The Evolution of Nikola Vucevic’s Game: From Good to Great to Now Potentially Historic

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - “A master at the professional level.”

“One of the most underrated players in the league.”

Those are two powerful quotes – the first from point guard Jordan Bone and the second from forward Jonathan Isaac – stated recently about Orlando Magic teammate Nikola Vucevic.

Others have made similar remarks about the 7-foot, 260-pounder, now in his 10th NBA season and ninth with the Magic.

At the time he was acquired by Orlando back in 2012 as part of the four-team blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Lakers, Andrew Bynum to the Sixers and Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets, barely was he mentioned when basketball enthusiasts discussed and analyzed the deal.

It’s understandable why. He had been in the league just one year and played sparingly in his rookie campaign with the Sixers, who drafted him in 2011 16th overall out of the University of Southern California.

Not before long, however, Vucevic started harvesting more attention. In just his second game with the Magic, he scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a win over the Suns. He actually posted five double-doubles in his first eight contests with Orlando, which had acquired other assets, including Arron Afflalo, Maurice Harkless and future draft picks, in that trade.

As the days, weeks and months passed, it became more apparent that Orlando had landed a gem and someone that could transform into one of the premier centers in the game by the time he reached his prime.

Fast forward to today and that has come to fruition. Vucevic is indeed one of the league’s best big men. In fact, he’s one of the NBA’s best players, irrespective of position.

What’s made his journey so impressive, though, is the fact that he’s made noticeable improvements every year.

In his first season with the Magic, the majority of his shots came near the basket. Just about 43 percent of his attempts were from three feet out or closer. Currently this year, only 13 percent of his attempts come that close, which speaks volumes about his excellent touch from deeper ranges.

Much has been made about the 30-year-old’s 3-point shooting, and for good reason now that he’s arguably the best long-distance-shooting center in the NBA today. Vucevic is on pace to break NBA records for a center. He’s currently shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range on 6.2 attempts per game. Never has a center shot 43 percent or better with at least four 3-point tries per game for an entire season.

But his game stretches far beyond his shooting. It’s hard, if even possible, to find a weakness in his game. Does he move his feet exceptionally well on defense? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good defender. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

One could argue that Vucevic is among the league’s best positional defenders, particularly among centers. What that means, although it’s open for interpretation, is that he uses good judgment and alertness to make the right defensive reads.

One way to measure that is through foul rate and opponent shooting percentage when a defender contests the shot attempt.

The two best centers when it comes to defending without fouling are Al Horford and Vucevic, and that has been the case each of the last few years. This season so far, Vucevic is averaging just 1.7 fouls per game, which for someone who plays as many minutes as he does in a starting role is not only rare, it’s potentially historic.

Only two centers all time have started in at least 60 games, averaged a minimum of 33 minutes of playing time a night and committed 1.7 fouls per game or less, per Stathead. They are Mike Gminski, who in 1988-89 with the Sixers averaged 1.7 fouls and 33.4 minutes with 82 starts, and Bynum, who in 2011-12 with the Lakers averaged 1.7 fouls and 35.2 minutes with 60 starts.

So, if Vucevic can lower the amount of fouls he is committing per game at the moment by one-tenth of a point, can continue playing the same number of minutes he’s been playing this season and can avoid missing more than 12 games by the time the year is complete, he will become the first center ever to average 1.6 fouls or less, at least 33 minutes of action and start in 60 or more games.

When Vucevic contests shots, opponents typically shoot lower than their season average. So far this season, per Second Spectrum tracking data, opponents are shooting 44.9 percent when he contests, which is a solid mark for a big man.

Back to the offensive end, where he’s a jack of all trades. Many times down the floor, he’s orchestrating the offense, which for a big man is unique. Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis, Bam Adebayo and Vucevic are the only four bigs in the NBA today that you can truly run an offense through because of their exceptional playmaking and vision.

What separates Vucevic from those other three, though, is his low turnover rate. Currently, Vucevic is averaging just 1.5 turnovers per game, incredibly good. This isn’t unusual for him, though.

Last season, he did something no center had ever done since turnovers became an official stat in 1977, which was average at least 19 points and three assists while turning the ball over fewer than 1.5 times per game, per Stathead. He was only the third player ever at any position to accomplish this. The other two are Jimmy Butler, who averaged 20.0 points, 3.3 assists and 1.4 turnovers with the Bulls in 2014-15, and Tobias Harris, who in 2019-20 with the 76ers averaged 19.6 points, 3.2 assists and 1.4 turnovers.

Just for proof of how much Vucevic has improved, in 2014-15 he averaged 3.0 fouls and 2.0 turnovers, which at the time was still considered very good. But now, averaging under two fouls and under two turnovers is unheard of for a center having to protect the rim, occasionally switch in pick-and-roll and make critical decisions on the offensive end.

At the moment, Vucevic leads the NBA in both field goals made and top of the key 3-pointers made. Not since the 2000-01 season when Shaquille O’Neal did it has a true center led the league in field goals made and never before has a center beat out everyone else for most threes made in any region of the court.

What’s crazy, though, is he’s also dominating offensively in pick-and-rolls. Vucevic currently leads the league in points scored out of pick-and-roll action (as the roller) by a fairly wide margin. He also was No. 1 in this category two years ago and came in second last year.

Only Joel Embiid, a top three MVP candidate, has a better scoring average than Vucevic among Eastern Conference centers. The Magic big man is averaging a career-best 23.6 points, and he’s doing that while taking just a shade over 2.1 free throws per game. If the season ended today, Vucevic would be the first player in NBA history to average at least 23 points while taking fewer than three foul shots per game.

He continues to climb up the rankings in all major statistical categories in Magic history. Right now, he’s third in points behind Howard and Nick Anderson, second in rebounds behind Howard, eighth in assists (No. 1 among centers), fourth in blocks, sixth in steals and first, which he accomplished earlier this season, in field goals made.

He also still holds the team record for most rebounds in a game. He had 29 of them in a game against the Heat during his first season with the club.

In the playoffs last season, he became the fourth player in franchise history to score 30-plus three times in a postseason series. The only others who did it were O’Neal (1995), Penny Hardaway (1997) and Tracy McGrady (2001, 2002, 2003).

Someone who isn’t at all surprised about Vucevic’s continual development is Evan Fournier, his teammate in Orlando since 2014. Fournier, who also has made steady progress throughout his time with the Magic, sees the hard work he puts in to his craft day in and day out.

“That’s the highest level I’ve seen him play,” Fournier said. “He’s being just himself inside and mid-range. He’s taken another step from the 3-point line and that opens up so many more things for us. Congrats to him because he’s been shooting a lot before and after practices, so I’m glad his work has paid off.”

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