving him in a high pick-and-roll, posting him up in the mid-post or even giving him the ball at the top of the key as a passer.

Vucevic is now a mismatch on offense versus almost every center in the league, as many are hesitant to defend in the midrange and behind the three-point line.

Many teams have taken advantage of this with their versatile big men — as the Denver Nuggets have with Nikola Jokic and the Miami Heat with Bam Adebayo, although Nikola Vucevic has not operated with the same level of ruthless efficiency as those two players.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But Vucevic has a place among them. He has long been one of the best passing big men in the league — although not at the level as some of the very best. He creates 11.0 assist points per 75 possessions, according to Basketball Index, placing him in the 76th percentile in the entire league. That adjusts up based on his role and position for the Magic. Few big men are as good at passing and creating assists as Vucevic.

This might be a point the Magic try to exploit more as they grow and develop with him.

Now that Vucevic can score consistently on all three levels, the Magic should look to surround him with more shooters and top quality wing players.

It is widely accepted that the place where Vucevic needs the most work is on the defensive side of the ball, however, this may not always be the case.

In the past, Vucevic has struggled on defense, putting himself in no man’s land and struggling to protect the rim.

This season the Magic continued to craft a defensive strategy to complement Vucevic’s best traits: his footwork and his basketball IQ. It helps when you have defensive genius like coach Steve Clifford at the helm and when healthy, Jonathan Isaac helps cover up many of his faults.

This season, opponents shot 2.8-percentage points worse at the rim against the expected value with Vucevic defending them. His block rate is still incredibly low. He is not about to make plays defensively, but Vucevic has become skilled at sitting back in the team’s drop coverage and protect the lane or defend shots before they get to the rim.

Every defensive metric — such as Defensive RAPTOR and Defensive Real Plus-Minus — all rate Vucevic favorably, going against the narrative that he is a poor defender.

Vucevic may not be able to make plays defensively that hit the highlight reel, but the team values his positioning as a critical part of the team’s defense.

What Vucevic brings to the floor on offense is most important, as the Magic already showed they can be one of the best defensive teams in the league. Pairing an uptempo, modern offense with their already stout defense is the number one goal going into next season.

Place in the NBA

Arguing Nikola Vucevic’s standing in the NBA became one of the more intriguing conversations during the NBA’s restart.

It is safe to say Vucevic is underrated by everyone, including even Orlando Magic fans.

A variety of factors contribute to this. Vucevic has an unassuming personality, the Magic are a small market team, and he is not flashy.

A lot of his shots are simple pick and pops and he rarely has gigantic scoring games. Vucevic’s value is measured in his consistency and how he makes the right reads against the defense.

There is nothing complex about his best plays. He simply sets a strong screen — his 5.8 screen assists per 75 possessions ranks him in the 94th percentile in the league, according to Basketball Index — and goes to the open space.

Vucevic is a safety valve in a lot of ways.

In a league where GM’s are hesitant to throw big money at centers, Vucevic is one of the exceptions. And while certainly, he did not live up to the All-Star billing from last year for the entire season, he was still a stabilizing force and vital piece to the Magic.

Although he may not be as prolific on offense as Denver’s Nikola Jokic or as stout on defense as Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Nikola Vucevic is cut from the same cloth.

His one of the best passing big men in the league, he now possesses a consistent three-point shot, and he has even shown the ability to put the ball on the floor on offense.

You will not find many big men that have a more complete offensive game.

Moving forward

. C. Orlando Magic. NIKOLA VUCEVIC. B+

Without a question, Nikola Vucevic had solid season for this team. One that confirmed his All-Star status from the year before, although not quite rising to the same level.

He had an outstanding regular season and played the best basketball of his career during the NBA’s restart in the bubble. Vucevic showed he can be consistent and that he still has the hunger to improve different aspects of his game.

Now entering his 10th season in the league, these next couple years will be extremely important for Vucevic’s career. At 29 years old, he is now entering his prime. If he can find a way to have an even better season than he did the last couple of years, the Magic should be ecstatic.

Moving forward, there has been talk about if the Magic should build around Vucevic or trade him. Certainly that is something that has to be on the table because his defense still limits what the Magic can do. And despite his career seasons, he has been unalbe to lead the Magic to more than playoff scraps.

But for this team, he is not worth trading for anyone other than a star, which the Magic would likely not be able to get in return. Not at this point, at least. And not with the team still waiting on Mohamed Bamba to develop behind him.

Being a small-market franchise, Magic fans need to be thankful for what they have in Vucevic. In a league obsessed with potential, Vucevic is a sure thing right now.

Next. Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: Michael Carter-Williams finds his home. dark

Nikola Vucevic is the best player the Magic have had in almost a decade. Do not take him for granted. And for now, he provides the stability a young playoff team needs to succeed.