Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic continues to grow in his stardom

Nikola Vucevic has expanded his offensive game and has become a star before everyone's eyes. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
Nikola Vucevic has expanded his offensive game and has become a star before everyone's eyes. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports /

Nikola Vucevic is putting up some strong numbers to star the season. The Orlando Magic All-Star is developing into a star player before everyone’s eyes.

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All eyes in the NBA world were on the Barclays Center.

James Harden donned the light blue throwback jerseys of the Brooklyn Nets for the first time. Everyone was focused on trying to figure out how this grand experiment would work.

The star player who dominated possessions with his constant dribbling and step-back jumpers was going to try to find his place among two other stars in Kyrie Irving (still out on personal leave) and Kevin Durant.

This new super team had the new toy and all the eyeballs and attention of the world.

Durant and Harden did not disappoint. They combined for 74 points, shooting 24 for 44 from the floor. Harden recorded a triple-double in his debut, joining a select club to log a triple-double in his mid-season debut following a trade.

The Nets remain a potent offensive team. And they showed off what they might look like in extended minutes.

They needed all of them to hold off the Orlando Magic. Surprisingly, the Magic were able to counter them with a star of their own.

No one will put Nikola Vucevic on Kevin Durant and James Harden’s level. Nobody is going to put Vucevic into MVP conversations. His presence alone is not going to tip the scales for the Magic in championship contender. He does not take over games the way Durant and Harden both took over the second half to lift the Nets to a win.

But Nikola Vucevic sure seems close. After a long time waiting, the Magic may finally have a true star if he continues to grow into it and realizes this potential.

Vucevic is the only thing keeping the Magic from falling into the abyss. When the Magic regain some form of health, his game will surely elevate the Magic again. The hope will be that the team will still be in playoff striking distance when that happens.

Vucevic scored 34 points on 14-for-22 shooting in Saturday’s loss to the Nets. He made six of 12 3-pointers.

Then he stuffed the rest of the stat sheet with 10 rebounds, seven assists and five steals. He became the first center in NBA history with 30 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, five steals and five 3-pointers.

That is probably a statement of how the modern role of the center has evolved. The Magic have started to use Vucevic more as a perimeter threat, letting him fire from three and as a passer from the high post. Still, it is something that only stars get to do.

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  • Another Level

    Nikola Vucevic for much of the game was able to go shot-for-shot with both Kevin Durant and James Harden, two more established stars in the NBA conversation. He looked like he belonged.

    That has been the case throughout this season. He is putting up numbers that deserve mention among the best centers in the league.

    Vucevic is averaging a career-best 22.8 points per game with 10.8 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists per game. He is shooting a career-best 42.7-percent shooting from beyond the arc is coming on a career-high 6.3 3-point attempts per game.

    He is fourth among centers in scoring, ninth in rebounding, sixth in assists, third in 3-pointers and eighth in field goal percentage (minimum 10 field goal attempts per game).

    He is not just growing as a 3-point shooter, but he has become a more developed post-up player. Vucevic is posting 0.94 points per possession 4.1 post-ups per game, entering Saturday’s game. Last year, he scored 0.82 points per possession on 3.8 post-ups per game.

    Vucevic is starting to get the respect and attention that a star deserves for sure. That is what happens when you perform as he did Saturday on a national stage or in the playoffs as he did last year. Vucevic gained a ton of confidence from that postseason run and it has carried over into the dynamic start to his 2021 season.

    His impact on the team is clearly that of a star.

    This season, the Magic have a 105.6 offensive rating with Vucevic on the floor (a mark slightly better than the team’s season average). The team has a 101.1 offensive rating with Vucevic off the floor, the worst mark on the team.

    The impact of a star

    The Orlando Magic vitally need Nikola Vucevic to play and play at this high level. He has taken on the responsibilities of a star. And it is just a matter of trusting him to perform at this level, especially in the games biggest moments, and Vucevic getting the respect he deserves.

    "“That’s Vooch, man, Mr. Reliable,” Terrence Ross said after Saturday’s game. “He’s a cornerstone of this franchise. He’s a great leader for our team. He leads by exmaple. Vooch is doing what he has always done. I can’t imagine what life would be like to not have him here. We just need him to keep going.”"

    In a season that has seen so much upheaval and inconsistency, Vucevic has been a steadying rock for the team. That is what a star is supposed to be doing. The Magic have had to lean on him a lot and they probably need to lean on him more.

    Coach Steve Clifford put a lot of faith in Nikola Vucevic to run the offense through him. He rewarded that with his consistent production and effort. Clifford was able to help him unlock more attention to detail defensively.

    That earned Vucevic his first All-Star berth. That was built largely on his consistency with the team struggling on the periphery of the postseason at the time the honor was announced.

    He averaged 20.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game that year — with a 54.9-percent effective field goal percentage. While his rebounding is down this year, his impact has been even greater. He has become a more efficient and ruthless scorer.

    Star Growth

    As the Orlando Magic try to find a way to play offensively, one thing they and Nikola Vucevic need to realize is they have someone who can create his own shot. They have an easy outlet to get a quality shot attempt.

    Jeff Turner on the Magic’s broadcast on FOX Sports Florida has laid out the problem pretty clearly for Nikola Vucevic. With so many players out, Vucevic probably needs to be a bit more selfish and look for his own shots and opportunities to create.

    The defenses are already keying on him and he can leverage that to get others open or he needs to simply score more to help the team stay afloat. And he has already shown he can absorb some pressure and make a play — even off the dribble where he has gotten better driving past closing-out centers.

    This is part of the growth a star goes through. They have to understand when they need to play in the flow and keep others involved and when it is their time to make things happen.

    Vucevic did not have a shot attempt from the three-minute mark of the fourth quarter until there was just one minute left in the game. Those two minutes were the difference in the game.

    As Durant was putting the nail in the coffin for the Magic, Vucevic was not nearly as involved offensively. The offense predictably cratered.

    That is a moment when the stars have to take over and finish the game.

    This is the next evolution for Vucevic.

    The Magic have looked for their star player for a long time. Someone they can truly build their roster around.

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    They may have had him all along. Only now is he figuring out exactly what he can do.