LOS ANGELES — When Nikola Vucevic’s son grows up — he and his wife are expecting their first child next month — this is the video he’s going to show the boy over and over:
Dad posting up LeBron James, using a spin move to blow by him and dunking while the all-time great is helpless to stop him.
It’s a fitting image of how Vucevic’s season has gone.
Vucevic dropped 31 points on the Lakers Sunday then turned around on a back-to-back and had 30 points Monday against the Warriors. Those games continue a run that has him looking like one of the two best centers in the East (Joel Embiid claims the other spot) and playing like an All-Star and Most Improved Player candidate— 20.8 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, shooting 39 percent from three, with a PER of 26.9.
If you prefer your stats advanced: Vucevic is fifth in the basketball-reference.com’s “value over replacement player” (VORP) stat, nestled between Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving on the list, ahead of Kevin Durant and James Harden.
Vucevic has been that good this season.
Vucevic credits new Orlando coach Steve Clifford for putting him in better situations this season, which sparked his improved numbers. Last season Vucevic took 56 percent of his shots either at the rim or on short mid-rangers off post-ups or runners (usually within 8 feet of the rim), this season that is up to 65 percent (stats via Cleaning the Glass). While that has come at the expense of fewer three-pointers, the ones he is getting now are cleaner looks and his percentage from beyond the arc has jumped from 31.4 percent a year ago to 39 percent this season.
“The way we play now, it helps me playing inside-out, it gets me going and makes me more comfortable,” Vucevic said. “Last year I felt I was a little too much on the perimeter, space the floor, which is fine, but at the same time [this season’s style] makes it much more difficult for the other team and gives them a different look. It works great for me because I get some easy ones in the paint and am able to step out.
“The way coach wants me, wants us, to play fits my skill set.”
That skill set is also going to get him paid next summer as a free agent, whether by Orlando or someone else. There are a lot of playoff/contending teams intrigued by the idea of adding Vucevic via trade this season, especially with his very reasonable $12.8 million contract (and the fact Orlando has rookie Mo Bamba behind him). However, sources tell me Orlando is not going to be taking those calls unless they drop way out of the playoff picture by the deadline (the Magic are currently the eight seed in the East).
“He’s probably a little overlooked, he’s a very, very good player,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “Coaches, players that have to play against him, when you watch tape he can score all over the floor on you. He’s a nightmare to match up with when you’re scheming against him whether you’re switching or you’re in a drop because of that ability.”
Teams will come calling next July with big contracts just because of he’s such a matchup nightmare and how it opens up an offense. For example, on Orlando’s first possession of the game Sunday against the Lakers, Aaron Gordon curled off a Vucevic off-ball screen, received a pass about the free throw line and attacked the rim down the lane, going in for a thunderous dunk. Why? Because JaVale McGee couldn’t afford to leave Vucevic unguarded 18 feet from the rim, so he was out higher than he wanted to be and was a step slow on the rotation. Vucevic created those kinds of problems all game.
“That’s the advantage of having Vuc out there,” Clifford said. “Normally, if you don’t have a range shooting center, they’re going to have somebody in the paint there. He’s so involved, especially at that point in the game, there’s a lot of room to drive the ball.”
The Lakers struggled against the problems a lot of teams have had against Vucevic and the Magic this season. Los Angeles prefers to have its bigs drop off a pick-and-roll and protect the rim (the same strategy a number of teams use, such as Milwaukee and Utah). Do that against Vucevic and he pops out and drains a three. Keep your big out higher to stay with Vucevic and the lane opens up for drives. Switch that pick and Vucevic will head down to the block with that smaller player show off his variety of post moves — just ask LeBron.
“When he’s in the game, it’s hard for [the other team to go small] because he’s good at posting and our guys are good at finding him…” Clifford said. “Every team that’s downsized when he’s on the floor, we’re good. We struggled when he wasn’t out there.”
“I just wanted to keep being aggressive when they try to switch matchups against me,” Vucevic said. “We’re calling plays to get me involved in the offense, to get me the ball in spots, and I’m just trying to be aggressive.”
Vucevic spent last summer at home in Orlando, spending time with his wife and preparing for his new son, not playing internationally for Montenegro.
“I think one of the things [that has him playing well], to be honest with you, if you ask him, he didn’t play for his national team this summer,” Clifford said. “I know he’d tell you he feels fresher, so I think that’s a big part of it.”
Players rarely talk poorly of their national teams and the toll, and Vucevic didn’t fully buy what Clifford was selling.
“It’s just different because when you play for the national team you get into game shape in July, the end of July into August, ready to play a transition game, so you come into the season having played for a month or two,” Vucevic said. “So it’s a little different, but I’m still 28 so it’s not too big.”
What is big is the impact he is having on the Orlando Magic and the NBA this season.
“You never know a guy until you coach him. I never liked to coach against him,” Clifford said. “He brings inside/outside decision making and he’s a far better defender than anyone has given him credit for. He’s playing at a very high level and playing an all-around game.”
The other thing that’s big? That contract he is going to get next summer after stepping up his game.