Denton: Vucevic Adding New Pieces To His Game

By John Denton
Feb. 28, 2014

MIAMI – Predominantly a pick-and-pop player in the past, Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic had four instances on Wednesday in Philadelphia where he set screens, rolled hard into the lane and finished with authority around the rim.

It might seem simply like a subtle change in Vucevic’s positioning on the floor, but actually it’s a major shift from how the 7-footer used to play the game compared to how the Magic want him to play it now.

In European basketball, big men such as Vucevic are often used in the high post to set screens and pass the ball. And when then they are involved in action on the perimeter, their job is usually to set a screen and pop to the wing for a jump shot. While Vucevic is a highly competent jump shooter, the Magic want him in the post as much as possible to take advantage of his blossoming back-to-the-basket game. And like Wednesday night, the Magic want Vucevic rolling hard to the rim and demanding the ball more consistently. He did that repeatedly against Philadelphia rookie Henry Sims, and Orlando is hopeful that it will become more of a trend.

``We want it to be versus 29 teams, first-unit guys and second-unit guys and nothing changes,’’ Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said of Vucevic’s assertiveness. ``That’s where we want him to get to and he’s heading in that direction.’’

Some of the biggest games of Vucevic’s NBA career have come against the Miami Heat, and the Magic (18-42) will need their big man to once again be dominant in the paint for them to have a chance of beating the Heat (41-14). Vucevic is coming off a stellar performance with 21 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots in the 101-90 defeat of the Sixers and the hope is that he can continue to be assertive against a Heat team that often likes to move power forward Chris Bosh to center.

``(Demanding the ball) is something that I’ve been doing a lot more this year than last year,’’ Vucevic said. ``In the Philly game, I knew we had a size advantage and that I needed to be aggressive. I just want to help my team win. I thought I could help by scoring in the paint to open things up for the guards. I just have to stay aggressive like that and score inside when I can.’’

Vucevic worked in the offseason to become more skilled in the post with either hand and the payoff has come this season in more production around the basket. His scoring hasn’t risen dramatically – from 13.1 points per game last season the 13.9 ppg. this season – but two ankle injuries and a concussion were partly to blame for that. However, four out of every five baskets this season for Vucevic – 199 of 249 – have come on shots from the low block or in the paint.

``I’m a lot more comfortable down there and I’ve gotten better posting up and using either hand,’’ said Vucevic, who studies the post games of Tim Duncan and Marc and Pau Gasol in his downtime. ``I still have room to improve and I just want to keep working on it. I want to be a post scorer, make plays for others and play good post defense. I want to do whatever it takes, but I’m definitely more comfortable posting up now.’’

Vucevic is shooting 56.9 percent on shots at the rim and 56 percent from the dotted line area in the lane. He’s better from the right block (51.2 percent) than the left block (41.9 percent), but overall his 55.1 shooting percentage on plays in the pain is strong.

Another reason for the 250-pound Vucevic to roll to the rim rather than pop out for jump shots? He shoots just 33.3 percent and 30.5 percent on jump shots from the elbows of the lane and he’s only a 31.7 percent shooter from the top of the key.

The 23-year-old Vucevic is also more confident with his place on the Magic so that he can demand of teammates to throw him the ball. He’s much stronger than he was last season so that he can hold his spot on the block better. And when Vucevic gets his man sealed off, it’s not uncommon now for him to throw up his hand and request a pass or bark to his teammates for the ball.

``We know that when Nik has a mismatch we have to go to him,’’ Magic forward Tobias Harris said. ``He can generate points for us from that position. In that (Philadelphia) game, the pick-and-roll was open for him a lot. As a team, we can see when somebody has it going and it was on us to give the ball to Nik.’’

Against Philadelphia’s Sims, Vucevic had four baskets off pick-and-roll plays, three tip-ins and a dunk off a penetration move by Victor Oladipo. Of the most telling baskets for Vucevic was a play where he ducked in hard into the lane to knock Sims backward and he finished off the play with a nifty left-handed hook.

Vucevic said when he’s facing inexperienced players or smaller players it’s up to him to get an aggressive mindset and be in attack mode. And if the Heat try to guard him with the 220-pound Bosh on Saturday night Vucevic knows that he must be aggressive in the paint. He did just that twice against Miami last season, compiling 20 points and 29 rebounds in one game and 25 points and 21 rebounds another time.

``I think we should take advantage when teams go small because we have some good size underneath,’’ Vucevic said. ``It can be an advantage for them to go small, but it can be an advantage for us to stay small. We have to take advantage on the boards and going inside. When I see a team putting a guy on me smaller than me, I try to take advantage of it.’’