It’s early in the second quarter of Sunday night’s game against the Boston Celtics. Minutes earlier, at the end of the first quarter, Andrew Nicholson missed a three point shot, and he missed badly. The ball caromed off of the backboard without even so much as sniffing the rim.
Now, less than two minutes into the second quarter, he found himself with the ball 25 feet out again, and he didn’t flinch. Nicholson drained the shot to give the Magic a one-point lead. About a minute later he did the same thing from the same spot.
Orlando went on to win 110-91 and Nicholson finished with 14 points and shot 6 of 9 from the field.
The sequence involving Nicholson was a sign of the confidence he’s come to have in himself, and he’s not alone. The coaching staff is confident too, which has been reflected in the minutes he’s seen lately.
Over the last six games, Nicholson has averaged 25 minutes a night. He's earned that time. When he’s on the floor, he gives the Magic a lift on both ends. During that span, Nicholson has also averaged nearly 12 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Modest production, sure, but it’s a boost Scott Skiles has been looking for off the bench.
And for the Magic, Nicholson’s emergence comes as a bit of a surprise. The big man played a total of six minutes in the team's first 11 games, and he only appeared in two of those. That wasn’t exactly surprising, though, considering some of the struggles Nicholson had trying to strike a balance and find consistency in years prior.
The last two seasons he had a hard time from the perimeter, shooting 31.5 percent on 130 three-point attempts. The coaching staff openly questioned whether his perimeter game was worth it, or whether it was hurting the rest of his game. Via the Orlando Sentinel:
In his second season, his percentage of shot attempts from within 15 feet declined to 44 percent. Simply put, he spent too much time venturing toward the perimeter.
"We introduced the idea of him stretching the floor for us last year, and I'm not sure if that consumed him a little bit," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said.
This season, though – as he displayed in the Celtics game – Nicholson has carved out some comfort along the perimeter.
Right now, he’s shooting over 42 percent from beyond the arc, and he’s on pace to shoot around 210 threes. (Again, he’s only played in about half of Orlando’s games this season.)
But Nicholson isn’t just excelling on the perimeter. Lately he’s shown off some polish in the paint, sporting several post moves and some nice footwork. He’s shooting 75 percent at the rim. He’s struggling from the mid-range, but most of his attempts come at the basket and beyond the arc, where he’s performing best.
Defensively, he can block shots and guard multiple positions. In Orlando’s 114-90 win over Milwaukee last week, Nicholson spent most of the time he was in the game guarding Greek wunderkind Giannis Antetokounmpo.
His ability to contribute in a variety of ways maximizes Nicholson’s potential within the Magic’s rotation. His balance on both ends allows Skiles to match him with anyone in the front court. We’ve even seen Nicholson thrown on to the court with two other bigs.
Surely it’s a breath of fresh air for Skiles.
Nicholson’s versatility is something Orlando has on the whole, but has been sorely lacking on an individual level, which is why it's trotted out so many different lineups this season. Nicholson’s skill set, though, could provide some stability to a rotation that has been as dynamic as any in the league.
The Magic will continue to evolve throughout the year, and Nicholson’s ability to adapt will serve him well in that environment of change.
But Nicholson’s confidence – that may be here to stay.