Is Nikola Vucevic the Most Multi-Skilled Center in the NBA?

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - What’s the best way to try and answer this question? Let’s see if this breakdown helps solve it.

Joel Embiid is the most dominant center, particularly on the offensive end when he posts up and bullies his way to the basket.

Karl-Anthony Towns is the best 3-point shooting big man, not just of this era but perhaps of all time. Even though he’s only been in the league for five seasons, Minnesota’s 7-footer has already drilled 507 threes in his career and has shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc in three consecutive seasons.

Nikola Jokic is clearly the best passer at his position. Denver’s 25-year-old already has 40 triple-doubles in his career, including 12 this season. Luka Doncic (14) and LeBron James (13) were the only two players in the NBA before the hiatus with more of them.

Andre Drummond, now playing in Cleveland after getting dealt there from Detroit at the trade deadline in February, is the league’s premier rebounder. He led the NBA in rebounding in each of the past four seasons and some think that if he stays healthy and plays at a high level for another 10 years or so – he’s going to be 27 in August – he could potentially sneak into the top five on the NBA’s all-time rebounding list when all is said and done.

Rudy Gobert, the reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, is the top defender. While Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo are probably above Utah’s big man for the award this season, if Gobert does happen to claim the honor, he would join Dwight Howard as the only players ever to be named DPOY in three straight seasons.

Although he plays the power forward spot mostly, the Lakers’ Davis is probably the best pick-and-roll scoring big man. In the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons while playing for the Pelicans, the 6-foot-10, 253-pounder led the NBA in scoring off pick-and-rolls as the primary on-ball screen-setter. He finished in the top 10 in this area before the hiatus in his first season in L.A.

Now back to the question at hand. Nikola Vucevic is probably not No. 1 in any of those areas. But it’s possible he’s in the top five, or at least top 10, in each, which if he is might very well make him the most versatile and multitalented center in the league today.

Orlando’s longest-tenured player is a very good post-up scorer, a competent long range shooter, extremely cerebral when it comes to making plays for his teammates, excellent on the glass on both ends, a smart and vigilant defender and very effective rolling to the basket and finishing.

Pre-hiatus Vucevic ranked No. 2 in the league in roll-man scoring, a category he led the NBA in last season.

Ever since the Magic acquired him in 2012, Vucevic has been a double-double machine. Last year, he had the third most double-doubles in the league behind Drummond and Gobert. This year, before the shutdown, he had 36 of them, ninth most in the NBA. And remember, he missed 11 games in late November/early December with an ankle injury.

Arguably his most underrated and underappreciated strength is his discipline on defense. Even though he isn't as athletically gifted as some of the others at his position and doesn't block a ton of shots, Vucevic is rarely ever in foul trouble, which keeps him on the floor at critical stages of games. He also does a terrific job protecting the ball. Among regular starting centers this season who dished out at least three assists per game before the stoppage, the Magic’s 29-year-old was the only one who committed fewer than two turnovers per contest.

Initiating contact is his biggest weakness, as he’s averaging just 2.7 free throw attempts per game this season. However, when he does get to the stripe, he’s reliable. The No. 16 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft shot 78.1 percent from the foul line before the hiatus.

Many have crowned Jokic as the league’s most versatile center, which is understandable with how often he fills up the box score. It’s worth noting, though, that he is turnover and foul-prone and generally struggled with his outside shot before the hiatus. There is no denying how incredibly talented he is, however. Nobody with his size in the history of the game had better court vision and instincts. His defense, especially in the pick-and-roll, has greatly improved this year. He’s also extremely good using his body to get deep position on the low block, while his playmaking from the top of the arc is special. He and Vucevic are probably the two best passers at their position right now in the league.

Vucevic displayed each of his qualities during the Magic’s first scrimmage at Disney on Wednesday. He finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and three assists in 20 minutes in a loss to the Clippers. Kudos to him for staying in great physical shape during the shutdown.

Obviously for Orlando to climb to the No. 7 seed in the East and push whoever they would face off against in the first round of the playoffs, it will need its top scorer and rebounder to play like the most versatile big man in the league, which we know he is capable of doing.

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