Nikola Vucevic Finishes Runner-Up in Taco Bell Skills Challenge

by Josh Cohen

Ten years ago, even six or seven years ago one could argue, the idea of a big man performing well in NBA All-Star Weekend’s Skills Challenge seemed silly.

An obstacle course that tests ball-handling, passing and 3-point shooting was thought to be designed exclusively for guards, maybe a few of the more talented forwards as well.

That has certainly changed the last few years. In 2016, Karl-Anthony Towns became the first non-guard to win the competition. Prior to that year, a center had never participated. The very next year Kristaps Porzingis walked away with the trophy and last year Bam Adebayo was triumphant. While Spencer Dinwiddie won it in 2018, the runner-up was Lauri Markkanen. Jayson Tatum prevailed in 2019.

In 2021, Domantas Sabonis and Nikola Vucevic were the finalists of the contest, which also featured two of the league’s premier point guards in Luka Doncic and Chris Paul.

Sabonis eliminated Julius Randle in Round One, while Vucevic knocked out Robert Covington. Then in the semifinals, Sabonis stunned Doncic and Vucevic edged out Paul.

In the final, both Sabonis and Vucevic were neck-and-neck in the race leading up to the top of the key 3-point shot, the last leg of the course.

Sabonis was able to bury his 3-pointer first, making him the 2021 Taco Bell Skills Challenge champion. But the fact that neither stumbled at any point throughout the competition made this year’s event a memorable one.

It’s no secret anymore that Vucevic is one of the most skilled big men, not just of today but of all time. Every game for the Orlando Magic, he shows it. He’s averaging a career-best 24.6 points to go along with 3.7 assists and just 1.7 turnovers while shooting 41.2% from 3-point range.

What we continue to learn is that it’s critical for centers to be multidimensional. Unlike the old days when bigs were expected to play with their backs to the basket and out-muscle opponents in the post, now they are being asked to space the floor, pick-and-pop, be a playmaker, attack closeouts, etc.

Vucevic is one of the few 7-footers who does all those things well. It’s a big reason why he’s now a two-time NBA All-Star and still getting better.

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