Nikol a Vucevic may be the Orlando Magic’s best player, but playing as more of a point-forward in the future may hold the key to prolonging his prime.
The Orlando Magic still have a lot to play for this season, as a return to the playoffs for the second year in a row would show that they are continuing to improve. This despite bringing back their core last summer and committing to a roster that quite clearly as a ceiling.
At the forefront of that is center Nikola Vucevic. An All-Star for the first time in 2018-19, he has been the Magic’s best player for a number of years now. As we saw when Marc Gasol gave him nightmares in the playoffs last year, however, Vucevic as their best player can only take them so far.
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But what if he was to mix his game up as he gets older? Doing so wouldn’t catapult the Orlando Magic into contention, but if nothing else it would give the franchise a different way to be able to match up with opponents and to try and beat them. Is becoming a point-forward the key to this growth, and does Vucevic have it in him to do so?
Beginning with the skillset of Vucevic, and it is clear that the Magic would have something to work with if they used him in this way. You could argue Vucevic is already some way towards being labeled a point-forward, as the team’s offensive sets have orbited around him for a number of years now and were part of the reason he made the All-Star game last year.
His 3-point shooting, although it took a dip this season (32.9 percent on a career-high 4.6 attempts per game), has improved hugely in recent years, and has helped Vucevic extend his game beyond the basket. Rather than this be a negative and show that he does not like contact however, it makes him a more deadly pick and roll partner with somebody like Markelle Fultz.
Vucevic is capable of stepping outside and making a shot, while his footwork offensively is among the best in the league and makes him difficult to stop around the basket. Add to that his deft handling and ability to spot a pass, and Vucevic is basically already a point-forward, so why not take it one step forward and try it out for extended periods of time?
Nikola Jokic is of course the standard-bearer of what a point-forward can be, and he is also a better player than Vucevic. Still, the comparison between both statistically isn’t as far away as you might think (Jokic a career 16.9 points per game, Vucevic 16 while Jokic has 9.7 rebounds and Vucevic has 10.2).
These are only basic numbers and don’t really explain how Vucevic can become more like Jokic. Vucevic (29) also has five years on the younger Jokic (24), so he has had a lot more time to put up numbers in the league. Despite this Jokic has already made two All-Star teams to Vucevic’s one, and he’s far more likely to add to that tally going forward than “Vooch”.
Jokic however does have a system in place with the Denver Nuggets that really makes the most of his generational passing. He typically can have four shooters on the court with him at any one time, but more than that players like Jamal Murray are excellent cutters too, who move for Jokic as he finds them.
Vucevic isn’t able to enjoy quite the same setup with the Magic, but getting creative with the lineups they try might be the key to getting another dimension out of his game. Putting Vucevic with Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, James Ennis III and Wesley Iwundu for example would give him four decent shooters to work with. Certainly the best four shooters the Magic could put together right now.
Playmaking duties could be left to Fournier when needed, but really these guys would be moving around Vucevic as he set them up. Vucevic’s career assists per game (2.6) are right in line with a lot of bigs, and not close to Jokic (5.4). But in the last two seasons, that number has gotten much closer to four assists a night (3.8 and 3.7 respectively). He has clearly improved in this area.
With the rest of the league having caught onto the fact that if you stop Vucevic and his scoring (he’s pretty much a 20 and 10 guy each night) then you are able to slow down the Magic, this would be a brilliant wrinkle for head coach Steve Clifford to introduce.
There would be growing pains in doing so, but the Magic aren’t going to be a factor if they make it to the postseason this year. Why not give somebody like the Milwaukee Bucks a fright for a game or two by mixing up Vucevic’s role? At three years and $75 million left after this season, he’s going nowhere. So why not try and get the most out of his skill set?