Think back to this summer. After months of the “Dwightmare,” the Magic finally dealt Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers as part of a four-team trade. They also shipped out Earl Clark and Chris Duhon to Los Angeles and sent Jason Richardson to Philadelphia; all of whom were simply thrown in to make the money work.
In return, the Magic received Aaron Afflalo and Al Harrington from Denver, Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless and a future first-round pick from Philadelphia, and Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga from Los Angeles.
If someone looked at the names coming back to Orlando last summer, what would they think? Well, Aaron Afflalo is a very solid rotation player, and Al Harrington is a veteran who could maybe help you off the bench, but nothing spectacular.
Most casual NBA fans probably hadn’t even heard of some of the players, especially not Nikola Vucevic.
* * *
The 7-footer from Montenegro, by way of the University of Southern California, was taken 16th overall by the 76ers in the 2011 draft. Many regarded him as a big body; someone who could rebound and chip in offensively, essentially, a back up center in the league.
In his rookie season in Philadelphia that’s basically what he was. He played in 51 games, starting 15 of them, averaging 5.5 points and 5 rebounds in 16 minutes a night. It was an inauspicious start to the young big man’s career. And after just one season as a Sixer, he was off to Orlando.
In his first season as a member of the Magic, however, Vucevic has shown that he can be much more. Vucevic has started all 63 games this year for the Magic, averaging just over 12 points and 11 rebounds a game.
His improved play has impressed everyone around the league, including his head coach, Jacque Vaughn, who said about the big man,
“His ability to get rebounds, to provide a touch around the rim with both hands, has been extremely impressive to me”
Vucevic has shown improvements across the board, but his rebounding ability has really stood out. At just over 11 rebounds a game, he ranks 5th in rebounding in the league. He also boasts an impressive 20.0% total rebounding percentage, good for 4th in the league. (Total rebound percentage is an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor.)
In just his second season, Vucevic is already an elite rebounder. And the bad news for the rest of the league is that he can get even better, at least that’s what Coach Vaughn thinks.
He added about Vucevic,
“I think he’ll even be better once he gets more physical in the sense of stronger as an individual, and matures. He’ll be able to get some of those rebounds where he’s just stronger and bigger than the other guy”
His size and high level rebounding ability is good enough by itself to earn Vucevic a starting role in the league for a long time to come.
* * *
Offensively, Vucevic isn’t great, but he is improving, and has a lot of room to grow at just 22 years old.
First, check out his shooting chart from this season.
He shoots 52% from the field (18th in the league), which is up from 45% last season and while taking more shots. While his percentage around the basket can be definitely be improved, he shoots pretty well from mid range.
When Vucevic gets the ball in the post, his go to move is a little jump hook. He can shoot it with either hand, and can go towards the baseline and towards the middle of the court.
He also likes to shoot mid range jumpers, and can do so in a variety of ways. Instead of going to the hook in the post, he is capable of turning and facing for a jumper. He will also spot up and is even a threat on pick-and-pops.
As a big man, he will also continue to get baskets just by hanging out down low. In just his second year, Vucevic doesn’t have a polished offensive game, but he has already shown good growth. Coach Vaughn pointed out,
“Now I think you see him putting it all together. He’s extremely confident shooting the basketball. I think he’s gaining confidence getting the ball on the block, surveying, making moves, making passes out of the post position.”
Given the opportunity to start this year in Orlando, Vucevic has proven the skeptics wrong. He’s more than just a back up big man. If he can continue to improve his offensive game, he has the potential to become one of the league’s better big men.
No longer will the Orlando big man be glanced over when looking at whom the Magic got back for Dwight Howard. His name will be the first you notice; because he is an elite rebounder, because he’s shown he belongs in this league, and because it deserves to be recognized.
His name is: Nikola Vucevic.