Find yourself someone who talks about you the way Steve Clifford talks about Nikola Vucevic. It’s Saturday afternoon before the Magic face the Lakers in Los Angeles, and Clifford, speaking after team practice on USC’s Galen Center courts, reacts to a question about Vucevic as if you’ve asked him about a member of his own family. His eye widen, he gushes, and he almost stumbles over his own words.
“Inside and outside,” Orlando’s first-year head coach says of the way Vucevic’s game has impressed him so far. “And it’s not just his scoring, it’s his passing ability and skill level that creates space for his teammates.”
Behind Clifford, Vucevic himself is sliding his 7-foot body around the arc, taking 3s with a stroke that looks like a shooting guard’s. He barely misses. Vucevic is taking nearly three 3s a game this season; last year, he shot a career-high 3.6 3s per game. Before that, he had averaged one 3 a game during only one season of his career. In other words, he was a classic center.
The Magic, known for their affinity for players who aren’t reliable shooters, are a bottom-10 team in 3-point percentage (even though Terrence Ross is shooting a scorching 42.5 percent from deep), which makes Vucevic, who is shooting 39 percent from deep, seem like Steph Curry. It’s fitting, really, that in a league that’s democratized the 3-point shot, Vucevic, a 7-footer, is the Magic’s creator of space. But what’s different about this season’s love affair with the long-range shot is that the Montenegrin actually had time to invest in making it a reliable weapon.
“The past summer, I played for the national team, so it was harder to find time to practice them,” Vucevic tells me. “This summer, I practiced them a lot more. The goal was to make it feel like it was just a regular shot.”
Right now, everything looks as easy as a lay-in for Vucevic. He’s already had four games of 30 points or more this season—two of them against the Lakers and Warriors on back-to-back nights this week. Last season, he finished the year with only three such games. On the season, the center is averaging 20.8 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per contest. He’s getting to the line more than ever, too, and shooting over 80 percent from there. His effective field goal percentage is 58.4 percent—the best of his career. In the East, these are All-Star-level numbers. And while Vucevic will surely be beaten out by Joel Embiid for a starting center spot, he’s on track to earn a place on the roster.
Vucevic doesn’t have a shooting coach. In fact, he’ll seem slightly offended if you ask. “My shooting form is good, and my jump shot has always been good, so I don’t need one,” he says. “It’s just about realizing and training your body to find the open spots on the court and taking a few steps back.”
Like many bigs around the league, Vucevic is constructing an outside game after years tethered to the paint, but this season he’s put more emphasis on shots closer to the rim. His percentage of shots in the restricted area has increased by 4 percent, and his shots inside of 10 feet, where he’s shooting 66.4 percent, now account for more than half of his attempts.
Vucevic is starting to shy away from the midrange, too, even if the Magic aren’t. Assuming he plays all 82 games this season, he’s set to take 281 midrange shots. Two seasons ago, when he played in only 75 games, he shot a remarkable 449 times from the same area. “I was so used to getting shots in the midrange that now it’s about getting my feel for the 3s and finding those spots to see where I can get easier shots,” he says.
Vucevic’s style of play is the matte to other players’ chrome. His game is slow, prodding, and methodical, a blend of old-school post moves and new-age spacing unlocked with Clifford’s guidance. The former Hornets head coach has turned Vucevic into more of a playmaker (his usage is a career-high 26.9 percent). Clifford has positioned Vucevic at the top of the floor not just to take 3s when open, but, more importantly, to screen and roll, screen and pop, and pass. “His ability to pass the ball, especially because the lane is so open since he’s not down there, is the added quality that he brings to offense that not many people possess,” Clifford says. “I know that just from the film work and the things that we chart, our best games are when we score a lot of cutting baskets, and a lot of that comes from his ability to make those passes.”
Eight years into his career, Vucevic has perfected the art of waiting for cutters to make their way toward the basket. And he also knows when it’s best to put his head down and deploy his post moves. Despite Vucevic’s affair with the 3-point line, he is still averaging 7.5 post-ups per game and is one of the 10 most efficient scorers in the paint this season (minimum six paint touches per game). He attracts a lot of the attention on the Magic, who are without another reliable scoring option, and he’s made the most of it, especially by punishing smaller lineups.
Sheesh. Nikola Vucevic spun around LeBron like it was nothing. pic.twitter.com/QjINTTcZUq— Matthew Cardenas (@Matt__Cardenas) November 26, 2018
In lieu of shooting—or perhaps in spite of it—Orlando under Clifford has tried to become a passing team that relies on off-ball movement. Only two teams have averaged more distance run per game than the Magic, no team is creating more potential assists, and only the Bucks and the Warriors have more assist points created. The 26.3 assists per game (an uptick of about three over last year) Orlando is averaging is good for fifth in the league. And all of this revolves around Vucevic: He’s top-five in the league among centers in passes made, assists, potential assists, and assist points created.
“My ability to pass from up top, it opens up a lot of opportunities for us,” Vucevic says. “We get a lot easy points from there, and it just messes up the defense when there’s a lot of movement.” For now, Vucevic seems to have taken some defenses by surprise, but it’s unclear how long that will last before opponents adjust to his new skill set. But one thing is undeniable: The Magic’s 10-11 start, surprisingly good by their standards, wouldn’t have been possible without Vucevic’s production.
Vucevic is also in a contract year, which may be why we’re seeing the best version of him yet. This kind of career season may also be the boost he needs to attract attention both on the trade market and in free agency. Orlando’s theoretical timeline is more aligned with those of Mo Bamba (20 years old), Jonathan Isaac (21), and Aaron Gordon (23). Vucevic is 28. This start is probably the team’s ceiling with Vucevic as its no. 1 option. Even now, the Magic’s point differential is minus-3, and, for all the emphasis on passing, they’re still a bottom-10 offensive team.
While there’s no clear trade partner out there for Vucevic right now (and why would any fringe contender give up assets now if it could sign him over the summer?), it may behoove Orlando to try its best to deal Vucevic and continue its rebuild without him. The Vucevic experience has been fun—you don’t need to tell Clifford that twice—but his value may never be higher than it is now.