Was Nikola Vucevic Better in 2018-19 or 2019-20?

by Josh Cohen

ORLANDO - Obviously, Nikola Vucevic was much better in the 2020 playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks than he was in the 2019 playoffs against the Toronto Raptors.

But, what about when comparing the two seasons in their entirety?

His Orlando Magic head coach, Steve Clifford, brought up something interesting during his season wrap-up media session this week.

“All of the best players in our league get better every year, regardless of their age,” he said. “Look at LeBron (James). LeBron gets better every year. Sometimes some summers it’s small things. Other times it’s been bigger things. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the misconception, is that only the younger players have to get better in the summers. The older players have to get better too.”

Vucevic has, in general, done just that since coming into the NBA in 2011, which is why he’s now widely considered one of the elite big men in the game today. Each year, he has added something extra to his overall repertoire.

Statistics suggest Vucevic was a little better in 2018-19 than 2019-20. He was certainly more efficient overall, and he averaged more of almost everything, including points, rebounds, assists and blocks.

Another big factor that can’t be ignored is that Vucevic, like most of his teammates, went through the entire 2018-19 season without an injury. This year, he missed 11 games in late November/early December with a right lateral ankle sprain.

However, there were definitely things – based on optics and to a lesser degree data – that the nine-year NBA veteran did better at this season compared to last.

For one, while he did shoot higher percentages last season from very close to the basket (five to nine feet out) and much further away (20 feet and beyond), the 29-year-old hit the mark more frequently when he took mid-range jumpers. He knocked down 43.4 percent of his shots taken between 10 and 14 feet away (39.5 percent last season) and 48.8 percent of his attempts from 15 to 19 feet out (40.9 percent a year ago).

In 18 fewer games, Vucevic actually made 14 more 3-pointers in 2019-20 than last season. What that insinuates is that he was much more comfortable outside the arc, which was critical for the development of Markelle Fultz, who needs as much space as possible to get into the paint. Playing with a five-man who stretches the floor is exactly what Fultz relies on, which is one reason why he probably wasn’t a great fit in Philadelphia where Joel Embiid covers up so much room inside.

Although he averaged slightly fewer assists this year compared to last, Vucevic was a better overall playmaker in 2019-20. One particular statistic that is quite convincing of that is his pass percentage out of the post. In 2018-19, Vucevic passed out of the post 43 percent of the time, which is good. However, that got bumped up to 47.7 percent, which by the eye test makes sense because he seemed to always make the right reads when he posted a defender up.

Now to something that went way too far under the radar. Vucevic averaged only 1.4 turnovers per game this season, which is absolutely extraordinary for how often the ball was in his hands. Last year, he averaged 2.0 giveaways.

Here’s an incredible accomplishment: This season, Vucevic became the first center in NBA history to average at least 19 points and three assists while turning the ball over fewer than 1.5 times per game, per Stathead. Only three players ever at any position have done this. The other two are Jimmy Butler, who averaged 20.0 points, 3.3 assists and 1.4 turnovers in 2014-15 with the Chicago Bulls, and Tobias Harris, who this year with the 76ers averaged 19.6 points, 3.2 assists and 1.4 turnovers.

Being named an All-Star in 2018-19 is certainly a reason to say he was better a year ago. In both years, he was an Eastern Conference Player of the Week winner – coincidentally the honor was claimed by the Orlando 7-footer at the same exact time of each season (mid-November).

Always amazing considering the position he plays, Vucevic has fouled out just twice in the last four seasons. It happened once in 2018-19 and once in 2019-20.

The playoffs, as brought up at the top of this article, is clearly where Vucevic was better this year. Against the Bucks in the Magic’s first round series, he averaged 28.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists. A season ago against the Raptors, he averaged 11.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists.

He was so spectacular against the Bucks that he became the fourth Magic player ever to score 30-plus points three times in a postseason series.

“Vooch was so good. He played well so,” Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “This is the player that Vooch is. He is a modern big. He stretches the floor but he can also punish a mismatch if you want to try to guard him with a wing. He’s got a very high IQ, a very high skillset. I think that what we saw in the bubble was just laser-like focus. He was very consistent. He was very focused. He clearly elevated our team. So, I thought he was great.”

In this debate, you can’t go wrong either way, really. Vucevic was terrific in both years. Most are in agreement that he’s a top five center currently in the league. Some might even have him in the top three. Where his game goes from here remains to be seen. There isn’t much he doesn’t do well. It’s just a matter of him staying consistent and continuing to read the game as well as he’s capable of. His defense has improved over the years, but of course it can get better. It would be a huge boost for him, and the Magic as a whole, if he can draw more fouls. Vucevic averaged just 2.7 free throw attempts in 2019-20.

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