Denton: Vucevic Finishes Fourth in Most Improved Player Award Race

By John Denton
April 23, 2013

ORLANDO – Nikola Vucevic’s tremendous growth as a player this past season for the Orlando Magic was honored on Tuesday when he finished fourth in the NBA’s Most Improved Player balloting.

Vucevic, 22, received 10 first-place votes, tying him for the third most with Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders and Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday. Vucevic also tallied 14 second-place votes and 17 third-place votes to compile 109 total points.

Indiana all-star forward Paul George had 52 first-place votes and was the runaway winner of the award. George had 311 points, while New Orleans point guard Greivis Vasquez was second with 146 points and Milwaukee’s Sanders was third with 141 points.

Tobias Harris, who averaged 17.3 points in 27 games with the Magic following a February trade with Milwaukee, garnered one third-place vote.

Vucevic, whom the Magic wisely acquired in the four-team, 12-player blockbuster deal last August that centered around Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala, led the NBA in rebounding improvement from last season (7.1 more rebounds a game). After playing only sparingly as a rookie in Philadelphia last season, Vucevic boosted his rebounding from 4.8 boards a game to 11.9 this season – a total that was good for second in the NBA only to the Lakers’ Howard.

Vucevic also made major strides offensively, ranking second in the NBA in scoring improvement (7.6 points more a game). He averaged just 5.5 points a night last season for the Sixers, but pumped in 13.1 a night this past season for the Magic. Only Houston’s James Harden (9.1 ppg. more this season) improved his scoring average more.

For comparison’s sake, Indiana’s George – who made the NBA All-Star team this year for the first time – improved his scoring average by 5.3 points per game and his rebounding by 2.0 boards a game. His Pacers are in the playoffs and heavy favorites to beat the Atlanta Hawks in the first round, while Vucevic’s Magic are out of the postseason for the first time in seven years, ending the longest playoff run in the Eastern Conference.

Vucevic said that he even surprised himself at times with his major leaps this past season. But he’s hardly content and said that eventually he feels he can become one of the NBA’s best centers.

``I’m pretty satisfied with the season that I had. The thing that I like the most is that I get better each month as the season went on,’’ he said. ``I stayed healthy for the most part other than a couple of games. That (consistency) is something that I really take pride in. I’ve just got to keep getting better. My goal is to be one of the best centers in the NBA. I think that I can do that. I just have to keep working hard and next year I have to build on this to get my team more wins.’’

The Magic have been among the NBA leaders in the Most Improved Player award for years. Former Orlando power forward Ryan Anderson won the award last season, joining Hedo Turkoglu (2007-08), Tracy McGrady (2000-01), Darrell Armstrong (1998-99) and Scott Skiles (1990-91) to win the award while in a Magic uniform.

Vucevic broke Shaquille O’Neal’s 18-year franchise record when he grabbed 29 rebounds on Dec. 31 in a one-point overtime loss to the Miami Heat. He grabbed 18 rebounds on the defensive glass and a whopping 11 boards on the offensive end. He ultimately outrebounded Miami’s Chris Bosh 29-4 in the game.

And the 29-rebound performance wasn’t even Vucevic’s best all-around game of the season. He had 30 points and 20 rebounds against Milwaukee on April 10 in a thrilling Magic overtime win. That night he showed off his improving low-post skills by making 14 of 26 shots and he also grabbed six offensive rebounds.

Vucevic registered four 20-point, 20-rebound games – two of which came against the Heat. He had another 25 points and 21 rebounds in Miami on March 6 when Orlando came within a point of ending the Heat’s winning streak at 16 games. In three games against Miami – he missed the March 25 game because of a mild concussion – he averaged 21.6 points and 21 rebounds.

``I think I even surpassed some of the expectations that I had for myself,’’ he said with a chuckle. ``I wish we had more wins as a team though. That’s something that we need to do and it’s more important than individual goals. Everybody should have team goals to make the team better. But the goals that I set for myself, I would say that I surpassed them.’’

Maybe the area where Vucevic was the most impressive was his consistency. Despite missing the five games with the concussion, Vucevic was still third in the NBA in double-doubles, racking up 46. He had four 20-rebound games, 18 15-rebound games and 56 double-digit rebound games.

Now, he’s planning to spend his summer working in the weight room and developing a better low post game so that he’s even better next season. If he can make as big a jump next season as he did this year, he most assuredly win the Most Improved Player award and led the Magic to significantly more victories.

``My physicality is something that I can definitely get better at, but it’s also something that comes with maturity and playing,’’ Vucevic said. ``I feel like I’ve gotten better at that as this season went on. But getting stronger in the weight room is something that I have to work on. Just playing and working on (being more physical) will be a habit. I just want to get better on a lot of different stuff and improve my game all around.’’

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