Through the stormy seas of an uncertain rebuild, Nikola Vucevic has been the one constant presence for the Orlando Magic. His skill set is that of a Magic Eraser: a glass cleaning, offensive-minded center that smooths over the mistake-prone Orlando offense. With a calm demeanor and a fundamental game, the Montenegrin big man can be easy to miss.
"Honestly, I’ll be 100 with you, I didn’t even notice he had 35," said Victor Oladipo following Vucevic’s season-high against the 76ers. "So [the] fact that I didn’t notice that speaks volumes for him as a player."
Though his presence can be taken for granted, Vucevic’s absence has certainly been felt over the past few weeks. Without their leading scorer, the Magic have struggled in the half court. The team has responded by increasing the pace, going with a smaller lineup, and forcing more turnovers. This graph (via NBA.com’s John Schuhmann) shows that the Magic have completely changed their identity, increasing the pace more than any other team since the All-Star break.
As the league moves into a more guard-heavy, tempo-based game, star centers are going the way of the dodo bird. Sure, their offense is nice, but nearly every elite team has a defensive-minded, low usage center. This year’s playoffs will be filled with names like Andrew Bogut, Timofey Mozgov, DeAndre Jordan, and Jonas Valanciunas. The Thunder and Hornets have gone so far as to bench highly paid, offensively gifted centers (Enes Kanter and Al Jefferson) for rim protectors that couldn’t win a game of HORSE (Steven Adams and Cody Zeller). All of this while the league’s best centers, players like DeMarcus Cousins, Brook Lopez, and Anthony Davis toil away on the league’s worst teams.
Is this a trend, or simply a case of copycat? And in either case – where does it leave the smooth shooting, but defensively liable Nikola Vucevic?
On a per game basis, Vucevic has led the team in rebounds for each of his four years in Orlando, and outpaced Oladipo to set the scoring benchmark for the last two. Since his arrival, no one on the roster has scored more points (4277), grabbed more rebounds (2875), or blocked more shots (243).
The blocks are due to a lion’s share of minutes, but the minutes themselves are one of Vucevic biggest assets. Despite playing the NBA’s least durable position for one of the least stable organizations over the past four years, he has managed to consistently stay on the court better than any other Magic player. With a roster in constant turnover, he has also done enough to appease both the enigmatic Rob Hennigan and the star benching, defensive minded Scott Skiles.
This is because the Magic have an asset that’s hard to find anywhere, and one that’s even harder to guard. Since entering the league in 2012-13, Vucevic has scored the seventh most points among centers. He’s also sixth in minutes played, fourth in total rebounds, and fourth in rebounds per game. His 74.5% free throw shooting also allows him to close out games without the fear of a foul. It’s worth noting that every player ahead of him (and several behind him) in every one of these categories has made an All-Star team.
So far, Vucevic has served as the training wheels that supported an inexperienced core. As the Magic enter this offseason, however, the offensive scheme is due for a major overhaul. With the team expected to add two major free agents, and athletic players like Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, and Mario Hezonja taking the reigns, its hard to imagine that the pace will not continue to climb.
The question for Vucevic is will he adapt? Will this relic of ages past find his fit in the plans for the future?
Part two of the breakdown of Vucevic, focusing on his defense, will be coming in the next few days.