It is official.
The Orlando Magic have developed a player who has become a key cog to an NBA championship. And while Nikola Vucevic may not be a good first option on a championship-level contender, the veteran center has proven he could be a third or maybe a second option for a contender.
Nikola Vucevic is having a career year averaging 24.5 points per game along with 11.7 rebounds per game for a team that has made consecutive Eastern Conference playoff appearances. If not for the team’s injuries, Vucevic might well be leading the Magic to their first series with homecourt advantage since 2011.
The center has now become the second-best center in the Eastern Conference behind Philadelphia 76ers’ star Joel Embiid. He is the only center besides Embiid to make the Eastern Conference All-Star team. This is a huge feat for Vucevic.
Nikola Vucevic has grown into one of the best centers in the league and has established himself as the Orlando Magic’s star player.
Vucevic has worked his way to become one of the best centers in the NBA. In 2016, he was not even in the conversation of being one of the best centers in basketball, let alone an All-Star. Now he is in the top-5 center conversation along with Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic.
The road was not easy for Vucevic to earn this level of respect from his peers and members of the media.
For a while, there was a narrative of Vucevic that he could not lead the Magic to the Playoffs or he cannot defend but is a decent offensive player merely putting up good stats on a losing team.
But now the narrative has changed into Vucevic becoming one of the most dynamic centers in the league. He has all the tools from an offensive perspective and has developed into a decent defender.
It was different five years ago.
In 2016, Vucevic averaged 14.6 points per game for a measly Magic team that could not win 40 games if their lives depended on it. They could barely win 30.
Now in 2021, he is averaging 24.5 points per game and attempting to lead an injury-depleted team to its third consecutive Playoff appearance.
That scoring increase is the “jump” from a good or decent player to a “star” of a franchise. And not once did Vucevic complain about the lack of perennial All-Star talent that he was surrounded by and demand that certain top-10 players be on the roster before he signed long-term with the franchise. Vucevic just put his head down and went to work.
Pippen Ain't Easy
Among the league, Vucevic has looked like one of the best scoring centers in the NBA since the 2019 season. That year he averaged more than 20 points per game and was ranked near the top of the hill when it came to scoring centers.
He has improved his game since then to become only the franchise’s third center to make consecutive All-Star appearances behind Dwight Howard and Hall-Of-Famer and four-time NBA Champion Shaquille O’Neal.
The only thing he needs now to rival those centers is an All-Star second option on the wing that can get him the ball and score consistently, the exact thing Markelle Fultz did before his season-ending ACL injury.
Vucevic has played well this year against some of the best defenses in the NBA. On Feb. 27, he tallied 34 points and eight rebounds against the Utah Jazz. They are second overall in defensive efficiency and have one of the best defensive centers in Rudy Gobert. Vucevic beat him inside and out in trying to keep the Magic in the game.
Although the Magic lost that game, Vucevic held his own and was confident he could score on Gobert at his discretion. He has all of the offensive skills and is looking as confident as ever against top-tier defensive talent.
Now that he has put himself in a position where he has made consecutive All-Star appearances, he has earned everything his career can afford him.
The question now is what place does he have in the Magic’s future and how can the Magic build to get the most of him while he is still in his prime.