For the second year in a row, Nikola Vucevic can point with pride to the strides he has made in becoming one of the NBA’s more consistent and dependable centers.
But his progress was again not reflected in the record of the Orlando Magic. Points and rebounds are no substitute for victories, and Vucevic has made it clear that going through another season of more than 50 losses is unacceptable to him.
"It’s not easy when you lose," he said after a sore left Achilles forced him to sit out the final seven games of his third season in the league. "It’s not fun. All of us on this team want to win. We’re competitors. That’s why you play. I guess it’s part of us growing."
At 23, Vucevic is part of the core of young players being counted on by coach Jacque Vaughn and general manager Rob Hennigan for the long haul. While the Oklahoma City Thunder are often cited as the model for a franchise which took its lumps at first rebuilding through the draft and trades before emerging as a title contender, the Magic can’t afford to become like the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Sacramento Kings in rarely challenging for a playoff berth.
"We just can’t accept it," Vucevic said. "We’ve got to take it as a challenge to where we want to turn it around. And the only way we can do that is if you work hard and prepare ourselves."
After finishing fourth in the Most Improved Player voting in his first season with the Magic, the 7-footer continued to command attention. Never was that more apparent than in late March, when Vucevic’s play over a three-game stretch garnered him Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors.
He began with 22 points and 10 rebounds in a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers and followed that up with 24 points and 23 rebounds as the Magic defeated the Charlotte Bobcats in overtime. While the week ended with a five-point loss to the Toronto Raptors, Vucevic distinguished himself against a quality opponent with 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting to go with 10 rebounds.
"Overall I’m pleased with how I played," he said. "I think I made a lot of improvement in a lot of different areas, especially my post game. That was my main focus going into the offseason last year, and I think the work I put in paid off."
"I thought he began to play with a heightened physicality and an assertiveness," Hennigan said. "We expect that to continue."
When the Magic beat the Indiana Pacers in February, Vucevic finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds compared to six points and seven rebounds for Roy Hibbert, who played in the All-Star Game a week later. But in three meetings with the Miami Heat, he was nowhere the dominant force who put up a pair of 20-20 games against them a year earlier.
"There were different times of the year where physical strength was an issue," Vaughn said.
Vucevic also struggled when it came to blocking shots. After having 24 games with two or more in the 2012-13 season, he had 10 this past season and only four after Dec. 23. Becoming more adept at protecting the rim is an area he intends to emphasize.
"I’m not the most athletic guy in this league, so I’m not necessarily going to get a lot of blocks," he said. "But I still can defend the paint better."
He’s not a finished product. But regardless of what the Magic decide to do with the fourth pick in next month’s draft, Vucevic remains very much part of their plan.
"Confidence is an important piece to the puzzle for any young player," Hennigan said. "And we have a lot of young players on our team, Nik being one of them. We feel like his confidence grew exponentially."
Not only did Vucevic average almost the same number of rebounds he did in his first season with the Magic, but his scoring average increased from 13.1 to 14.2 points a game. He became more effective in the low post on either side of the lane. He also got to the free-throw line more often and hit 76.6 percent of his attempts, a number almost any other NBA center would envy.
WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE
His strength and conditioning continue to be a concern, and not just because Vucevic missed 25 games (and the Magic went 4-21 without him). Even if he never becomes much of a shot-blocker for someone his size, he should be willing to mix it up inside more. Developing a mean streak wouldn’t hurt, although the Magic would prefer not seeing a repeat of the March 19 game at Phoenix where he was ejected in the first quarter
Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Clippers. The Magic were 2-0 in games where Vucevic finished with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. His 30-point, 21-rebound effort against a team which eventually reached the Western Conference semifinals showed that his breakthrough season was no fluke
Since the season ended, Vucevic backed out of playing for his native country of Montenegro in an international qualifying tournament scheduled for August. The Magic can offer him a contract extension this summer, and given what centers such as Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol have received in recent years, Vucevic should easily double and maybe even triple the $2.75 million he’ll make in 2014-15.