2017-18 Player Review: Nikola Vucevic

by John Denton

ORLANDO – As the longest-tenured player on the Orlando Magic, center Nikola Vucevic has seen his share of struggles over the last six seasons. But it has done nothing to break his resolve in wanting to help turn the Magic into winners again.

Upon the end of Orlando’s 25-57 season, Vucevic reaffirmed his commitment to the Magic, stressing that he wants to be a part of the franchise’s revival.

``I’ve been here the longest and obviously we’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I’m confident that we can get this franchise back to winning,’’ the 7-foot center said. ``That’s something that I want more than anything else. I think I’ve shown that I’m committed to this franchise by staying through all of these hard times.

``Obviously, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it takes a lot of work and we need certain things to happen. If I didn’t believe that (things will turn around), if I didn’t see light at the end of the tunnel, there’d be no point for me being here. But I really believe we’re not far away,’’ he added. ``It doesn’t look that way right now from the outside but being with the team every day and knowing these guys and what they believe in, I really believe we can turn this thing around sooner rather than later.’’

Vucevic did his part in trying to make the Magic better this past season, registering a solid bounce-back from a down effort in 2016-17. Not only did he average 16.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, but he also averaged 3.4 assists a game and made 64 3-pointers – both career-high marks.

A bit of bad luck – a fractured bone in his left hand – cost Vucevic 23 games from Dec. 26 to Feb. 14. The injury hit just as the Magic were also without Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac and wrecked the team’s chances of winning games.

Despite suffering through a sixth straight losing season and faced with the fact that he could be poised to play for his fifth head coach while in an Orlando uniform, Vucevic said he is hopeful that he will continue to remain with the Magic. A big soccer fan, Vucevic has always admired the players who remain with one franchise and remain loyal. He is hopeful that someday soon his loyalty will be repaid with a season in which the Magic return to the playoffs.

``I really would love, more than anything, to get this team back to the playoffs,’’ Vucevic said. ``I’ve always looked up to players who have stayed with one team their entire careers. … It would mean a lot to me (to turn things around) because I’ve been through lots of down times, but I always feel like I’ve given it my all on the court. Obviously, I’m not perfect and I have my weaknesses, but I think I bring a lot to this team. I think I can continue to do that even more. If we turn this thing around and start winning, not only me but everybody else will play even better. I believe that we can do it, I want to be a part of it and I want to stay here. People know that, and I think I’ve shown my loyalty to the franchise.’’

For a closer look at Vucevic’s 2017-18 season, here’s a breakdown of his highs and lows:

PLAYER: Nikola Vucevic
POSITION: Center
NBA SEASONS: 7
AGE: 27

2017-18 SEASON STATS: 57 games (57 starts), 16.5 ppg., 9.2 rpg., 3.4 apg., 1.0 spg., 1.1 bpg., 29.5 mpg., 47.5 percent FG, 31.4 percent 3FG, 81.9 percent FT.

2017-18 SEASON HIGHS: 41 points, Oct. 20 at Brooklyn; 17 rebounds, Dec. 8 vs. Denver; 10 assists, Dec. 9 at Atlanta; four steals, three times, most recently March 14 at Milwaukee; four blocks, twice, most recently Dec. 8 vs. Denver 27; 40 minutes, Dec. 6 vs. Atlanta.

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Vucevic led the Magic in rebounding a sixth straight season, he averaged a career-best 3.4 assists a game, he averaged a solid 16.5 points and he morphed into the 3-point threat that the Magic needed from the center position. He was constantly lauded by former Magic coach Frank Vogel for ``playing the right way,’’ what with his manner of passing well from the high post and working to defend screen-and-roll plays far from the rim.

Vucevic led the Magic in scoring 16 times, in rebounding 37 times and in assists five times. He had 29 double-digit rebound games, allowing him to pass Shaquille O’Neal for the second-most such games in Magic franchise history.

He poured in a career-best 41 points early in the season in Brooklyn by making 17 of 22 field goals and six of eight 3-pointers – and it wasn’t even his best performance of the season. With the Magic lacking offensive firepower because of a rash of injuries, Vucevic crafted the first triple-double of his career on Dec. 9 in Atlanta. Vucevic scored 31 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and handed out a career-best 10 assists that night versus the Hawks.

WHAT WENT WRONG: With the Magic still clinging to hope of salvaging their season, Vucevic fractured a bone in his left hand after being hit by Washington’s Ian Mahinmi. The injury knocked him out of the next 23 games, and all but sealed the Magic’s fate.

Whether it was because of the time off or the injury, Vucevic never shot the ball the same after returning. He shot 49.1 percent from the floor and a solid 34.3 percent from 3-point range prior to the injury but connected on just 45.1 percent of his shots and 25 percent of his threes after returning.

Like many of his teammates, Vucevic struggled mightily in Orlando’s defensive schemes. According to NBA.com’s stats database, opposing teams shot 65.6 percent at the rim with Vucevic on the floor – the worst number of his career. Often, teams would go to point guard/center pick-and-roll plays late in games and Vucevic would struggle in those coverages – whether it was allowing quicker guards to get to the rim or surrendering too much ground for easy, mid-range jump shots. His ability to defend in those situations is critical to the Magic being able to improve their defense.

FUTURE ROLE WITH MAGIC: Vucevic is about to enter the final year of his contract, potentially making him a valuable trade chip going forward. Also, because he signed his extension at a below-market rate some three years ago, Vucevic is a comparative bargain at the center position.

However, the 27-year-old big man is still highly productive, highly respected among his teammates, a leader among the group and wants to be with the franchise – factors that shouldn’t be dismissed as the Magic continue an arduous rebuild. Vucevic badly wants to remain in Orlando to be a driving force in the team’s turnaround. His loyalty to the franchise is extremely admirable and something that the Magic’s front office loves about him.

However, for the sake of the Magic’s improvement and for the sake of Vucevic’s career, Orlando’s leadership just might deem it necessary for the two to part ways. Clearly, the status quo hasn’t worked for years and management might feel that a big change in the middle is needed.

If Vucevic does return for a seventh season in a Magic uniform, he’ll undoubtedly continue to pile up a slew of numbers and continue to care deeply about helping the franchise become winners again. Here’s to hoping that both of those things happen next season in Orlando.

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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