Quickly swinging the ball around the three-point arc, the New Orleans Pelicans got the ball to their go-to guy, Anthony Davis. Davis, a versatile offensive and defensive player, could've risen up for a contested jumper. Instead, he drove the lane, but had his shot altered at the rim by Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who slid his feet and stayed in front of the slithery Davis.
This sign was one of many that demonstrate the improvements that the Magic's man in the middle had made on the defensive end this preseason.
Always a serviceable one-on-one defender, Vucevic struggled due to his lack of quickness once teams strung him out. While one could pin some of the struggles Vucevic has had on the schemes Orlando's played-- the 7-footer was always asked to hedge screens, while the guards tried, and poorly, to fight through them -- some of it may have been a lack of effort. That simply is not the case through the preseason for the Magic big man.
Vucevic looks more comfortable in the defense, and it's allowed him to show off his potential on that end of the floor. His movements are much crisper, and coach Scott Skiles and his staff have found ways to not get him as strung out on that end of the floor.
Following their preseason finale against the Memphis Grizzlies, coach Skiles claimed the fifth-year big man had been "solid" for the team on that end of the floor throughout the preseason. "He's trying to get to plays early, rather than late," said the veteran coach. "His help is usually there. He has been good in our pick-and-roll defensive game. He's been better around the rim, so we feel like he has made progress there."
From the start of his tenure in Orlando, Skiles has preached improvement on the defensive end for the Magic, and a lot of that was going to have to start with Vucevic. Last season, Vucevic gave up 53.7 percent shooting to opponents around the rim, the worst mark of any Magic big man, per NBA.com's player tracking stats.
Vucevic said he was pleased with the progress that the team has made on the defensive end to this point, and that they will have to rely on their D to win games for them on a nightly basis. He also claimed to be "pretty pleased" with his individual progress on that end.
"That's something I put a point of emphasis on," said Vucevic. "I’ve been pretty pleased with how I’ve played in preseason and coach [has been] as well. He told me tonight, ‘good job defensively,’ so, just want to keep improving and getting better in that area."
Vucevic's gradual improvement on defense is a positive sign for the Magic, who are going to rely heavily on the Montenegrin in multiple areas defensively. He's their anchor for the starting unit, and he's going to have to continue to show improvement as the season goes on, much like the rest of the team. And while one can credit Skiles and Vucevic's teammates for helping him, it's still true Vucevic has put a lot of work in defensively. He'll need to continue to do so for the team to reach its goals this season.