ORLANDO - Most impressive about Nikola Vucevic since he joined the Orlando Magic in 2012 is that he has gotten better every year. Every time it’s been assumed that he has maxed out, he has added something new to his repertoire, or simply perfected something that previously was just at satisfactory level.
In his first year with the Magic, the 7-footer out of the University of Southern California was primarily just a post-up threat and a relentless rebounder. During that season, he set the franchise record for most rebounds in a game with 29 of them.
His pick-and-pop game really started to develop the next few years, but with limited range. Most of his shot attempts between 2015 and 2018 were between three and 10 feet away from the basket.
It was when Steve Clifford took over as head coach in 2018 that we started to see him truly extend that range beyond the 3-point line, which now, particularly from the top of the key, is a bread-and-butter shot for him.
But, it certainly isn’t just his scoring arsenal that has progressed as the years have gone on. He’s become an extremely good passer. An argument, in fact, could be made that he is one of the 10 or 15 greatest passing centers in NBA history.
Not once this season has Vucevic been in foul trouble. Through 32 games, he’s averaging 1.7 fouls per game, which for a center is extremely unique. It shows just how disciplined and smart he is on the defensive end.
The same applies on the other side of the floor, particularly as it relates to his low turnover rate. Right now, he’s averaging 1.6 of them per game, stunning for someone who has the ball in his hands as often as he does. Never before in NBA history has a center averaged at least 20 points and fewer than two turnovers and two fouls per game in a season, which Vucevic is on pace to do in 2020-21.
Clearly, with him being named an All-Star for the second time in his career, others are aware of just how good he really is. Vucevic, also an All-Star in 2018-19, joins Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill and Dwight Howard as the only players to be named an NBA All-Star multiple times while wearing a Magic uniform.
“It was one of the best feelings ever (hearing he was named All-Star). Just a huge honor. Something that I’m very proud (to) be able to do in my career, make an All-Star team twice now, especially this year I think with all the guys in the East that could have made it,” Vucevic said. “Just very humbled, huge honor like I said and hopefully not the last one. I have to thank my teammates and the coaches for putting me in a position to be able to do this from the beginning of the year and pushing me…Without them I wouldn’t have been in position to do it, so big thanks to them and just huge honor for me.”
Vucevic, now 30 years old, says he gained added confidence when Clifford became the Magic’s head coach. Right out of the gate, Clifford would tell him how talented he is and what he’s capable of accomplishing if he has the right mindset and approach.
“He’s been huge in the steps I’ve been able to take in the last two-and-a-half seasons he’s been here,’ Vucevic said of Clifford’s role in his maturation. “Mainly the thing that he’s been able to help me with is my approach to the game, my mentality, my confidence. It’s something that as soon as he came here, the first time we met, the things he told me was ‘you’re one of the best big men in the NBA, you can be a multiple-time All-Star, there’s so much room for you to grow.’”
Another big boost of confidence was generated from the Disney bubble, particularly in Orlando’s playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, when Vucevic averaged 28.0 points in the series and became the fourth Magic player ever to score 30-plus three times in one postseason series.
It was then when it became apparent that Vucevic had the shooting touch to be an elite 3-point shooting big. He knocked down just a shade under 41 percent of his tries from downtown on 44 attempts in the five games combined.
It’s important for young players to learn about Vucevic’s path. Not always do the league’s best players hit the ground running as soon as they enter the NBA. Sometimes it takes time for players to realize their full potential.
For every O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Tim Duncan, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson, there’s a Vucevic, a Kyle Lowry, a Rudy Gobert, a Paul Millsap, a Julius Randle, for instance. In other words, players who weren’t All-Star caliber players in their first, second or third years in the NBA, but eventually transformed into one.
Embracing the challenges of the journey is something Vucevic has done throughout his career, and based on how he views his future, there’s nothing stopping him from playing in more All-Star Games down the road.
“Each milestone is always special,” he said. “I always like to set certain things for myself and try to achieve them. It gives you that extra little motivation as the year goes on. You hear even the guys that made it 10, 15 times, even for them it’s always special to make it…Hopefully, it’s not the last one. Hopefully I can continue and get to a third one and fourth one and so on. For now, I’ll enjoy this one.”