On-Court Chemistry Between Vucevic and Fournier Continues to Strengthen

by John Denton

TORONTO – During one second-half sequence of the Orlando Magic’s defeat of Washington on Sunday, Nikola Vucevic quickly scanned through several options from his low-post position with the ball and noticed Markelle Fultz was covered on a cut and forward Al-Farouq Aminu was being guarded closely on the near wing.

Then, almost without looking or seemingly even giving it much thought, Vucevic rose into the air and fired a bullet of a pass to the left corner where Evan Fournier was sprinting to.

The end result to the play was Fournier hitting one of his five 3-pointers in the game and Vucevic racking up one of his seven assists on the night. The manner in which that play came about, however, was years in the making and it spoke to the unique chemistry and comfort that Vucevic and Fournier have with one another on the court.

They are the Magic’s longest-tenured players – Vucevic playing in Orlando for eight seasons and Fournier for six – and they have been together in so many different situations through the years that they almost know where the other is going to be without having to look or think very long about it.

``There are certain things on certain plays that (Fournier) will tell me that he sees, but more than anything it’s just that feel from playing together so long,’’ Vucevic said on Tuesday as the Magic (6-7) prepared to face the Raptors (9-4) on Wednesday in Toronto. ``I kind of know when (Fournier) comes off the screen what he likes to do and know he’s going to do one of a couple of things, so I know were to position myself. It’s just about us knowing each other’s games so much and it’s one of the things that makes the game of basketball so great. It’s just about having that feel and making reads in the moment. When you just really know each other like we do, it helps so much.’’

While their chemistry and cohesion are easily apparent to anyone who watches the Magic play, the raw numbers also back up Vucevic’s claim that the tight bond greatly helps out on the court. In Sunday’s game alone, Vucevic had three of his seven assists set up baskets for Fournier, while Fournier had two of his season-high nine assists go to the Magic’s 7-foot center.

For the season, 18 of Vucevic’s 44 assists have gone to set up Fournier baskets – far and away more than the next closest player (Jonathan Isaac with nine). Also, a whopping eight of those assists have resulted in Fournier 3-point shots as the Magic often like to have the two of them on the same side of the floor because they pose such lethal inside-out threats for defenses.

Fournier’s reliance on Vucevic is even more pronounced – 19 of his 45 assists have gone to Vucevic (Isaac was the next highest with seven). Four of his assists have led to Vucevic 3-point makes.

It only makes sense, of course, that those numbers would be high considering that Vucevic (18.2 points per game) and Fournier (16.8 points per game) are Orlando’s top two scorers. Also, Fournier (3.6 assists per game) and Vucevic (3.5 assists per game) rank second and third on the team in assists, trailing only D.J. Augustin (4.4 assists per game).

``I think the key for us is the communication because we’re constantly talking to each other about reads, what we can do to find each other better and our two-man game,’’ Fournier said. ``We just have a good connection, period.’’

That connection stretches off the court where Vucevic and Fournier became fast friends six years ago when Fournier was traded from Denver to Orlando, and that tight bond still exists today. Their dressing stalls in the Magic’s home locker room are side by side, they often dine together on road trips and these days they share lots of parenting tips with both them becoming first-time fathers within the past year.

If there is an instance when they need to make adjustments on the fly on the court, Vucevic and Fournier also have another way to keep opponents guessing. Vucevic, 28 and of Montenegran descent, was born in Switzerland and raised in Belgium, while the 26-year-old Fournier hails from France, so they primarily speak French with one another when communicating. Not only are teammates often thrown off by that in the locker room, but they have gotten some puzzling looks out on the court from puzzled foes.

``I mean, we never speak English … ever,’’ Fournier said with conviction, referring to his conversations with Vucevic.

Magic coach Steve Clifford, whose team is hoping to carry the momentum of a 4-1 home stand with it on the road while facing the Raptors (Wednesday), Pacers (Saturday), Pistons (Nov. 25) and Cavaliers (Nov. 27) in the coming days, has great comfort in calling plays that involve Vucevic and Fournier working together in two-man action such as pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoff plays. Often, late in games, the Magic will clear out one side of the floor for two of the team’s best players so they can put their strong chemistry to good use.

``We have a package of things, for sure, that involves those guys playing together,’’ Clifford said.

Whereas the Vucevic/Fournier dynamic might have the potential to be a touchy subject in some NBA locker rooms, it works for the Magic because both of them are such willing and improved passers. When Clifford took over in Orlando prior to last season, he made the decision to run much of the offense through Vucevic because of the big man’s high basketball IQ and ability to read defenses. Vucevic, who was named the Eastern Conference’s Player of the Week on Monday after leading Orlando to a 3-0 record, responded last season by averaging a career-best 3.8 assists a game.

``To me, along with (Denver’s Nikola) Jokic – and there are other guys who are super skilled – but Vooch’s range shooting and passing are elite,’’ Clifford raved recently. ``His decision-making with passing, he’s like a guard. To me, that’s why he was an all-star. And he plays in a way to where your team is going to function well when he’s out there because he makes the right play and he plays for his teammates.’’

Fournier has also made great strides as a playmaker. Like Vucevic, he also averaged a career-best in assists (3.6 a game) last season. On Sunday against the Wizards, Fournier showed off his passing prowess by handing out nine assists – one short of his career high. He also attributed some of his progress as a passer to the FIBA World Cup over the summer when he was France’s top playmaker as a quasi-point guard.

``I’m comfortable with the ball in my hands and I try to make the right play,’’ Fournier said. ``Last game, (the Wizards) were really collapsing on my drives and it’s just about finding shooters. Some games, I’m going to be used more as a catch-and-shoot guy, and in those situations, I won’t have as many opportunities. Regardless of what’s going on, I’ve just got to make the right play.’’

Usually, the right play is finding Vucevic, the player he knows so well from their six years together in Magic pinstripes.

``We used to have (signs and non-verbal communication), but at this point now, we don’t even need to talk now because we know what we each other likes to do and when to pass the ball to each other,’’ he added. ``He knows that I’d like to have better screens at times, but we’re always communicating.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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