The Orlando Magic are encouraging Nikola Vucevic to shoot more and more 3-pointers as they try to change and shift their offense around.
On the Orlando Magic’s opening possession of their preseason finale against the Charlotte Hornets, the team went to its bread and butter play.
Markelle Fultz called Nikola Vucevic over for a screen and roll as other players spread the floor to open the middle of the court. Markelle Fultz rejected the screen from Nikola Vucevic and drove to his right, sucking in Cody Zeller, dropping into the paint. Vucevic read the drop and popped out to the 3-point line, draining his first 3-pointer of the game.
A few minutes later in the first quarter, the Magic were in a secondary transition set. Dwayne Bacon was driving into the heart of the defense as the Hornets reset themselves. He got turned away and dished out to Markelle Fultz on the wing. He fired it quickly to Vucevic who had stopped at the top of the key.
That was three number two.
A minute later, he hit another three as the trailer in transition. He had three of his four 3-pointers in the first quarter of Saturday’s game. For the preseason, he made 34.6-percent of his 3-pointers on 6.5 attempts per game.
Vucevic was hunting for 3-pointers and willing to shoot them. His teammates were searching for ways to spring him free.
And the Magic want more when his minutes ramp up to their normal levels.
"“There’s no secret really, the work he is putting in every day,” Evan Fournier said after practice Friday. “He is becoming a good shooter, but he still has a margin for progress. He can still get a lot better form 3. It’s actually very positive because he is getting good looks and we want him shooting those shots. It’s impressive, but he can actually get better.”"
Last year, Vucevic took a career-high 4.7 3-pointers per game, making 33.9-percent of them. That is hardly a super-efficient number. But for a big man, it was a strong showing.
Open for threee
Among the centers who took at least 4.0 3-pointers per game, Nikola Vucevic took the third-most 3-point attempts per game but finished with the ninth-highest 3-point field goal percentage. Vucevic is still developing as a 3-point shooter, really only adding it to his game two years ago.
The concerning part is that Vucevic largely takes open 3-pointers when he gets them. According to statistics from Basketball-Index, Vucevic was in the 99th percentile in openness rating, a measure of how open a player’s 3-point attempts are compared to the league average.
He does not get the same attention as other big men in the league like Al Horford, who ranked in the 60th percentile in openness or Kristaps Porzingis, who took a lot of contested 3-pointers ranking in the 30th percentile in openness. Nikola Vucevic was treated more like big men such as Myles Turner — who ranked in the 81st percentile in openness. And defenses were more than happy to let Turner try to beat them from beyond the arc.
Teams largely left Vucevic open at the 3-point line last year.
Indeed, according to NBA.com’s measure of openness, Vucevic took 242 of his 289 3-point field goal attempts with the closest defender at least six feet away. That is a whopping 83.7-percent of his attempts. Certainly, with that many open threes, the Orlando Magic should expect his percentage to creep up.
And with Vucevic still making only about one in every three 3-pointers — his effective field goal percentage on 3-point attempts alone in the regular season last year was 50.9-percent — teams were willing to bet he would not make enough to beat them, choosing then to collapse the paint.
A lot of that changed in the playoffs. And Vucevic started pouring in bigger numbers because he started hitting 3-pointers more efficiently. Against the Milwaukee Bucks in that playoff series, Vucevic hit 18 of 44 3-pointers (40.9-percent) with 33 of those attempts with the closest defender six or more feet away. And yes, 44 3-point attempts across five games averages to 8.8 per game.
Vucevic took more threes in the Playoffs. More importantly, he made more threes while still being left largely open. The Magic seem to be betting that they can make defenses change the way they play them by having Vucevic hover on the outside more.
"“That series, even though it was just five games, did more for me than the past 2-3 seasons did when I started shooting threes,” Vucevic said after Saturday’s win over the Hornets. “I feel very comfortable now. It is a natural shot for me. My teammates have become more comfortable with me shooting that and they know where to find me. There will be a lot of opportunities for me to shoot those and it’s going to open up the floor for us. Whenever I have a good look, I’m going to stay aggressive.”"
It is easy to see how a strategy of running a pick and roll and having Vucevic pop out to the 3-point line might be fairly effective. The Magic have solid pick and roll guards who can get into the paint and kick out.
The shot is there and it is an open shot. He should take it.
An effective strategy
Whether this works or not will be in his effectiveness and confidence. The results are ultimately all that matters when it comes to this shot.
The Orlando Magic can succeed without Nikola Vucevic hitting from deep, of course. His placement above the key, on the perimeter and in the high post especially can have a ton of positive benefits for the team.
After the All-Star Break and before the league went on hiatus, when the team had the best offensive rating in the league, Vucevic made just 8 of 34 3-pointers (23.5 percent) — 24 of those attempts with the closest defender six or more feet away. Yet, the Magic’s offense still hummed along fine.
Pippen Ain't Easy
Some of that was it forced Aaron Gordon into the paint more by having Nikola Vucevic above the perimeter. But Vucevic also shot fewer 3-pointers in that span than his season average.
While becoming a more efficient 3-point shooter can unlock a new level of offense to his game, the Magic also have to understand that balance is important to getting the most out of him and the team.
Coach Steve Clifford said that is an ongoing discussion. How the Magic use Vucevic might differ from game to game depending on opponent and matchups. But they hope Vucevic will be able to exploit matchups better with an improved 3-point shot.
Vucevic still needs his time in the post. He was fourth in the league last year in post-ups with 8.1 per game, according to NBA.com’s tracking statistics. Among players with at least 5.0 post-ups per game, Vucevic finished eighth in the league with a 48.3-percent field goal percentage and second with 0.9 assists per game out of post-ups.
His 0.82 points per possession on post-ups still leaves a lot to be desired and at least suggests one reason why the team wants to move away from him as a post-up-only option.
If teams have to start guarding Vucevic at the 3-point line more, that opens up driving opportunities for Vucevic — he showed some skill at driving past closing out centers throughout the preseason — and opens up cutting lanes for the Magic’s other players to work inside the paint.
Faith in him
The Orlando Magic ultimately want him shooting more to reap all these benefits. The team has faith in Nikola Vucevic.
"“I think that’s one thing we all want to see him do more,” Markelle Fultz said after Saturday’s game. “He’s a great shooter. It spaces the defense out and gives everyone the opportunity to get into the paint, which I love to do. it’s going to be good for our team to have him be able pick and pop or space the floor and play 5-out sometimes. It’s going to help our team and be hard to guard.”"
Considering how poor the Magic’s offense is, any little advantage they can get to give it a boost is something they should welcome and explore.
Vucevic has shown himself a capable 3-point shooter. Now the question will become whether he can be a big enough threat to warp defenses and demand attention. If that happens, then the Magic will have a clearer way to attack defenses.
This will be one significant shift the Magic will see offensively as they prepare for the upcoming season.