Vucevic Feels He Is Just Now Entering His Prime
Vucevic: "You can always get better and there’s no age limit where you can stop getting better as a player"
ORLANDO – Nikola Vucevic assuredly would like a do-over for the NBA playoffs, but he feels the finest regular season of his NBA career is just the start of something truly special for both he and the Orlando Magic going forward.
Vucevic, who will turn 29 before the start of next season, feels that way because he believes he is just now hitting his prime as a basketball player. An unrestricted free agent on July 1, Vucevic feels it would be wise for the Magic to invest in him as he’s about to rip off a string of stellar seasons like the one he just completed.
``You can always get better and there’s no age limit where you can stop getting better as a player,’’ Vucevic said last week after the Magic were eliminated from the first round of the playoffs to wrap up their finest season in seven years.
``For me, I really do believe this is the start of my prime and I have a lot of years in front of me where I can play at a very high level,’’ he added. ``The game now comes easier for me than ever and it’s only going to get easier with the way that I read the game and read stuff on the court. That’s going to help me a lot with my body and I know this year I felt better than ever. Those are all things that I can build on and improve. So, I can come back as a better player.’’
Vucevic was never better than this past season when he joined Shaquille O’Neal (two times) and Dwight Howard (four times) as the only Magic players ever to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds over a regular season. Vucevic posted career highs in scoring (20.8), rebounding (12), assists (3.8), 3-point shooting (36.4 percent) and 3-pointers made (84) while also compiling 60 double-doubles in 80 games. That production was enough to earn Vucevic the first all-star nomination of his eight-year NBA career and get the 42-win Magic into the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
About those playoffs, however …
When the seventh-seeded Magic landed opposite of the second-seeded Toronto Raptors, it meant the worst possible matchup for Vucevic, who has struggled throughout his career against the strength and length of center Marc Gasol. In five playoff games, Vucevic tallied just 11.2 points a game while hitting only 36.2 percent of his shots and 23.1 percent from 3-point range. He had just one double-double (22 points and 14 rebounds in a Game 3 loss) and he closed the series with a foul-plagued six-point, seven-rebound effort in Game 5 when the Magic were eliminated.
``I’ll have to re-watch the games, study them and really see, but right now I feel like in certain moments, I was overthinking stuff a little bit,’’ said Vucevic, who also turned the ball over 2.6 times a game in the playoffs when he was often double-teamed. ``The help and the double teams that they were throwing at me, it was a little different than I had seen before, and I was rushing a little bit. I just never established a rhythm to play. They threw me off my game a little bit and I never was able to figure it out the way that I wanted to. At the same time, it was the first time I was in that position and I think it will be great experience for me to learn from. The next time I’m in that situation, I’ll do better.’’
How, one might wonder now, do the Magic balance and evaluate Vucevic’s season as a whole? Are the gaudy numbers and nightly consistency from the regular season those of a player hitting his prime and someone poised to lead the Magic to more success for years to come? Or did Vucevic’s playoff struggles show that he can be slowed by superior, more physical defenders and the Magic’s ceiling will be lower if he is their go-to player offensively?
Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, someone who has gotten to know Vucevic quite well over the past two seasons both on and off the court, said he has tremendous faith in the 7-footer’s future because of his selfless approach and his team-first mentality. He lauded Vucevic’s leadership from this past season – both as a consistent player and someone who constantly drove his teammates to be better. After all, Weltman said, the Magic would have never even been in the playoffs were it not for Vucevic’s five 30-point games, 46 20-point nights and his 17 15-rebound efforts.
``He was an all-star. He had a great year and he deserved to have a great year,’’ Weltman said. ``He puts in the time, he’s a contentious worker, he’s a contentious teammate, he’s exceptionally skilled and smart. And the marriage with our coaching staff, he was able to take advantage of that in a way that only a hard worker and a good player can. So, I’m pleased for him that he was able to have this breakout season.’’
With that in mind, Weltman wants Vucevic back in Orlando next season to help to continue the momentum that the Magic got rolling late in the season. Orlando went 22-9 down the stretch – the NBA’s third-best record after Jan. 31 – and Vucevic was a big part of that surge toward the playoffs by being a key cog in the offense and an improved defender. Weltman understands the significance of Vucevic – the Magic’s longest-tenured player – and he’s hopeful of keeping the big man in Orlando pinstripes.
``Bringing Vooch back is a priority, but with that being said Vooch is going to have a lot of teams that will make him a priority for them, too,’’ Weltman said. ``We’ll meet with his representatives at the appropriate time. By the way, Bill Duffy is the same guy that represents Aaron Gordon and we have a good relationship with Vooch’s reps. Bill and Rade Filipovich both do excellent jobs and they’re good guys to work with. Hopefully we can get something done. It’s the NBA and as I always say, `There’s a lot of real estate between the intentions and what gets done,’ but yeah, it is a priority.’’
Vucevic made turning the Magic into a winner a priority this season. A member of the Magic since the 2012 trade Howard blockbuster that brought him to Orlando, Vucevic suffered through six years of struggling and rebuilding to get to this point. Despite the Magic going through five 50-loss seasons, four coaching changes and a front-office switch two seasons ago, Vucevic never asked out of the trying process, repeatedly professed his love for Orlando and spoke openly of wanting to be a part of the team that brought basketball excitement back to Central Florida.
Things started to change for Vucevic and the Magic when the franchise hired Steve Clifford, an old-school, no-nonsense head coach. Having faced Vucevic for five seasons while coaching in Charlotte, Clifford decided almost immediately that he would run his offense through a 7-footer known for his diverse talents and strong decision-making.
As it turns out, it was a stroke of genius that brought out the best in the big man. Vucevic has been quick to acknowledge all season what Clifford’s trust and belief meant to him, and he credits the coach with helping turn the culture in Orlando into a winning one.
``The fact that Coach (Clifford) is going to be here, that’s going to help the team, for sure, and we’ll see what players are going to be here and whether they are going to make changes or not,’’ said Vucevic, who has played for five coaches in seven seasons in Orlando. ``Consistency is important and you can build off that. The best teams in the league are the ones who had consistency with players and coaches.
``I think a lot of our culture comes from Coach (Clifford) with the way he set things up this year, the way he wanted us to play and the way that he wanted us to approach the game,’’ Vucevic added. ``When you have success with (that culture), it’s even easier to build off because guys can see that it works. Now, we know what it takes for us to win and we can build off that.’’
An unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, Vucevic is both excited and nervous to see how the Magic and the rest of the NBA value what he did this season. Will he be greatly rewarded for posting career numbers and leading the underdog Magic to the playoffs? Or will his individual struggles against Gasol and the Raptors in the playoffs cost him?
Vucevic, who became a first-time father in December, admitted last week that he was proud of himself for not allowing his looming free agency to be a distraction this season. When he last signed a four-year contract extension before the 2014-15 season, Vucevic inked a deal that ultimately proved to be well below his market value. This time around, with him set to become a free agent on July 1, Vucevic chose his words carefully regarding his future so as to not pin himself publicly to one team.
Still, though, Vucevic spoke glowingly about his past seven years in Orlando and coming through big to help the Magic finally push back into the postseason. In a perfect world, Vucevic admitted, a contract befitting the season he just had will come from the Magic and he’ll continue his prime years while helping Orlando go deeper and deeper into the playoffs. Until that moment arrives, however, Vucevic will wonder if he will be rewarded by his strong season or penalized by his poor playoffs?
``Everybody knows that I’ve had a great seven years here, but at the same time we’ll see what happens,’’ Vucevic said pensively. ``It’s a mutual decision; it’s not just me; they have to decide what they want to do, and based on that, we’ll go from there.
``I’m proud I was able to really put that (free agency question) aside, not think about it and it not be a distraction for me,’’ Vucevic added. ``That was very important for me because I didn’t want it to bother me while I played. Even now, it’s too early (to discuss free agency) because I have no influence – I wish I did; I wish I knew what was going to happen and I had a contract in hand, and it would be all over right now. But, as it gets closer to (the free-agency courting period), I’ll know more. But right now, I can’t give (media and fans) answers.’’
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