2021 Orlando Magic First Half MVP: Nikola Vucevic stands above the rest

Despite the Orlando Magic's poor record, Nikola Vucevic has turned in an All-Star year that puts him well above the rest. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Despite the Orlando Magic's poor record, Nikola Vucevic has turned in an All-Star year that puts him well above the rest. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Nikola Vucevic said he does not necessarily focus on one thing to improve every offseason. His breakthrough of the last three years is not so much a focus on how to evolve his game and get better, but the buildup of years of work to get there.

Nikola Vucevic was already a consistent double-double machine ever since he arrived in Orlando and got playing time. He earned his place on the floor early on with his production as much as anything. He gained staying power because it was just so hard to move a player with his variety of skills, even if some of them were unrealized.

Vucevic was someone who just quietly did his work, did whatever the team asked of him and kept getting incrementally better.

It was not until 2019 and coach Steve Clifford started empowering him with more responsibility offensively that he seemingly broke through that All-Star ceiling after a close call or two.

It helped the Orlando Magic were winning — although that first All-Star berth was awarded when the Magic were at their lowest point before that 2019 push to the postseason.

He largely matched that effort in 2020, but an early-season injury likely kept him from playoff consideration. Still, Vucevic had to break through and stand out in the league.

What he has done this year is nothing short of amazing then. In his 10th year in the league, Vucevic has taken his game to a new level, earning a second All-Star bid despite the Magic’s poor record, and gained a new level of respect.

The injury-ravaged Orlando Magic have had one bright spot. Nikola Vucevic’s continued development has given the team the star it has sought for so long.

For a Magic team ravaged with injury and struggling to stay in contact with the playoff race at the season’s midpoint, Vucevic has stood above everyone else on his team. He has been the one constant in a season of constant upheaval and change — as he seemingly always has been for the last decade, even if nobody cared to notice.

Vucevic is by far the team’s best player so far this year, truly its MVP and best player. The question is only where does he go next?

"“Every time I have achieved a big milestone it was motivation to keep going and have more of them,” Vucevic said before Sunday’s All-Star Game. “When you win and good things happen, you want it to keep happening. When I made the first All-Star it was extra motivation to continue. All those things add up to I got to this level and I want to keep going higher. For me and the team as well. We got to the playoffs last year and we want to continue that.”"

A transcendent year

What Nikola Vucevic has been able to do this year so far is nothing short of elevating.

He is averaging a career-best 24.6 points per game while still adding the always-reliable 11.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. He is shooting a 54.8-percent effective field goal percentage, just one-tenth of a point off his career-high.

A big reason for that is his transformation as a 3-point shooter.

Vucevic is making 41.2-percent of his career-high 6.5 3-point field goal attempts per game this year. That aspect has completely transformed the way the Orlando Magic can use him on offense and how defenses have to prepare for him.

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  • This has been a four-year development for Vucevic to add this to his game. It was a slow building of confidence to get there. And it still begs the question what more he can do.

    Vucevic credited the confidence he gained from being in winning situations and the playoffs for providing him a launching point for this success.

    No doubt, Vucevic proved to himself in last year’s playoffs how effective he can be as a screener, 3-point shooter and scorer. He helped the magic steal a game from the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. The Magic were no pushovers in that series and Vucevic was a big reason why.

    That has only carried over into this season and previewed where Vucevic might head next.

    "“To me, I think I can improve in all areas of my game,” Vucevic said before Sunday’s All-Star Game. “I did focus a bit more on my 3-point shot because I saw how much it could really help me and open up for me. When I go into an offseason, I want to work on everything. One of my best qualities is I am a very versatile player, I can do many different things for my position. I know I don’t have to recreate myself or add something crazy to my game. Maybe if I continue to improve on everything that I do, maybe that will help me.”"

    It is very true that Vucevic has not been lax in any part of his game. His transcendence this year has not been simply about his 3-point shooting.

    He is scoring 0.93 points per possession on post-ups this year, seventh in the league among players with at least 4.0 post-up possessions per game according to NBA.com. Last year, he had dropped to 0.82 points per possession.

    Vucevic has found better balance working inside as much as out. And that is a big part of his success.

    Teams are adjusting their defenses, sending doubles at him more and more. Vucevic has largely adjusted to it and is making good passes out of double teams or avoiding them altogether by moving away from the pressure and getting to the basket.

    Vucevic’s 3-point shot has even given him a decent drive game as defenders close out at him on the 3-point line.

    Teams respect Vucevic more than any other player on the Magic. He earned his All-Star spot despite the Magic’s struggles.

    "“It’s very difficult to make the All-Star team,” Vucevic said before Sunday’s All-Star Game. “There are only 12 players that make it every year. There are always way more players that deserve it with the way they are playing. It’s something I am very proud of, especially to be selected by the coaches. They are the ones who see me play and prepare to play the Magic against me. They know what I bring to the team and what I bring to the court. It’s very rewarding to be selected by them. When you make it multiple times, it’s something they can’t take away from you.”"

    Motivated for what’s next

    Nikola Vucevic said the achievements only motivate him more. To reach this level is validation but also a push to do a lot more.

    And ultimately he feels team success matters more. And that will give this season a bitter pill.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    About the only positive from the Orlando Magic’s first half is Vucevic’s All-Star bid. His daily brilliance has been good enough to keep the team competitive, but almost impossible to win. Critics are right to say that Vucevic alone is not a player who can push a team to winning like other superstar players in the league.

    The Magic never got to see what their vision would have looked like at full strength — from Jonathan Isaac’s injury to Markelle Fultz to all the nagging injuries that have sapped this team of most of its starting lineup.

    Vucevic is still the optimist and competitor, still hoping that getting some players back from injury can help the team stay in the race. Expectations and goals have changed for this year to the point that Vucevic said making the playoffs this year would be quite an accomplishment.

    "“We were never at full strength,” Vucevic said before Sunday’s All-Star Game. “We’re hanging in there. We’re a few games out of the playoffs. We’re hoping that we can get healthy and with the players that we have make a push to make the playoffs. It’s going to be difficult. It’s not going to be easy with everything going on. That’s our short-term goal to make something of this season.”"

    There is nothing this season without Vucevic.

    He has started to take a bigger place in the conversation of Magic history. A second All-Star bid has changed the conversation of his legacy.

    And much of it is still to be written as the Magic prepare for the next stage of their development. They certainly feel their journey and development are not at an end.

    But Vucevic has had a truly special season. One of the best individual years in Magic history. But also one of the weightiest. He has had to do more and carry more of a burden for this team than anyone since Dwight Howard in 2012 and Tracy McGrady in 2004.

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    Vucevic has turned into a singular star lifting a team every night as best he can every night.