This week, we’re taking a look at Nikola Vucevic, a guy who’s getting some All-Star buzz in the East even as he flies under the radar as the center of an Orlando Magic team firmly planted in that Mediocrity Hell between the Easy First-Round Outs (Miami, Brooklyn, and Charlotte, of whom only the Heat are even so much as at .500; the other two squads are below it through games of January 10) and the Panzer Battalion that is the Hawks, Bulls, Knicks, and Cavaliers.
The Magic are in 10th place in the East, 2.5 games out of eighth place and mired in the same tier that includes Detroit and Washington. They look like they’re going to miss the playoffs for the seventh straight year, and they haven’t even been entertainingly bad. They’ve only cracked 30 wins once since Dwight Howard forced Stan Van Gundy out of town after the 2012 season and the franchise imploded.
But there’s Vooch, on the team all seven of those years after playing his rookie campaign in Philadelphia, shipped out a year before Sam Hinkie showed up and went Lizzie Borden on the franchise.
And sure, the counting stats don’t look awful (more on this in a hot minute), but 20 points and 12 rebounds do not always an All-Star make.
So let’s dig a little deeper. Is Vucevic deserving of that top-12-in-the-East status? Or is he just a guy with decent stats on a perennially atrocious Magic team? To be Confirmed here, he’s gotta have numbers that scream “All-Star” from the rooftops, especially when you can rattle off a list of names of deserving East frontcourt guys with hardly a second thought (Giannis, Blake, Kawhi…)
The Counting Stats
Vucevic took a huge step forward last year as he integrated the three-pointer into his game. He shot it terribly (31.4 percent on 3.6 attempts a game), but he clearly showed signs of trying to evolve into a modern big man (Brook Lopez, looking at you) for today’s era.
He’s made an even bigger leap this year, as he’s still shooting 3.1 threes a game, but he’s making them at a 39.3 percent clip.
He’s averaging 20.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 3.7 assists a game, his blocks (1.2) are a career-high as well, and his one steal is on the same level as his last three seasons.
Throw in a much stronger touch at the rim (56.1 percent on two-pointers, a massive career-high, and an attendant eFG% of .567) and what you see is a guy who finally learned how to offense.
The Advanced Stats
Oh man, his numbers have jumped through the roof and out of the building. The Big 5 tells the story:
2017-18: 19.7 PER, .533 TS%, .102 WS/48, 2.7 BPM, 2.88 VORP/82.
2018-19: 26.3 PER, .590 TS%, .190 WS/48, 6.9 BPM, 5.74 VORP/82.
That’s right…Vucevic is on pace to post nearly six VORP if he stays healthy. That’s not just All-Star caliber, that’s “if the Magic weren’t utter trash we’d be whispering MVP.”
Vucevic is sixth in the NBA in PER. He’s sixth in Box Plus/Minus. He’s seventh in Value Over Replacement Player. He’s fourth in Defensive Rebounding Percentage. He’s 17th in Defensive Rating, a stat that tends to favor players on great defensive teams, something the Magic are not. 12th in Defensive Win Shares. 15th in Defensive BPM.
I mean, it really doesn’t need to be made any clearer than this, right?
You’re bloody right Vucevic is an All-Star. He’s a fantastic defender on a team with an awful defense (they’re 13th in Defensive Rating. Imagine them without Vooch.) He’s becoming a handy scorer inside and out, having finally figured out how to shoot a basketball.
And he’s even a slick-passing big man.
Nikola Vucevic may fly under the radar of the national NBA media since he’s never on ESPN or TNT, but he’s good. Real good. Confirmed good.
NEXT WEEK: Malcolm Brogdon. Does he do more than just make free throws?