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Can Evan Fournier save the Vucevic-less Orlando Magic?

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In their darkest moment of the season, light has come from an unexpected place

NBA: Orlando Magic at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Magic fans have seen some pretty dark days in recent years, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that November 21, 2019 felt like one of the darkest. That was when the public received an official diagnosis for Magic All-Star center Nikola Vucevic: at least four weeks on the shelf with a right lateral ankle sprain.

The injury itself wasn’t that severe, but for the struggling Magic sitting at 6-8, it felt like the push that may send their hopes of a second-consecutive playoff season off a ledge.

2018 was a breakout year of sort for Vucevic, who had always put up solid numbers, but none of it had really amounted to wins outside of a very wild run in December 2015. Last season, new head coach Steve Clifford brought something the Magic lacked: an identity, and it all started with Vucevic. His injury meant that the Magic were left without the only thing that had worked.

In his stead, however, the offense has actually improved slightly.

In the 13 games before the Vucevic injury, the Magic were averaging 102.2 points per game on 42.6 percent shooting. Their offensive rating was 105 and their true shooting was 52.3%.

In the seven games since, they’re averaging 106.9 points on 45.8 percent from the field with an offensive rating of 109.3, and a 55.3% true shooting percentage.

Now, it would be irresponsible to say that the offense is better without Vucevic, especially at this stage in the season. That line of thinking misses the point. When Vucevic went down, this team was clearly built around him. The goal for this at least four-week stretch is just to tread water until he returns.

So far, they’ve done that admirably, and the biggest contribution from an offensive standpoint has fittingly come from Vucevic’s closest friend Evan Fournier.

In the seven games that Vucevic has been out, Fournier has averaged 25.1 points while shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 43.6 percent on his eight three-point attempts per game. Fournier entered the season having scored 30 points or more in a game his just four times in his seven-plus year career. He has done so in three of his last five games, leading the Magic to victory in each.

Listen, I’ve written about Magic swingman Evan Fournier several times over the five seasons I’ve been here at OPP, but it appears that in 2019 he has finally turned some kind of corner.

On the season, Fournier is averaging a career-high 19.8 points, as well as setting personal bests for field goal percentage (49.2%), three-point percentage (44.6%), and defensive rebounds (2.8). His free-throw percentage (84%), assists per game (3.3), free-throw attempts (3.7), and steals (1.0) are also the second-best marks of his career.

And he’s doing it all in his fewest minutes per game since becoming a full-time starter in 2015.

The frustrating part of Fournier’s game was never something that appeared in the box score, however. It wasn’t a lack of talent or IQ, but a total disregard for that IQ at random times throughout games. For years, he would stop the ball one pass away, or dribble out of a good look for a risky one. Fournier has always been a jack of all trades, and his persistent attempts to do too much often left fans scratching their heads.

This season, though, he has honed in what he’s good at and allowed others to eat as well. By refining his good traits and reducing hero ball, Fournier may have finally found his groove, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time for the Magic.

Even with Vucevic healthy, Fournier was Orlando’s leading scorer, and if the team can stay afloat without their All-Star center, it may be a different member of the Magic that makes his first All-Star appearance this season.