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Season in Review: Nikola Vucevic - Final Grade

Aaron dishes out final grades in a series of reviews over the next couple of weeks

NBA: Orlando Magic at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Another season has come and gone Magic fans. The 2018-19 version of your Orlando Magic provided the city and its fan base with many memorable moments to ring in the 30th anniversary of the franchise’s existence.

We were provided opportunities to celebrate big Magic road victories in Boston (twice), San Antonio, Los Angeles, Mexico City (against the Jazz and Bulls), Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana, Charlotte, and Miami (twice). And don’t forget about those huge home wins against the Heat (opening night), 76ers (twice), Lakers, Raptors, Celtics, Rockets, Pacers, Nets, and the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

But none of that compares to the emotions all Magic fans felt after coming to the realization that the team they’ve supported through so many tough losing seasons had finally clinched their first playoff birth since the conclusion of the Dwight Howard era.

My progress reports were back for another season on Orlando Pinstriped Post in 2018-19 (third season featured on this site, I’m blessed). If you missed the first volume, Nikola Vucevic earned the highest grade in the class after the team’s first fourteen games due to his stellar shooting and solid defense. Vucevic again earned the highest grade in my second volume (which covered the team’s next fourteen games). And prior to his first career All-Star selection, Vucevic earned the team’s highest midterm grade.

Let’s explore who on the roster pulled their own weight this season. As a teacher who is used to assessing on a regular basis, “grading” is right up my alley!

Included in this series of final grade reports are statistics from Orlando’s 82 regular season games played this season, along with some comments from yours truly that hopefully explain why I graded the guys the way that I did.

In the comments section below, please feel free to agree or disagree with any of my assessments, or simply just let me know if this is something that interests you. Credit for statistics goes to Basketball Reference and Enjoy!

Nikola Vucevic, 28 years-old (80 games played)
Grade: A (Top of the Class)

MPG PTS REB AST FG% 3PT% TS% +/- Per/100
Nikola Vucevic 31.5 20.8 12.0 3.8 52% 36% 57% +4.3

What a difference a couple of years makes. At this point just two seasons ago, Nikola Vucevic had just finished his fifth - and arguably worst - season with the Orlando Magic. Orlando’s starting center, whom the organization acquired in the Dwight Howard trade in 2012, had shown over the course of over 300 games who he was as an NBA player: a solid rebounding big-man, a slightly inefficient scorer whose range extended out to just inside the three-point line (one of the worst shots in basketball), a seven-footer that rarely got to the free throw line, and a big that had less than ideal defensive instincts/translatable athleticism to boot.

It was time to make a change, and to his credit, the Montenegrin big-man has done just that. Vucevic has completely transformed his game. He started shooting more three’s last season, and that trend continued this past year (and with much better results). He has developed the ability to set-up his teammates at an elite level (for a center) over the last two seasons as well.

But the big transformation in Vucevic’s game that has translated the most on the floor to overall team success has been his individual defensive improvement. Vucevic is never going to be the run-and-jump NBA specimen that uses his superior athleticism to swat shots into the first row. But his improved defensive positioning, awareness, and stability over the last two seasons has been nothing short of incredible. Especially this past season, under the guidance of head coach Steve Clifford, the USC-product transformed himself into an above-average NBA defensive player (DRtg - 103, good for 8th overall in the NBA).

Vucevic set career-high marks in 2018-’19 in the following categories: eFG%, three-point field goal percentage, points per game, rebounds per game (8th in NBA), assists per game, offensive rating, player efficiency rating (9th in NBA), true shooting percentage, total rebound percentage (9th in NBA), assist percentage, offensive box plus/minus, box plus/minus (10th in NBA), defensive box plus/minus, and +/- per/100 possessions. Vucevic was recognized by coaches around the league for his efforts by being named to the 2019 NBA All-Star team as a reserve, Orlando’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard.

Vucevic has accrued his (probably unfair) share of wrath from Magic fans over the years, but there can be absolutely no denying that he was Orlando’s most outstanding player this season. He led the team in points per/36 (23.9), rebounds per/36 (13.8), defensive rating, PER (25.5), rebounding percentage (20.5%), OBPM (3.0), DBPM (3.4), BPM (6.4), VORP (5.3), +/- per/100 (+4.3), and on/off per/100 (+8.9).

The NBA veteran of eight seasons recorded 60 double-doubles (and one triple-double, October 20th at Philadelphia) this past year. He scored 30 or more points in a contest five times, and grabbed 15 or more rebounds in a contest on seventeen separate occasions. He dished out seven or more assists in a single contest seven times this past season, and blocked three or more shots in a game nine times.

For as magical as Vucevic’s season was in 2018-’19, it ended for him in rather disgusting fashion. For me, five games in uncharted waters for Vucevic - against some of the top front-court defenders in the league - wasn’t enough of a sample-size to sabotage his overall grade for this piece (his body of work speaks for itself). But man, he was b-a-d - bad.

Outside of Game 3, where Vucevic scored 22 points, pulled down 14 rebounds, and dished out 6 assists, Orlando’s All-Star was pretty much completely shutdown by a swarming Raptors defensive scheme.

He shot 36% in the five-game series (23% on 3PTA’s, 40% on 2PTA’s, 44% TS%), posting an offensive rating of 87 (28 points lower than his ORtg in the regular season) to go along with a player efficiency rating of 10.2. Vucevic’s +/- of -22.6 per/100 in the series was -18.8 per/100 worse than when he was on the bench. Not what you’re looking for from your franchise player in the team’s first trip to the postseason in seven years.

Best performance of the season: 12/28 vs. Toronto
30 points (12-17 FGA’s), 19 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals (+33 in 33 minutes)

NBA: All Star-Media Day Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

2019-20 Season Outlook

What to do with Nikola Vucevic was already going to be a difficult question for the Orlando organization to answer before the 2018-19 season played out the way it did.

Now...well, good luck.

Vucevic was recognized as the organization’s first NBA All-Star in seven seasons, and was the main contributor on a team that clinched a playoff-berth for the first time post-Dwightmare. He has led the team out of some of the darkest days in the franchise’s history, and has been outspoken on numerous occasions regarding his affection for the city of Orlando, the organization, and the fan-base.

So, what does this all mean in relation to Vucevic’s impending unrestricted free agency?

Well first of all, management must quickly figure out if they want Vucevic to continue to be a part of the team’s foreseeable future? This questions seems to be an incredibly easy one to answer - of course they should want him back.

The Magic drafted Mohamed Bamba with the sixth overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft, but he seems to still be a ways away from taking over the reins as the team’s starting center. Bamba was never expected to carry a heavy load for the Magic early in his career; he was drafted in the hope that he would develop into a force by the beginning of his second NBA contract (2020-21 and beyond).

If the Magic want to continue to build upon the success they’ve already started to realize in the Eastern Conference, bringing back Vucevic seems like a must. So the next question becomes, how long do they want Vucevic back for?

Vucevic will be 29 years-old next season. I would think that the Magic would be more than thrilled to have Vucevic back through his age 30 season, but probably not much longer than that. In a perfect world, I believe the Orlando organization would like to keep Vucevic until Bamba is completely ready to take over the “5” position. The Magic have Bamba still under his rookie-scale contract for two more seasons; I assume Orlando will try to get Vucevic back for two more years.

So the final questions remains, what does Vucevic want? Alongside is wife Nikoleta, does “Vooch” want to raise his son Filip in Orlando? How much money is he looking for? How many years (probably the more pertinent question) is he seeking?

This summer will mark the first time in Vucevic’s career that he will be an unrestricted free agent. If I were to guess, I would think the years Vucevic and his camp will be looking for will be the biggest deal-breaker regarding whether he re-signs with the organization or not.

From Orlando’s perspective, they are cap-strapped with or without Vucevic’s next contract (as long as contracts such as Timofey Mozgov’s and Evan Fournier’s are on the books). The team can go over the salary cap to bring back its own players, but they will lack sufficient room to bring-in any significant new players within the space they have available.

This is where Jeff Weltman and John Hammond will really have to earn their stripes. For the first time in their Orlando tenures, the Magic brass will have to sit down and play hardball with a player and his representation.

Will they be able to keep Vucevic in town for an amount of time that’s amicable for all parties?

I guess we will see in about five weeks.

Previous “Season in Reviews” in this series:

Wes Iwundu, C+
Khem Birch, A-
Mo Bamba, C+
Jonathan Isaac, B-
Terrence Ross, A-
D.J. Augustin, B+
Evan Fournier, C
Aaron Gordon, A-