Welcome back to the Orlando Magic player evaluation series, where we preview the role of individual players on the Magic roster, for the upcoming season. We will be looking at each players strengths and weaknesses, as well as their projected role in the upcoming season. In this edition, the focus is on center Nikola Vucevic.
The Importance of Nikola Vucevic to the 2017-18 Orlando Magic
Vucevic has without a doubt been one of the most consistent players in Orlando in recent years. Having averaged a double-double in four of the last five seasons, the Montenegrin center has become an essential part of the Magic roster. However, despite his strong consistency, Vucevic has never been able to break into the same class as top NBA centers.
Entering the 2016-17 season, Vucevic was faced with competition for minutes, as the Magic had to deal with a logjam of big men that included Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka. Vucevic initially found it difficult to break out as the clear starter and started the fewest number of games since his rookie season.
Last Season’s Struggles
The competition for minutes caused Vucevic to average just 28.8 minutes per game, something that significantly impacted his output. Vucevic’s scoring cropped off last season, as he averaged just 14.6 points per game. In the season before, he averaged 18.2 points, a significantly better number.
Additionally, Vucevic shot just 46.8 percent from the floor last season, also the lowest since his rookie year. Despite this, he still managed to average a double-double and improved his game in other areas. Notably, Vucevic showed increased confidence and productivity in his three-point shooting. He attempted a career-high number of three-pointers per game.
Despite his generally disappointing season, Vucevic improved slightly following the All-Star break and Ibaka being traded to the Toronto Raptors. Vucevic found more minutes and also increased his scoring output, averaging 16.5 points over 29.7 minutes per game. He averaged a higher number of shots per game with 15.6. However, with his increased shooting volume, Vucevic’s field goal percentage fell to just 45.3 percent. The regression capped off a poor season for the six-year veteran.
2017-18 Season Predictions
This coming season is likely to be a make-or-break one for Vucevic. Orlando made a variety of moves this off-season in an attempt to bolster their roster. Whilst the Magic brought in depth throughout the team, the additions of Khem Birch and Marreese Speights will provide additional competition for minutes. Vucevic emerged as a serious trade target for competing teams last season, and it looks increasingly likely he could move on from Orlando before the end of this coming season.
A Potential Trade?
Jeff Weltman and John Hammond managed to work with limited cap room this off-season, whilst adding to the team in key areas. However, if the Magic are going to continue to improve next summer, it looks likely that they will be forced to shed one of the large contracts on the roster. Vucevic is owed a further $25 million over the next two seasons before his contract expires. With backup center Bismack Biyombo also guaranteed $51 million until 2020, the Magic will need to ditch a large contract sooner or later. Vucevic looks the more attractive piece in trade talks, as he would fit in seamlessly on a contending roster. Vucevic’s ability to perform consistently in a number of areas could see him draw the attention of playoff-bound teams once again.
In terms of statistics, I expect Vucevic to deliver similar levels of productivity to last season. The additional big men on the roster will likely see Vucevic lose minutes for the third season in a row. Vucevic made it to the Round of 16 whilst playing at EuroBasket this summer for Montenegro, averaging 14.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.8 assists over six games for his national squad. Vucevic also shot an efficient 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. Notably, he looked to have significantly improved his mid-range and three-point shooting from last season. Vucevic could increase his scoring output this season as a result of the added shooting range.
Make or Break Season
In the middle of last season, I wrote about how, despite being a strong starting center, Vucevic may never be able to compete with the elite players at his position. This still rings true. Despite having had a fairly successful career up to this point, Vucevic has never made it to the All-Star level. At the age of just 26, he still has plenty of time to do so. However, the Magic as a team are in no position to help propel Vucevuc to All-Star status. With Orlando still firmly in rebuild mode and looking to shed cap room, this could very well be a make or break season for Vucevic, and possibly his last in a Magic uniform.
NEW YORK, USA – APRIL 15: Nikola Vucevic (9) of the Orlando Magic in action against Brook Lopez (11) of the Brooklyn Nets during an NBA basketball game at the Barclays Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York City on April 15, 2015. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)