State of the Magic: Nikola Vucevic off to strong start

Continued good health is a frequent wish at this time of year. That probably goes double for the Orlando Magic with Nikola Vucevic.

A glance last week at news involving two other Eastern Conference centers of note should make the Magic all the more appreciative of the 7-foot native of Montenegro by way of USC.

For the second time in the last three seasons, the Atlanta Hawks are looking at needing to carry on without Al Horford because of a torn pectoral muscle. The former University of Florida star was averaging a team-high 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds before getting injured against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have suspended Andrew Bynum for was what termed as conduct detrimental to the team.

Bynum had been part of the multi-team trade in August 2012 where the Magic sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers. General manager Rob Hennigan, who had been hired just weeks earlier, was taken to task in some quarters for acquiring Vucevic instead of Bynum, whose bad knees and attitude have tended to overshadow his talent and potential.

Aside from when Vucevic missed four games in early December with a sprained left ankle, the result of stepping on the foot of a courtside cameraman at Washington, it’s been smooth sailing for someone who is again among the top five rebounders in the NBA. Or at least it was until he sprained the same ankle Tuesday night during the first quarter against Golden State, an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the game.

”It’s become not normal in today’s game,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said while looking for the nearest piece of wood to knock on when the subject of Vucevic’s health was posed to him. ”And for him to be available at every single practice, every single shootaround, every game and give maximum effort is pretty pleasing.”

Through his first 25 games this season, Vucevic had put up scoring and rebounding averages almost identical to when he was on his way to finishing fourth last season in the voting for Most Improved Player. What the 13.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per game don’t reflect is the ease with which he’s finishing near the rim with his left hand or making fewer passes leading to turnovers.

”He always had that in him,” Vaughn said. ”It’s just the growth now. He’s feeling more comfortable on the floor. Even when he gets the ball in the post, the comfort level of seeing cutters and being able to pass the ball out of the post … I just think he’€™s more comfortable.”

Vucevic has missed a total of only nine games since being part of the trade that also brought Arron Afflalo and Maurice Harkless to Orlando. He has absorbed plenty of bumps and bruises, but the Magic have gotten by for the most part with using him or Glen Davis at center. Second-year pro Kyle O’Quinn and veteran Jason Maxiell have fallen out of the rotation as of late.

”What he does, and I give him a lot of credit, is he takes care of his body,” Vaughn said. ”He takes care of himself. I give a lot of credit to his parents for that.”

Vucevic’s father, Borislav, played professionally for 24 years and was a member of the Yugoslavian national team that included the legendary Drazen Petrovic. After turning 23 in October, it’s still too soon to tell if the Magic will see anything close to that type of longevity out of him.

But Vaughn likes the odds.

”Hopefully those genes carry on,” he said.

WHAT’S HOT


   

The Magic got a combined 104 points in the paint in their victories over the Pistons and the Hawks. Excluding the eight 3-pointers they made in 21 attempts, they shot better than 62 percent against Atlanta. Vucevic and Afflalo combined to go 14 of 20 inside the arc.

Tobias Harris, who had gone 3 of 23 from 3-point range this season, knocked down three of them in six tries against the Hawks. Harris played at least 33 minutes in each of his first five games since replacing Victor Oladipo in the starting lineup.

WHAT’S NOT

Andrew Nicholson went into Tuesday night having seen his minutes radically reduced since Harris’ return. He played only four minutes against New York and followed up his first DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision) against Detroit by going scoreless with one rebound in eight minutes against Atlanta. Before the loss to the Knicks, the second-year forward was averaging 9.3 points and 5.1 rebounds in 21 minutes.

The return of guard E’Twaun Moore after missing three games with a right thigh contusion meant forward Solomon Jones went back on the inactive list. Since playing 17 minutes in a blowout loss Nov. 20 to the Miami Heat, Jones has gotten in a total of seven games and logged no more than eight minutes in any single contest.

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

”My first reaction was, ‘Are you sure you have the right number?’ ” — Former Magic forward Pat Garrity, who was honored Friday night as part of the franchise’s 25th anniversary. Garrity played in 513 games for the Magic from 1999 to 2008 but made only 98 starts, and none after 2003.

”That all-star stuff, I don’t touch. Will I talk to other coaches and say how great he’s been for us and how impressive he’s been for us? Yes. But I won’t be making any banners.” — Vaughn, on whether Afflalo should make the Eastern Conference squad when reserves for the game Feb. 16 in New Orleans are announced. He went into Tuesday night 11th in the NBA in scoring (21.9), tied for ninth in 3-point shooting percentage (.448) and tied with Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant for sixth in minutes per game (37.8).

”It’s a process to learn how to win. You don’t just put a team out there and you’re going to win. You have to learn the course and stay the course. When you have those bad nights offensively, you have to rely on your energy and your defense. Lately we’ve been shooting the ball well, and our defense has been there for us for the most part at the end of those games.” — Jameer Nelson, after the Magic put together their first winning streak since beating Atlanta and Philadelphia on back-to-back nights before Thanksgiving.

NUMBERS GAME

39: The Hawks attempted that many 3-pointers Sunday night against the Magic, including 11 by Lou Williams and seven by Shelvin Mack. The single-game record for a Magic opponent is 40 by the Golden State Warriors in December 2007.

19: Through the Magic’s first 30 games, that was how often Afflalo led or tied for the team lead in scoring. No other player had captured team-high scoring honors more than four times.

2: After losing 11 consecutive regular-season games to the Hawks dating back to December 2010, the Magic have now defeated them twice in a row. Their final meeting this season occurs Jan. 22 in Orlando.

THIS DAY IN MAGIC HISTORY

Jan. 1, 2012: For the only time in franchise history, the Magic hosted a game on New Year’s Day. A large reason for that was because the regular season didn’t begin until Christmas because of a lockout that shortened the season to 66 games. The Magic got 24 points from Ryan Anderson in a 102-96 victory over the Toronto Raptors to improve their record to 4-1. Other New Year’s Day games involving them took place in 2010 at Minnesota and in 2005 at Chicago.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

In case you needed a reminder, Nicholson attended high school in West Mississaugua, Ontario before spending four years at St. Bonaventure and was a member of the Canadian National Team.

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.