Clifford, Teammates Impressed with Vucevic's Unselfishness, High Basketball IQ

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

BOSTON – When head coach Steve Clifford or Orlando Magic players are asked to describe Nikola Vucevic’s recent triple-double exploits or why he is such a key cog in the team’s offense, one key phrase often resonates: Not only is the big man unselfish, but he regularly makes the right play.

By that, they mean that even if Vucevic has it rolling offensively or if Clifford draws up a specific play for him, the 7-footer rarely forces shots and regularly possesses a mindset of finding the open option for the good of the team.

For Vucevic, a prideful, eight-year veteran of the NBA, there is no greater compliment than the one that teammates gave him following his 27-point, 13-rebound, 12 assist night on Saturday in Philadelphia.

``That shows that you’re trying to do the right thing for the team and it shows that your teammates respect you,’’ Vucevic said of his knack for making the right play. ``That’s something I pride myself on – making the right play for our team. … It’s all about reading the game and trying to make the right play.’’

Vucevic came into Monday leading the Magic in assists at 6.7 a game. That ranked 19thin the NBA and second among centers, trailing only Denver’s Nikola Jokic (7.3 assists per game). It’s a small sample size for sure, but here’s some perspective on what the Magic big man has done thus far: Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain (8.6 apg. in 1967-68 and 7.8 apg. in 1966-67) is the only center who has averaged more assists over a full season than Vucevic posted in the first three games.

While Saturday’s triple-double was just the second of Vucevic’s career and the 12 assists were a career high, he is no stranger to serving as a playmaker for the good of the Magic offense. Last season, Vucevic averaged a career high in assists at 3.4 a game. He has adapted to the NBA’s growing trend of teams using centers such as Nikola Jokic, Al Horford, DeMarcus Cousins and brothers Pau and Marc Gasol as high-post passers to cutting guards and forwards.

``I feel like I’ve always been a pretty good passer, but the way that the game has changed, the bigs are outside a little more and it gives (centers) opportunities to find cutters and give hand-offs,’’ Vucevic said. ``Before, it was more post-ups and there were less opportunities (to pass). Now, with the way we’re playing, it just gives me more opportunities to find cutters. And the more I’ve done it, the more comfortable I am with it.’’

MO PATIENCE: Where there might have been a temptation to expand the role of center Mohamed Bamba following his impressive NBA debut, the rookie’s recent struggles in the two games have rammed home the franchise’s goal of remaining patient with the 7-footer.

Bamba, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, was one of the stars of the Opening Night defeat of the Miami Heat, piling up 13 points, seven rebounds, two 3-pointers and two blocked shots for the Magic. That performance prompted some fans and others in the media to wonder if Bamba’s role should be increased – even to a starting role.

Many of those questions were answered over the next couple of days as Bamba faced some major challenges on both ends of the floor against Charlotte and Philadelphia. Against the Hornets, Bamba missed all four of his shots and was a minus-20 in 19 minutes and he had just five points and was a minus-25 against the Sixers on Saturday.

Clifford said the franchise has no choice but to keep the 20-year-old Bamba in the role that he is in now because of the physical toll his body takes on a nightly basis.

``When people talk about him starting, he’s not going to be ready this year physically to play 32 minutes. He’s just not,’’ Clifford said of the 221-pound Bamba. ``That’s just not his body. He is playing big minutes and he’s a huge part of our team and if we’re going to be good, we need both of (Vucevic and Bamba). But, again, at his age and where he is physically, he’s not capable of playing 30 minutes.’’

Bamba came into Monday averaging 6.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 2.0 blocks in 19.3 minutes per game. He stressed that he has the ultimate faith in the decisions made by the Magic’s front office and the medical team.

``I think it’s working out pretty well and I’m doing what I can to change the game when I’m out there,’’ Bamba said. ``I’m just trusting what Coach (Clifford) has in mind for me. I’m more than OK with how they’re going about it.’’

Bamba said he is still getting used to the physicality of the NBA – something that will likely be a learning process all season. One thing that he has already picked up is the fact that rookies such as himself rarely get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to foul calls.

``It’s very physical (in the NBA), but it’s kind of odd where there will be plays where I’ll think I didn’t touch someone or hit them hard or much and they call (a foul). And then there are plays where it’s like, `All right, I clearly hit him,’ and no call,’’ Bamba said with a smile. ``So, I’m just trying to pick my poison (with being physical).’’

J.I. THE INBOUNDER: An often-overlooked part of late-game execution is a team’s ability to inbound the basketball. Clifford has given that all-important role thus far to second-year forward Jonathan Isaac, and the coach has been happy with the results.

After Miami repeatedly pulled within one possession of Orlando late in the season-opener, Isaac twice got the ball inbounds to where the Magic wanted it – into the hands of guard Evan Fournier. And when the Magic had to inbound the ball on Saturday in Philadelphia with 4.6 seconds to play, Isaac didn’t panic when the first option – Vucevic – was partially covered in the mid-post and he got the ball to Terrence Ross, who got off an uncontested 3-point shot that was just off line.

Clifford said Isaac has all the attributes of a good in-bounds passer.

``Both in the Miami game and then (Saturday) night, he was very poised, he can pass, he’s a good decision-maker and he has the size to see things,’’ Clifford said of Isaac, who has grown from 6-10 to 7 feet since his rookie season. ``You need to have two-to-three guys who are good in-bounders late and I certainly think (Isaac) is going to fit the bill for us.’’

UP NEXT: Back in Orlando following a two-game road trip and an early-morning arrival, the Magic will be off on Tuesday. The team will practice on Wednesday in preparation for Thursday’s 7 p.m. game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Amway Center.

The Blazers went into Monday’s game against Washington at 2-0 after whipping the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs behind 28- and 29-point performances from Damian Lillard. The superstar guard averaged 23.5 points against the Magic in two Portland defeats of Orlando last season.

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