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Meet The NBA’s Most Underrated Center

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Vucevic flies below most NBA fans’ radars, but he has been one of the most impactful players in the league this year

The Orlando Magic are pulling together a competitive season from low expectations, and are currently fighting for the eighth seed in the East. While the Magic’s roster is devoid of any true superstar, there is one player that stands above the rest: Nikola Vucevic.

Vucevic has long been one of the most underrated big men in the league. Since his sophomore season, the Swiss center hovered around double-digit averages in points and rebounds, but this year has been something else. If the Magic can fight into the playoffs, Vucevic might finally start to get some of the recognition he deserves.

 

One of the reasons Vucevic was overlooked in his first several seasons was his play style. Up until recently, he played under the basket and did the dirty work for the Magic, namely rebounding and back-to-the-basket offense.

In the modern NBA, teams are hesitant to feature a player that fits more in with ‘90s offensive style than today’s three-point-heavy attack. Vucevic was not a threat to stretch the floor; in his first six seasons, he averaged 0.2, 0.0, 0.0, 0.1, 0.1 and 1.0 3-point attempts, respectively. Over the last two years, Vucevic has joined the modern NBA in a big way.

 

While Nik has always had a respectable jump shot, he took a leap with his shot from behind the arc. Last season, he attempted 3.6 shots from deep (converting 31.4%), and this year, he is attempting fewer (3.0), but hitting them at a 40% clip. His strong shooting from range makes him something of an anomaly on the Magic, as the team is 15th in three-point percentage. Vucevic trails just D.J. Augustin for the team lead in three-point percentage.

Unlike the rest of the Magic, Vucevic has largely abandoned his midrange game in favor of the three ball. Yet, he still manages to be a model of efficiency: he leads Orlando with a 26.5 PER (seventh in the NBA) and is averaging a career-high 60.6% true shooting percentage, just behind LeBron James 60.7%.


However, Nikola Vucevic has not completely abandoned his old play style, and still excels in “traditional center” roles. He is 11th in the NBA in rebounding—including 2.5 offensive rebounds per game—and is tied for fifth in double-doubles. Though he has drifted to the three-point line often this season, he is still tied for 15th in the league in touches in the paint, ranks 11th in field goals down low (3.6), 13th in post-up possessions per game (4.1), and 12th in points in the paint (7.9).

He’s started launching threes, but it should be noted that Vucevic has evolved into one of the NBA’s premier inside-outside threats. But he hasn’t only picked apart opponents with his scoring; he’s doing it with his passing as well.


Nik has also insinuated himself into the team’s playmaking unlike any other time in his career. In many lineups, coach Steve Clifford is running the offense through Vucevic’s hands. This season, he has a career-high usage rate (27.3), paired with a career-high assist percentage (22%). Among centers, Vucevic has the ninth-highest pass percentage in the paint at 21.9 (minimum average of 30 minutes per game). When considering his on-off splits, the Magic’s assist percentage gets a 2.6% bump, and a massive +11.9 to their offensive rating, when Vucevic is on the court. Simply put, the Magic are a different team when Nik is playing.   

Further, Vucevic is among the class of the league in real plus-minus. He is 10th in the NBA in RPM behind the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo with a 4.95 mark. For those unfamiliar with the stat, RPM is essentially the impact a single player has on the game on both ends of the court. By this metric, Vucevic has been one of the most impactful players in 2018-19, turning a lottery-bound Magic squad into a middling one; his +20.3 on-off differential bumps up the team’s expected wins by 44. With stats like these, it looks like Vucevic is nearly single-handedly pulling Orlando in relevancy.

      

However, Vucevic’s standout play leads the Magic to consider whether or not he is a long-term fit with the team. The Magic are in the middle ground between contention and rebuilding; they don’t have the talent to seriously compete in the immediate future, but they have enough solid pieces to avoid playing as a league bottom feeder. Certainly a contender would appreciate a player of Vucevic’s caliber off the bench (or as a redundancy in case of injury), though the market for him is unknown, especially as he will be a free agent this upcoming offseason.   

One potential destination for Vucevic could be Boston. Although Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes have been effective in stretches for the Celtics, Vucevic could be a shot in the arm for a Celtic team that is getting back on its feet after a difficult start to the season. Boston would certainly be in trouble if Al Horford were sidelined for any extended period of time, and Vucevic could be a name worth keeping an eye on. Considering players’ minutes, a package centered around Celtics’ guard Terry Rozier might be attractive.


Several contenders will most likely give the Orlando front office a call about Vucevic’s availability, but it is likely he will finish off the season with the Magic. Then the team will have to decide whether or not to sign him for big money, or let him walk in the offseason. Given their non-contender status and the fact they selected center Mo Bamba with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, all signs indicate that Nikola Vucevic may be in another uniform to start the 2019-20 season. His numbers are not an anomaly, and at 28 years old, he is just starting his prime years. 

Edited by Emily Berman.

SQuiz
Though he is known for his tenure with the Orlando Magic, with what team did Nikola Vucevic start his career?
Created 12/12/18
  1. New York Knicks
  2. Philadelphia 76ers
  3. Memphis Grizzlies
  4. Denver Nuggets

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