Nikola Vucevic still searching for his place among Orlando Magic’s greats

Nikola Vucevic made Orlando Magic history by becoming the franchise leader in field goals made. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Nikola Vucevic made Orlando Magic history by becoming the franchise leader in field goals made. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports /

Nikola Vucevic set the Orlando Magic franchise mark for most field goals made in a Magic career. His place in team history is still not certain though.

Nikola Vucevic made Orlando Magic history on a play he has made a hundred times before early in the first quarter.

He lined up to set a screen for Markelle Fultz and popped out to the midpoint between the paint and the 3-point line on the left wing. Markelle Fultz drew two defenders to him and fed it back to Nikola Vucevic for the easy jumper.

A nondescript play for a player who has largely been a safety valve on those plays for nearly a decade in a Magic uniform.

Except this one was different. This shot was Nikola Vucevic’s 4,075th field goal with the Magic, tying him with Nick Anderson for the most in Magic history.

Nearly five minutes of game action later, Vucevic would set the mark, hitting a 3-pointer while trailing a fastbreak Fultz was leading. Again, another nondescript play for a player who has largely been nondescript throughout his career.

Eight seasons with any single team will have that effect of allowing a player to climb up its all-time rankings. Vucevic’s name is everywhere now on the Magic’s all-time record books. It is impossible not to consider him among the greatest the franchise has ever seen.

An honor that certainly humbles the now eight-year Magic veteran.

"“It’s very humbling for me,” Vucevic said after Tuesday’s 118-107 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. “All the great players who have played for the Magic, for me to be the all time leader in field goals made, especially with all the great scorers who have played here, it’s a huge honor and a big movitation for me to keep working. It’s a very proud moment for me and I’m very happy to do it and happy to achieve that in a win. Hopefully, I can continue to build on that.”"

Much of Vucevic’s greatest moments have come while the team was at its lowest point. Nikola Vucevic’s tenure after he was acquired in the trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers has coincided with the team’s longest rebuild.

Vucevic was putting up torrid numbers, averaging a double-double in nearly every season of his career. He supplanted both Dwight Howard and Shaquille O’Neal with the greatest single rebounding game in Magic history. But that came in an overtime loss to the Miami Heat.

So many of Vucevic’s best moments came in losses as the team struggled to figure out what it wanted to be and shuffled coaches in and out. Vucevic remains, becoming a representation of that period to many.

Vucevic never seemed to be a fit for the modern NBA. When in some ways he always was, even if he struggled to find his footing defensively.

Letting his play talk

Nikola Vucevic’s play did all the talking Tuesday, delivering the Orlandoo Magic something that has largely been missing from his historic resume — a historic win.

"“He’s such a professional and such a committed, conscientious player,” coach Steve Clifford said after Tuesday’s game. “The way he works and the amount of time he puts in, two years ago he was an All-Star and last year he was our best player. He’s in a great place right now and he’s ready to have a terrific year.”"

He scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to go with five assists. He feasted on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s undersized front line. And when the offense was not working they turned to Vucevic in the post every time to create a play. He was able to post up and get easy baskets or draw the double team and kick out to shooters on the perimeter.

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  • The Magic are now 4-0 for the first time in franchise history, giving Vucevic something singular he can claim as an achievement for the team.

    Of course, that is still small potatoes compared to what his predecessors at center in the Magic’s pantheon have done. Vucevic is not approaching the levels of importance to this franchise that O’Neal and Howard did. He still has not won a playoff series.

    He is not considered among the Mt. Rushmore of Magic players. Nor is he universally beloved as the man he passed up in Nick Anderson — a player whose accomplishments are increasingly receding into the background of history which should raise the calls to retire his jersey.

    Vucevic has hit these marks because he has been consistent for a long time. His placement in these lists is as much about longevity as anything else.

    As Clifford often says, playoff performance is the ultimate judge for every player. This league is about winning in the postseason. That is something Vucevic is still trying to do.

    He took the lessons from his first playoff appearance with the Magic — something he had to wait six years for and was a major accomplishment that included his first trip to the All-Star Game — and turned it into a starring turn in the 2020 postseason. He averaged 28.0 points per game and 11.0 rebounds per game in that five-game series.

    The lessons from the 2020 Playoffs were on full display in Tuesday’s win as he expertly passed out of the double teams the Thunder sent his way.  The Magic ran more plays for Vucevic than they typically do to try to take advantage of Oklahoma City’s lack of size. And Vucevic took advantage of the added attention.

    "“I think it’s very hard to guard him,” Markelle Fultz said after Tuesday’s win. “A big who can play in the post and also space the floor and make mid-ranges and 3-pointers. I always try to draw two and see where he is at and get him open shots. Tonight I think he didn’t only do it scoring. He passed the ball and rebounded. That’s why he’s an All-Star. I’m just fortunate to have him on my team.”"

    Vucevic might be back to playing at that All-Star level again, just as he was at the end of last season. Through four games, Vucevic is averaging 20.0 points per game, 11.5 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists per game while shooting a 55.6-percent effective field goal percentage.

    The Magic have tried to use him to modernize their offense, working him outside the paint more often where he can be a passer to cutters from the high post or as a 3-point threat.

    Tuesday was the outlier game with the team running him in the post. Mostly Vucevic fits into the gaps as a screener and roller, someone whom teammates can release to when they draw pressure from the defense.

    Seeking history

    The Orlando Magic certainly feel like they are cooking something special now with their 4-0 record. Their confidence is riding high even with the understanding they have a lot to improve upon.

    There will be more tests ahead. Ones that the team will ask Nikola Vucevic to help them pass. He will eventually have to become a more aggressive offensive player.

    “In order for us to win, we need him to step up big time because he draws two,” Markelle Fultz said. “I think it’s something that will come to him. I think that him being aggressive is just going to open everything up for everybody else. You can’t complain when a guy is going out there and dominated the way that he is. It would only help us.”


    This is Vucevic’s team and a group that may well define his legacy. Questions about the team’s future still linger ahead.

    Vucevic can still make his mark in Magic history. The playoffs are a far way off. But there is no reason to think this team will not be in the conversation. Their hope is that they are ready to take the step up and be more than just a first-round exit.

    That is ultimately how Vucevic will be remembered and judged as whether he can lift this team to its next level.

    He has put in the time and the work individually to get that chance and be put in that conversation. But it is still far off.

    dark. Next. Orlando Magic still have a lot to prove, work to do

    For now, the team is riding its best players, its confidence and its continuity to win games in the fourth quarter. History will take care of itself.