Many otherwise curious basketball fans might be guilty of ignoring the 10-12 Magic. Maybe because they are regular people just hoping to get through the day’s tasks without staring at an infinite procession of 6-foot-10-ish dudes scuttling across the hardwood in search of a jump shot. But if you are one such fan, you’ve been missing out on one of the minor miracles of the NBA season, a quarter in: the production of Nikola Vucevic. Averaging gaudy counting numbers of 21 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists a game, Vucevic has emerged as one of the most impactful players in the entire league—and, finally, that’s true on both sides of the ball, which marks a big step forward for a 28-year-old breaking out in his eight season.
In last night’s one-point loss to the Blazers, the Montenegrin offered a representative slice of his offensive gifts en route to a typical 20-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist line. Because he is a roving, omnivorous scorer from all over—he’s shooting 80 percent within three feet of the rim and 41 percent from three, nice figures that juice his 59 percent effective field goal percentage—he will always lure opposing bigs out into unpleasant territory. Vucevic embarrassed poor Jusuf Nurkic over and over: dusting him on drives after a simple ball fake; rising up over him for smooth jumpers, slow as yeast; clearing up some breathing room in the post with a well-aimed meaty shoulder. It’s nice enough to have a seven-footer shooting lights-out from three, which more than a few NBA teams can boast these days. It’s another thing altogether when that guy can threaten that shot, then barrel into the paint to make a gorgeous read with his off hand:
Vucevic, if you’ll recall, also began last season on an a tear; he and Aaron Gordon made me feel profoundly stupid about my early Magic feelings once they floated back down from their unsustainable shooting feats within weeks. But this time around, we’re on the cusp of December and Vucevic continues to hold up, perhaps spurred on by the pressures of a contract year and the fresh threat of a lottery pick angling for his starting spot. Possibly these incentives could also explain one of the most interesting developments: Nikola Vucevic, competent post defender? Last season opposing players actually shot a tick better at the rim when Vooch was the goof trying to stop them; now he’s dampening their shooting by 5 percent, putting him in the company of known rim guardians like Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert.
To be perfectly clear and sane: he is not the defender those guys are. But if he has worked to patch up his biggest apparent deficiency, his suite of offensive gifts make him one of the more interesting bigs on the market this summer in free agency. Or, if the Magic take the full view of their uninspiring -3.2 net rating and big man futures (Gordon, Mo Bamba, and Jonathan Isaac are all 23-and-under), then they may decide to slow this season down a bit. If they can find a willing win-now partner who could benefit from Vooch’s talents and/or expiring contract, they might be able to flip him while his value’s at an all-time high, maybe for a young perimeter player to round out their uneven roster. If these 22 games don’t misrepresent the underlying talent, there are plenty of teams that could plug a versatile center into the starting lineup and reap quick rewards. But for now, on a team that sorely needs him to do a little bit of everything, Vucevic remains a nightly spectacle, even if no one but the most depraved League Pass deviants or bored Floridians are watching.