ORLANDO, Fla. — A fourth-place finish in the voting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award should bring a smile to the face of Nikola Vucevic.
But it also serves as a reminder of how close the Orlando Magic came to making a move which would have haunted the franchise for years down the road.
When the Magic’s Ryan Anderson, now of the New Orleans Hornets, captured the same award a year ago, the player who finished fourth behind him was Andrew Bynum. Yes, the same Andrew Bynum who was widely rumored to be headed to the Magic when Dwight Howard made it clear he wanted a change of scenery.
The same Andrew Bynum who was traded to Philadelphia instead and caused more than one online columnist to proclaim that new Magic general manager Rob Hennigan had been taken to the cleaners. The same Andrew Bynum who wound up sitting out the entire 2012-13 season and needed arthroscopic surgery on both of his knees – but was recently caught on video flamenco dancing in Spain.
Vucevic confined his moves to the court.
Going into training camp, it wasn’t even clear whether Vucevic would beat out Gustavo Ayon for Howard’s old spot in the starting lineup. By the time Ayon became a throw-in when the Magic sent J.J. Redick to the Milwaukee Bucks before the trading deadline, Vucevic had broken Shaquille O’Neal’s 19-year-old team record for the most rebounds in a game and made people realize the potential Hennigan saw in a 7-footer who won’t turn 23 until October.
“My goal is to become one of the best centers in the NBA,” Vucevic said. “And to do that, I’ve got to just keep working hard.”
At the start of the season, Vucevic was almost exclusively a face-up player with a dependable mid-range jump shot but little else in his offensive repertoire. But the time he put in after practices with assistant coach James Borrego and 6-foot-10 video analyst Matt Hill led to him developing confidence whenever he got the ball in the low post.
Two games best illustrated Vucevic’s emergence. The first came on New Year’s Eve against the Miami Heat, when he tallied career highs of 20 points and 29 rebounds in a game the Magic lost in overtime. Howard had four games of 25 or more rebounds during his eight years in Orlando, and O’Neal once pulled down 28 at New Jersey, but the native of Montenegro eclipsed both of them.
That showing occurred less than two weeks after Glen Davis, who had nine games of 10 or more rebounds in November and December, sprained his left shoulder. It was an injury that caused the season to take a turn for the worse but, in hindsight, might have accelerated the maturation of Vucevic.
“He wouldn’t be getting 30 rebounds if I was out there,” Davis said.
The second noteworthy accomplishment took place in another overtime contest, one in which the Magic defeated the Bucks a week before the end of the season. Vucevic finished with 30 points and 20 rebounds, while Tobias Harris – one of the three players acquired from Milwaukee for Redick, Ayon and guard Ish Smith – added 30 points and 19 rebounds. It marked the first time since 1967 that two NBA teammates scored at least 30 points and grabbed at least 19 rebounds in the same game.
Aside from the five games he missed with a concussion after taking an elbow in the mouth against the Indiana Pacers, Vucevic became a fixture in the starting lineup. His place for next season seems secure, although the same can’t be said for many of the players around him.
“That’s out of my control,” he said. “I can’t control that. My job is to be a professional and do my best on the floor.”
Howard, Kevin Love and David Lee are the only players in the league since 2008-09 to have longer streaks of games with nine or more rebounds than the 30-game streak registered by Vucevic. That type of consistency helped garner him 10 first-place votes for an award in which he finished behind only Paul George of the Pacers, Greivis Vasquez of the Hornets and Larry Sanders of the Bucks.
It doesn’t erase the sting of a 20-62 finish, but it gives both Vucevic and the Magic something to build on going into a summer where he’ll take part in the Eurobasket tournament for his native country.
“This year was a pretty rough year,” he said. “We didn’t win a lot of games, and we’re not happy about it. But we’re going to all work through the summer. And we have good pieces for a bright future.”
What he did right
It’s difficult to find fault with someone who came to the Magic as an unknown quantity but finished second in the NBA in rebounds and third in double-doubles with 46. His numbers went up as the season progressed, which was due in part to the post game he developed to go with his jump shot. He proved to be coachable and a positive influence on and off the court.
Where he needs to improve
He’s not as light as the 240 pounds the Magic have him listed at, but there is still room for him to get stronger. And while he’ll never become the shot-blocking force Howard was, someone of his stature should be able to average more than one over 33 minutes.
Dec. 31 vs. Miami. The 29 rebounds he pulled down against the Heat should stand as a franchise record for years to come. Not that he needed to show it wasn’t a fluke, but in the Magic’s next matchup with the Heat, he had 25 points and 21 rebounds before fouling out.
There aren’t many other centers in the Eastern Conference with his offensive skills and rebounding abilities. He’s under contract through the summer of 2015 and will then become a restricted free agent.