Welcome to the third in an ongoing series for the 2018/19 season. In ‘An Evaluation of Eight’ I’ll be breaking the season into octagonal chunks, tracking the performance of a single player across eight-game stretches, as I did recently on Evan Fournier. We’ll be digging into the numbers and employing the eye test, with an emphasis on figuring out how what we’re seeing matches up with what we know. Eight games is only a small sample size, to be sure, but it should still be a useful exercise in identifying trends and evaluating progress. Let’s dive in.
Things have really been clicking for Nikola Vucevic across the season’s opening stretch. After a relatively quiet first couple of games he’s put the foot down, emerging as the team’s most important player and the key to their better-than-expected start. Some national media buzz has kickstarted the discussion around his All-Star credentials, which are seemingly becoming more evident with each passing game. Simply put, Vooch is on fire. Let’s dive in and figure out exactly what has the Montenegrin big man playing out of his skin.
vs. New York - 28 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists on 10-15 shooting
vs .Toronto - 14 points and 18 rebounds on 6-12 shooting
at Denver - 16 points and 8 rebounds on 7-14 shooting
at LA Lakers - 31 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists on 10-20 shooting
at Golden State - 30 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists on 12-21 shooting
at Portland - 20 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists on 8-12 shooting
at Phoenix - 25 points and 15 rebounds on 11-20 shooting
at Miami - 19 points and 10 rebounds on 8-16 shooting
The Eye Test
Based on how the games are playing out, there’s a strong case to suggest that Vucevic should be one of the first reserves picked for the Eastern Conference All-Stars. Coming into this I was worried that after his strong start the schedule might do him a disservice over this most recent eight game stretch. The Magic were on the road for six of these contests, including a tough West Coast swing that featured five away games in just eight days. It seemed safe to assume that the numbers he had been putting up would suffer a bit of a dip. Consider the concern unwarranted.
Vucevic has looked like a complete player across these games, effectively orchestrating the offense and at times single-handedly keeping the Magic in contests. He has emerged as the team’s primary playmaker, facilitating possessions as a super-sized passer from near the top of the arc. He’s done a great job of creating opportunities for his guards with advantageous hand-offs that generate space, while also proving himself adept at hitting cutters moving off-ball through lanes. He’s looking to make the extra pass and find the open shooters, and it’s this inside-out dynamic that’s driving much of the team’s offensive success to this point.
When the time calls for it Vucevic has also shown a willingness to demand the ball and go to work for his own shot. He was dominant in New York, finishing both at the rim and from behind the arc, and setting up teammates with ease. Against the Suns he settled the game down and effectively closed out the contest in the fourth with a flurry of quick buckets. In LA it was his burst of 8 points in under 2 minutes near the end of the second quarter that helped the Magic close the gap and position themselves for victory heading into the second half. There have been plenty of stretches lately where Vucevic is undoubtedly the best player on the court.
Importantly, he’s also been respectable on defense. His footwork and positioning in the post continues to improve, and he simply hasn’t encountered many players that can bully him close to the rim. In addition, his defensive rebounding has also largely been excellent, helping to mask some of the team’s problems closing out opposition possessions. Defense is never going to be the featured part of Vucevic’s game, but as long as he remains a reasonable deterrent in the middle the Magic will be thrilled.
For a long time it really seemed like Vucevic was destined to be a solid stats guy on a bad team in Orlando. His boxscore contributions never really translated into wins on the court, and he wasn’t able to singlehandedly cover for the team’s deficiencies at other positions. While he might not yet be the type of player that you can build a legitimate contender around, this season so far has shown that, when deployed effectively, he can be one of the better big men in the league.
Based on an analysis of his statistical output, there’s a strong case to suggest that Vucevic should be one of the first reserves picked for the Eastern Conference All-Stars. Let’s start with the per-game figures. Across his last eight starts Orlando’s center is averaging 22.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 4.9 assists. All of these sit comfortably above his already impressive averages on the season; in fact, each is also in excess of his previous season bests. He has also continued his efficient shooting from the field, converting at a tick over 55%. Again, this is a career best figure. A simple perusal of his box score reflects the incredible individual stretch of play that he’s currently enjoying.
Dig a little deeper and the numbers are even more impressive. Vucevic is using more of the Magic’s possessions than at any other point in his career, a percentage he has actually increased over the last eight games. Despite being asked to do more with the ball in hand he has actually decreased the likelihood of his committing a turnover, while his assist rate is through the roof. Since November 18 he has managed to raise the percentage of possessions on which he records an assist this season almost 4 whole points, from 18.6 to 22.1. This puts him in elite company among passing big men in 2018, and is the culmination of a trend seen across his last few seasons. He’s now a legitimate playmaker, finishing possessions in a number of different ways.
It’s also worth pointing out the general efficiency of his scoring this season. Vucevic seems to have struck the right balance in terms of where his shot attempts are coming from. So far this season over half of his shots have come within 10 feet of the rim, and considering the high rate with which he’s converting these it’s exactly what one would hope to see. He’s flinging up attempts from deep a little less frequently than last season, but his current career-best percentage on these attempts (a sweet 41%) suggests that he’s getting better looks. He’s not taking as many, but what he does get up he makes count. He’s also continued to shrink the regularity with which he takes long twos, another generally positive factor. Combine it with his best free throw rate in years (.196) and you can understand how his true shooting percentage has managed to peak at 62%.
An often maligned part of Vucevic’s game has been his defense, but even this is an area where he is making a marked difference this season. Some of the recent criticism faced in this regard has been unwarranted; although he’ll never be a finger-wagging Mutombo-esque shotblocker, his footwork has become more adept and his use of body positioning more effective. Sure you can hang him out to dry when he’s forced to navigate high pick and rolls, but for the most part he’s been perfectly competent as the anchor on defense. Defensive box plus/minus ranks this as his best season to date, and he’s on pace to contribute more defensive win shares than he ever has before. What more evidence could one need?
Well, how about we look at how he’s handling his individual assignments. Players directly guarded by Vucevic are currently converting at a rate close to their season average, but it might actually be a more positive picture than this first glance suggests. Consider that opponents are converting both long-twos and attempts from deep at a significantly higher rate than expected when Vooch is the primary defender. Some of this could be a result of slow or lazy closeouts, but they’re also generally regarded as relatively volatile shots that are less subject to the actions of the defender. He can undoubtedly work a little harder here, but there may also be some beneficial regression to the mean coming.
Things look better the closer we get to the hoop. Vucevic is currently forcing opponents into shooting over 5 percentage points worse than their average when within 6 feet of the ring. In fourth quarters this discrepancy blows out even further, with the conversion rate dropping by 8%. This is huge for a player who used to be bullied in the post and who generally provided the resistance of a 7-foot traffic cone. Simply put, opponents are finding it more difficult these days to score on Vucevic. As such, it’s easy to see why the Magic are so much better when he’s manning the middle.
Perhaps the most impressive part of his game at this end of the court of late has been his rebounding, an at times overlooked part of the defensive equation. Vucevic is doing a great job of cleaning the glass, snagging 31.5% of all defensive rebounding opportunities when he’s on the court, good for eighth in the league. Again, this is a figure that has also become more pronounced during the most recent stretch of play, with some gaudy rebounding totals providing evidence of this. The Magic haven’t been a great rebounding team this year, but without Vooch bringing opponent possessions to a close they’d be woeful.
Stop me if you’ve heard this already: based on everything we’ve seen so far, there’s a strong case to suggest that Vucevic should be one of the first reserves picked for the Eastern Conference All-Stars. He’s currently sixth league-wide in box plus/minus. Sixth in both value added and estimated wins added. Sixth in PER. Check out any of the advanced statistics that try and capture a player’s overall worth and you’ll find the big guy from Orlando among the league’s elite.
The franchise faces some tough questions regarding Vucevic and his role on the team moving forward. Free agency is looming. His age doesn’t totally align with the rest of Orlando’s still developing core. Mo Bamba was just drafted to be the center of the future. And yet, he’s playing at the level of an All-Star talent, something that the Magic haven’t been able to claim about a player on their roster for quite some time. What do you do when the going’s this good?
At this stage, it’s a nice problem to have.