More Free Throws Key to Vucevic's Development

By John Denton
Sept. 27, 2015

ORLANDO – In the past three NBA seasons, Nikola Vucevic has compiled a whopping 127 double-doubles, he set the Orlando Magic franchise record for rebounds in a game with 29, he secured a lucrative four-year contract extension and he established himself as one of the NBA’s most consistently productive centers.

Also during that time, Vucevic’s Magic have won just 20, 23 and 25 games while losing a mind-numbing 176 games. Let that sink in for a second – for every two Magic wins there have been five losses – because Vucevic certainly has as he’s struggled to balance his individual success with the team’s shortcomings.

Admittedly, all of the losing took a big toll on the psyche of Orlando’s big man – so much so that finding a way to make the Magic a success now trumps any other goals that he might have.

``All of those big games and the big numbers that I did, it would feel much better if we had won,’’ said Vucevic, the owner of six 20-point, 20-rebound performances and the fact that he’s one of just two NBA players to average at least 10 rebounds each of the past three seasons. ``People are always asking me, `Do you want to be an All-Star? Is that your personal goal?’ I would say that it’s winning. If we win and I play well, everything else will be taken care of. Hopefully, this season we turn it around and if we win it will be a happier place.’’

Vucevic’s optimism is sparked by Orlando’s addition of hard-nosed veteran coach Scott Skiles, someone who has had almost instant success in his previous stops with the Suns, Bulls and Bucks. Skiles is unapologetically demanding, especially when it comes to players competing nightly and playing with aggression on defense. That is just fine with Vucevic, who knows that regardless of all his production so far that he has to do more if the Magic are going to take the next step.

And Skiles – who sometimes can be about as subtle as a punch in the mouth – has said as much about Vucevic doing more for the Magic.

``There’s absolutely another level for him and he and I talked about that (Sunday morning),’’ Skiles said following the Magic’s third practice of training camp. ``There’s a level to get to in terms of a leadership standpoint being one of the main guys on the team … from a defensive standpoint … and when we come out on the practice court he has to physically and mentally be there in every drill. When you lose that many games habits can creep in that aren’t necessarily positive, so that’s what we’re trying to guard against. So there’s absolutely another level for him to get to.’’

While Vucevic has made dramatic improvements in his offensive game – he’s boosted his scoring average each of his four years in the NBA and he pumped in an all-time best 19.3 points a night last season – there are other areas where Skiles thinks the 7-footer needs to pick things up. Two areas that Skiles has pointed to as areas of emphasis are for Vucevic to get to the free throw line more and for him to be a more active and aggressive defender. While doing those things better might not greatly enhance Vucevic’s statistical line, they could have huge impacts on the Magic’s abilities to win more close games.

On the offensive end of the floor, Vucevic can sometimes resemble the ideal model for a center in today’s ``small ball, drive-and-kick’’ game because of his ability to score from the block while also being able to consistently drill mid-range jump shots. Vucevic made a stellar 63.4 percent of his shots from inside of 5 feet last season and a solid 47 percent on shots from 10 to 19 feet.

The problem, however, is that the 7-footer actually took more mid-range shots (455) than he did point-blank looks (451) from inside of 5 feet last season.

The way Skiles sees it, Vucevic’s ability to shoot the ball sometimes works against him and the Magic. Because he is such a good shooter, Vucevic too often steps away from the post where he can shoot over other big men who despise playing defense on the perimeter.

The negative effect for the Magic is that when Vucevic spends too much time residing on the perimeter, it cuts into the chances of him getting to the free throw line – something the Magic can dearly afford as a team that already struggles to get freebies from the line. Orlando ranked last in the NBA in free throw makes a game (13.9) and free throw attempts a game (19.1) last season – partly because of the youth of the team and partly because of the squad’s lack of post-up plays and hard drives to the rim.

Despite being first on the team in usage rate (25.8 percent of the offense ran through him), Vucevic averaged just 2.9 free throw attempts a game last season. To put that into perspective, teammate Victor Oladipo averaged 3.6 free throw attempts a game. Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins led the NBA in fouls drawn a game last season at 8.8 a game. Comparatively, Vucevic drew just 2.9 fouls a game on opposing defensive players.

``Really looking at (Vucevic’s) game because he’s such a gifted offensive player, if he picks and pops and takes the wide-open 15-footer, that’s a great shot for him. What he supposed to do? How is he supposed to get fouled,’’ Skiles said. ``And when you throw him the ball inside, he’s very economical down there and he doesn’t over-dribble and he’ll get to his spot and shoot his little jump hook.

``But (getting more free throw attempts) has to come in other areas,’’ Skiles continued. ``When somebody else has the ball he has to work off the ball and get bumped. Or being on the glass he can be bumped. Rim-running down the middle of the floor and somebody tries to stand him up and he gets bumped. It’s got to be in areas like that, but those have to be habits that he creates for himself.’’

To his credit, Vucevic has taken Skiles directives and he’s vowing to do what it takes to create more free throw opportunities for the Magic.

``It will make it much easier for the team and myself if I can get to the free throw line more,’’ Vucevic admitted. ``Those are really a lot of easy (points) and that’s something we need as a team. We didn’t do enough of that in the past and me as the big man I need to be around the paint and draw more fouls and hopefully put the other big man in foul trouble to open stuff up for us. That’s something I looked at this summer when watching our games – where I got fouled and what I can do to draw more fouls.’’

Another major point of emphasis for Vucevic is his role in Orlando’s defense. Skiles is an absolute stickler for defense and he is already vowing that the Magic must go from being a bottom-third defensive team (28th in field goal percentage allowed and 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions) to one at least in the top 10 this season.

Vucevic’s game is based primarily around skill instead of athleticism, so he’s never going to be a feared shot-blocker. Still, Skiles feels that he can be a dependable anchor to Orlando’s defense with his positioning and his length at the rim when contesting shots vertically. Skiles has already compared Vucevic to Andrew Bogut, a mostly below-the-rim center who thrived defensively for Skiles when they were together with the Milwaukee Bucks. Bogut last season was a defensive standout on the smallish Golden State Warriors team that won the NBA title.

``A lot of it for me is being places earlier,’’ said Vucevic, who has already been told repeatedly by the Magic’s coaching staff about his need to rotate and contest shots. ``When I watch my games in the past, I’d arrive a half-second or second late and that makes a big difference. It’s just about making the read earlier, not jumping on pump fakes and staying vertical. It’s just about me learning from my mistakes.’’

Drawing more fouls and being more active on defensive rotations are easy fixes, especially for someone with the basketball IQ of Vucevic. Whereas some big men play basketball because they are tall, Vucevic has a great understanding and love for the game because he’s been around basketball his whole life. Both his mother and father played for the former Yugoslavian National Team and professionally in Europe, so the finer points of basketball have been taught to him since childhood. His feel for the game, especially when it comes to rebounding, are indicators of his off-the-charts basketball smarts.

At this point in his career, the 24-year-old Vucevic is willing to do whatever it takes to make the Magic a success. After all, he has accomplished so much individually the past three seasons, but his teams have failed to find many victories. He admitted that he thought to himself over the summer how sweet it will be someday soon when the Magic are able to get over the hump and become consistent playoff contenders.

``It would be awesome if we could get to a point where we’re winning,’’ Vucevic said with a smile. ``When you’re winning, fans are happier, players are happier and everything about the organization is a better place. So hopefully we can get to that point, the guys will play much more relaxed and it will just be a much better way to play.’’