2021 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: Nikola Vucevic searches for his next level

Nikola Vucevic became the catalyst for the Orlando Magic, dominating the Milwaukee Bucks and leading the team to a surprising Game 1 win. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images)
Nikola Vucevic became the catalyst for the Orlando Magic, dominating the Milwaukee Bucks and leading the team to a surprising Game 1 win. (Photo by Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images) /

Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic had a breakout playoff performance. That proved he has another level in his game. One the Magic will need in 2021.

Nikola Vucevic needed the playoffs as much as anyone else.

The Orlando Magic center had his first All-Star appearance in 2019 and led the team to its first playoff berth in seven years. He was the catalyst for all of it.

But then the playoffs hit. His averages dropped dramatically and he could not find the consistency necessary to help his team. The Magic won one game despite his struggles. But they were ultimately doomed against a very good Toronto Raptors team.

Only one other game in that playoff series was truly competitive. The series ended up never being doubt.

The same could be said of the Orlando Magic’s series with the Milwaukee Bucks.

The team, depleted by injury, surprisingly stole Game 1. But then simply did not have the talent or the horses to compete in any other game — the average margin of defeat for the Magic in their four losses was 14.5 points per game with really only Game 5 particularly close entering the fourth quarter.

The Magic have to figure out how to reach their next level as a team. That was made abundantly clear throughout the 2020 season.

And so too was the recovered play of the Magic’s best player. Nikola Vucevic reached a new level in the postseason. He made up for his poor 2019 performance, carrying the Magic through much of the seeding round and then the playoffs themselves.

Vucevic’s 28.0 points per game, 11.0 rebounds per game and 4.0 assists per game will go down as one of the best individual playoff series performances in Magic history. The Magic did not lose because of their center.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But the playoff series proved Vucevic has another level he can reach too. He put in the work for this moment — and certainly took advantage of the one area the Bucks defense is weak at to.

And so the question for Vucevic is whether he has another level to reach. Whether his playoff performance was a favorable matchup or a preview of what could be next — even at 30 years old.

"“I think there are always ways to get better,” Vucevic said during a media teleconference last week. “I think that experience has a huge part in it. I felt like when I was 25/26, I was in my prime. Now that I look back, I feel like I am a much more complete and better player than I was then. Experience helps a lot. . . . I just work on my game and try to add things. Try to work within what offense we are going to run and work on those things daily so I can get comfortable when we get playing.”"

A long 2020 season

Nikola Vucevic credited his improved playoff performance on his preparation for the series. Having been through the playoff series with the Toronto Raptors, he had a better understanding of what it meant to be the leading scorer on a playoff team and the attention that brings with it.

He said he struggled to adjust to it. And the struggles — 11.2 points per game on a 38.8-percent effective field goal percentage — motivated him throughout the season. Vucevic had a lot to prove when he got back to the playoffs.

But it was a long journey to get there.

Vucevic got off to a slow start and then an ankle injury in November slowed him down. It took him a long time to get back to an All-Star level. He did not make the team again, but he still put up numbers that were only a slight step below that strong 2019 season.

Vucevic averaged 19.6 points per game, 10.9 rebounds per game and 3.6 assists per game in 2020. He shot just 47.7 percent from the floor, but with 3-pointers his effective field goal percentage was 52.5-percent.

Certainly part of Vucevic’s issues last year was how his 3-point shooting became a bigger part of his game. He took a career-high 4.7 3-point attempts per game. He averaged only 2.9 per game in 2019.

But after Jan. 1 through the end of the regular season (including the seeding round in the bubble), Vucevic averaged 20.4 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He shot 48.7-percent from the floor and 33.7 percent from beyond the arc on 4.9 attempts per game.

Vucevic became a much more effective volume scorer and seemed to have his jumper back on track after taking his time to get his legs back following the 13-game absence he had in November and December.

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    Doing it again

    He probably will not get confused for a perennial All-Star. He is still a player with severe limitations. But Nikola Vucevic can still play and do more than enough to make an impact in the NBA. He remains one of the best passing big men in the league.

    And the question will remain whether Vucevic can do it all again. He certainly headed into the offseason with some momentum.

    "“I feel like I delivered last year and played at a very high level,” Vucevic said last week. “That kept me more motivated heading into this season. It boosted my confidence to a high level and I feel really confident heading into the season about my game and what I can do. I just want to build on that. I think every experience good or bad you learn from it and it’s on you to bounce back. Obviously, I was disappointed, but I was glad to bounce back. it’s on me to take another step forward.”"

    With the Eastern Conference improving, the Orlando Magic will need the best from Vucevic. He is still central to how the offense operates and what it can do.

    There is a sense Vucevic has reached his peak. At 30 years old, that might be a safe assumption. Vucevic relies more on skill and positioning rather than athleticism, so his game should age effectively. Especially if he becomes a greater weapon beyond the 3-point line.

    Most of those 3-pointers he took last year were wide open. Defenses want Vucevic shooting from beyond the arc. If he wants to remain a strong player, 3-point shot selection and improvement will be key.

    Vucevic can certainly match his All-Star levels of the last two years, if not continue to evolve.

    Exiting the playoff series, coach Steve Clifford said Nikola Vucevic now knows he can play at that high level. The task that great players learn from their playoff exploits is how to make their postseason play their new normal — and find an even higher level for the playoffs the next time.

    This is the challenge presented to Vucevic this coming season. And whether he can hit those marks might well determine whether Orlando remains a playoff team.

    "“We expect the best from Vooch,” Evan Fournier said in a media teleconference Monday. “He’s our focal point offensively. He gets a lot of touches. If we are going to have success, we need him to play at his best.”"

    The burden of the star is they have to play their best every game. There are no days off and a team’s entire attention is on you.

    Vucevic is still feeling that pressure and still learning how to overcome it. He has largely handled that pressure well.

    This year, the question will be more about what his next steps are. The true stars keep getting better and adding to their games.

    Next. Chuma Okeke aims for healthy season. dark

    Vucevic showed in last year’s playoffs he can still do that.