Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic isn’t flash, but he’s an All-Star

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 can snatch bodies on occasion. Just ask Draymond Green during Friday’s win over the Golden State Warriors.

He caught the ball there on the perimeter in secondary transition, gave a quick up-fake and went toward the rim. He reared back his right hand threw down a powerful slam over two defenders.

That is about as much of a highlight as Nikola Vucevic will provide — good luck finding it on Top Shot.

The rest of Vucevic’s game? It goes against the All-Star grain.

It is all solid screens and pops to the 3-point line, post-ups and footwork, positioning and contests. It is not meant for the age of YouTube. To appreciate Vucevic’s game beyond his gaudy numbers takes watching him and seeing all the little things he does.

His whole demeanor is not even one of an All-Star. He projects quiet confidence, usually staying pretty stoic on the court. His coach has even said on several occasions that they do not play through their big man enough. He continually lamented that the Orlando Magic did not play through Vucevic enough.

That is no more. The Magic have fully embraced Vucevic and he has rewarded them over and over again, with the same consistency and drive that had made him a stalwart for the Magic both through the dark times and the first trips to the playoffs the last two years.

As Clifford always says, the goal is to get better and better each day. Vucevic embodies that.

Nikola Vucevic may not be the flashiest player in the league. But the Orlando Magic center has continued to put his work in and improve, helping him earn a second trip to the All-Star Game.

For the second time in three years, Vucevic is an All-Star as he continues to elevate his game and quietly — always quietly — help redefine what centers should do.

Vucevic is averaging a career-best 24.1 points per game, 11.7 rebounds per game and 3.6 assists per game. He is shooting 48.1-percent from the floor and 40.5-percent from beyond the arc, taking more 3-pointers than he has ever done in his career — more than six per game.

It is that transformation that has elevated Vucevic’s game as much as anything. Vucevic has been given a green light to shoot from three. He has hit with efficiency and has proven extremely effective in spreading the floor.

Whether as a trailer or on pick-and-pops, Vucevic has been consistently one of the best shooting big men in the league. He in fact still leads the league in field goal percentage from the top of the key among volume shooters.

It is not anything crazy though. In a world of glitz, Vucevic does just his work to get open shots and find pockets in the defense.

There is still a lot of that old way for Clifford where the team does not run a lot of plays for him. He just naturally find holes in the defense.

But that has proven effective.

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  • Vucevic has recorded seven games of 30 points or more, including career-high making games with 42 points against the Sacramento Kings and 43 points against the Chicago Bulls, both games the Magic absolutely needed to keep the season alive as they dealt with more games lost to injury than any team in the league.

    He recorded a 30-point triple-double in that win over the Warriors, becoming the first player in Magic history to achieve that feat.

    It is a minor miracle the Magic can even think about making the playoffs as things stand with all the games lost. At one point, Vucevic was the only projected preseason starter who was still playing.

    But he kept putting in his work and set the tone for the Magic, doing all he could to keep the team afloat and in the game until they could get healthy. Again, it was never about flash, but just doing his work.

    That has always been Vucevic’s game from the moment the team acquired him. Nobody ever saw him becoming an All-Star. He was not even the “big” player the Magic acquired in that trade that finally sent Dwight Howard out of town.

    He was an immediate double-double machine. But everyone always focused on his limitations. He was not a shot-blocker or a highlight maker. He was simply a strong screener who could spread the floor enough and attack the glass on both ends.

    Vucevic did not have the All-Star breakthrough until it seemed like the Magic were ready to move on and turn the page. Clifford got the most out of him, understanding his ability to help others get free and work in the gaps of the defense.

    He finally had the confidence and seemingly the power to make the most of his abilities. His 2019 season was really a lesson in consistency. The Magic could seemingly rely on him for 20 points and 10 rebounds every night. It has largely been that way since then.

    But this year has been different. Undoubtedly this year has been different.

    Vucevic struggled in that first playoff trip in 2019 with the physicality the Toronto Raptors threw at him. The doubts about his place in the league seemed to grow again. But he took those lessons and got better.

    His 2020 Playoffs were a revelation where he carried an injured Magic team to a five-game series and seemingly showed the world how to take down the Milwaukee Bucks. The confidence he played with in the bubble and in those playoffs clearly carried over to this season.

    And Vucevic has taken those lessons and run with them. That is Vucevic — always improving and always grinding, often doing the unseen work that helps teams compete.

    That is the kind of thing coaches often respect. They were ultimately the group that put Vucevic in the game.

    Vucevic scored only four points in his first All-Star appearance. It seemed like he was soaking in the whole experience.

    But the one thing Vucevic has always done in Orlando is to take experiences and learn from them and improve. He has consistently gotten better and evolved his game.

    Finally empowered to be the team’s best player, he has flourished. He has put together the best season of his career. It is something that a lot of people may not notice. It is done in a way that many may not notice.

    This is not your typical All-Star then. There will certainly be those scoffing at Vucevic’s inclusion.

    But Vucevic is undoubtedly putting up a season for the record books. He has been one of the best centers in the league this year and continues to expand and grow his game. Vucevic is quickly becoming the kind of player who controls the tempo of games and can make the big plays to seal it.

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    Vucevic’s game has never been about flash. He has been on a team for nearly a decade that has been the opposite of flash.