Despite their 1-4 start, it would be hard to find someone who believes the Orlando Magic haven't shown some progress. Under new coach Scott Skiles’ gritty, defensive-minded approach, coupled with an exciting fast paced offense, the Magic have kept every game close, and have legitimately competed every single night in what has, so far, been an extremely difficult schedule. Not only has the team grown, many of the Magic's young, talented core -- Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon to name a few -- have shown individual improvement that will reap benefits moving forward.
That leaves Nikola Vucevic, who suffered a bone bruise in his right knee during Wednesday night's loss to the Houston Rockets, in an interesting position. Through the first four games, Vucevic’s per game numbers are a little bit down from last season, as the Magic have relied more on their perimeter players to push the ball and make plays in transition. Through five games, the Magic are currently sitting 13th in league in PACE and seventh in the league in fastbreak points, per NBA.com.
Vucevic is currently averaging 15.8 points and eight rebounds, while posting a true shooting percentage of 55.3, in line with what he’s done throughout most of his career. However, his fit on the Magic’s current roster and with Skiles as a coach has always been worth questioning.
While he has always been a great defensive rebounder, Vucevic has not had a great rep on that end at, arguably, the most important position defensively. Add in the fact Vucevic has a stable full of young athletes projected to be plus defenders in the long-term around him, and I think his fit long-term for the team is one of the biggest questions that needs to be answered. While the front office seems to believe in him, as is evident by the four-year, $52 million dollar contract Magic general manager Rob Hennigan signed him to prior to last season, the Skiles hire, along with the players the team has selected in the draft the last few seasons, keep questions floating around my head.
All of this makes his injury all the more intriguing. Dewayne Dedmon, who projects to start while Vucevic is out, is clearly not the offensive player that Vucevic is, but his athleticism and defensive ability might fit what Skiles likes to do with his teams more. Not only that, but the fact that he does not need the ball as much as Vucevic does could lead to even more opportunities for the teams talented perimeter players to shine.
Dedmon has also shown an ability to run in transition, which will also be beneficial for a Magic bunch that want to keep the pace going. According to NBA.com/stats, the Magic have been 17.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Dedmon on the court, with the team only scoring three fewer points per 100 possessions with high energy big man on the floor. With his presence in the starting lineup, the Magic may be able to fully embrace their new defensive minded mentality.
All of this isn’t to say that Vucevic should be benched, however. He is the best center on the roster and clearly deserves his starting spot based on his steady production in the last few seasons and his clear emergence as the team’s best player. Add in the fact that Dedmon is still limited offensively, and still struggles with fouling too much, and it's clear why the third-year big man is coming off the bench, and likely will continue to once Vucevic returns.
However, seeing Dedmon start could give us a glimpse of what this Magic team could be moving forward in an ideal utilization of their talent on the defensive end and their commitment to playing with pace and around their perimeter players. This could, at very least, give coach Skiles more lineup options to work with, and that is never a bad thing.