Nikola Vucevic carrying the burden of stardom for Orlando Magic

At a certain point, it has just become incredible what Nikola Vucevic is doing every single night.

After a nearly decade-long career, Nikola Vucevic has taken his game to a new level. Perhaps spurred by the strong playoff performance giving him confidence. Perhaps spurred just by his development and experience that has just taken a while.

Vucevic is playing like one of the very best players in the league so far.

He is averaging a career-high 23.3 points per game with 10.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. He is shooting 50.9-percent from the floor and a career-best 42.6-percent from beyond the arc. His 58.1-percent effective field goal percentage is by far the best of his career.

These are good individual numbers. But they are resonating beyond just Vucevic.

They are among the best in the league. And everyone around the league is starting to notice — both with how they are discussing his statistics and how defenses are starting to treat him.

Nikola Vucevic is on track to earn his second All-Star selection. There is no debating that. But now he is taking on the bigger responsibilities of a star with the attention that comes with it.

Nearing the quarter-mark of the season, Vucevic is fifth in PER (27.5), second in box plus-minus (9.3), second in offensive box plus-minus (8.5), second in win shares (2.3) and second in victories over replacement player (1.4).

Vucevic made history with a 34-point, 10-rebound, seven-assists and five-steal effort against the Brooklyn Nets last week. He became the first center to score 30 points, grab 10 rebounds, dish out five assists, record five steals and make five 3-pointers. That is the potential he has to fill up a box score.

While Vucevic has not hit that mark every night, he has been consistently good every night. That consistency was what drove him to that first All-Star appearance in 2019 and to the team’s first playoff appearance in six years.

The Orlando Magic really only function offensively (relatively) with their starters in. They have a 104.8 offensive rating with Vucevic on the floor compared to 98.2 offensive rating with him off the floor. Only Aaron Gordon’s absence gives the team a worse offensive rating.

Lest you consider Vucevic’s defense as his biggest weakness, statistically he is faring well there too. He has a +0.9 defensive box plus-minus (a mark he has only topped twice in his career) His 0.7 defensive win shares rank him 17th in the league.

There is still plenty of fair criticism of Vucevic’s defense and ability to defend at the highest levels. The team has been at its best defensively this year with Vucevic off the floor statistically.

But clearly, too, most defensive metrics do not pin this difference entirely on Vucevic. In addition to the strong defensive metrics from Basketball-Reference, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR gives Vucevic a positive defensive rating.

Vucevic has been better defensively. But he has never been this good offensively. It has completely transformed how Magic fans are talking about him and his place in the NBA.

Opponents are starting to change how they defend him too. Doubles are coming harder at Vucevic when the team tries to get him the ball in the post. Teams are seemingly doing all they can to keep the ball from swinging to him — although he still gets a healthy diet of 3-pointers from trailing the play.

The Magic run their offense through Vucevic with 70.7 touches per game according to Second Spectrum, the most on the team. He does not touch the ball for long, but he has been instrumental in funneling the ball into the offense.

Vucevic has become a more efficient post-up player — his 1.23 points per possession on post-ups is the 13th-best mark in the league according to NBA.com’s statistics database.

Vucevic is also averaging 2.9 drives per game, shooting 56.0-percent and scoring 2.4 points per game on these plays, according to data from Second Spectrum. Last year, he had only 1.7 drives per game.

His ability to quickly take centers off the dribble to get line drives at the basket or set up deep post position has been the newest addition to his offensive arsenal.

It is all trying to keep defenses off balance. Especially now that teams know how important Vucevic is to the team. He is starting to get the star treatment defensively.

“The thing that’s good for me is I am able to score in different ways,” Vucevic said after Wednesday’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. “That makes it harder for defenses because I can shoot it from three, I can drive and find different places to score.

“I’ve been getting double teamed in the post a long time. Usually, early in the game I get a feel for what they do and try to play off it. Not try to force anything and play off my teammates and make the right play. I feel like [Wednesday] in the second quarter when things weren’t going well, I maybe forced things to get us going when there were possibly better looks for us. My experience in the NBA helps.”

More importantly, Vucevic is largely beating these defenses that know what is coming. He has continued to put up stellar numbers and anchor a team that is still trying to figure itself out.

Going back to some raw numbers then, Vucevic is averaging 24.6 points per game, 10.6 rebounds per game and 3.9 assists per game in the team’s last eight games (since Markelle Fultz’s injury, including the game he got hurt). He is shooting 49.7-percent from the floor and 39.3-percent from three in that time.

Of course, the most important stat during that time is the team’s record — 2-6.

At this point, the only thing that would derail any talk of Vucevic gaining an All-Star selection would be the Magic struggling to keep their head above water in the standings.

And that is going to be the next phase for Vucevic to grow.

The criticism that still persists about Vucevic is that he does a good job putting up numbers and giving the team a stable force to grow from. But he is not a transformative player — a true star player that affects winning in a major way.

Vucevic has done a good job throughout his career filling a box score. And this year has been more impressive than ever. But there is an added pressure now for him as the leader of a team with playoff aspirations.

When the team is stuck offensively, it will need him to carry them and create some offense. He is the one they turn to regain their rhythm and create a good shot somewhere. Especially now that Fultz is out and the team has lost his ability to create a bit of tension and pressure on defenses with his driving ability.

To be sure, like the team itself, Vucevic will be judged not on his numbers or All-Star appearances but on whether the team makes the Playoffs and advances beyond the first round.

That is the burden a star player carries.

At long last, Vucevic is getting regular recognition for his play on a nightly basis. But he still has to do more.

Consistency alone is not enough. It is making everyone else consistent around him and then, on occasion, taking over games and doing what he has to do to win them himself.

Even at 30 years old, Vucevic still has room to grow. And this might be the biggest growth the Magic see this year with all the injuries they have taken this year.

The long trip to find a star might be closer to an end than anyone thought. Vucevic will have to prove that this year with the whole NBA watching and testing him.