As first reported by the Orlando Sentinel, the Orlando Magic and Nikola Vucevic reached an agreement yesterday on a four-year, $53-million extension that will keep the young center under contract through 2019.
Neither the monetary figure nor the deal in itself is particularly surprising. There is a new financial landscape in place in the NBA now due to the signing of the new television rights contract, and the first group helped by it is constituted of players like Vucevic, with just enough production and promise left as they get in line for their second NBA contract. Orlando’s front office is now entering the third year of its post-Dwight Howard rebuilding, and it identified Vucevic as a linchpin back when it started this process by trading Dwight Howard. And while he does not appear to be developing into one of the 10 most impactful centers in the league, he is one of the 10 most productive.
With three years remaining on Victor Oladipo’s rookie deal and four in those of Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon, Vucevic’s extension is by no means crippling to Orlando’s cap sheet. Other spending will of course still need to happen during the term of Vucevic’s extension, but their core will stay cheap for a while yet. Vucevic represents the largest expense so far and at any point in the near future, but with a phenomenal amount of financial flexibility even before the upcoming spike in the salary cap, Orlando can certainly afford this amount. The question is whether the amount is right.
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Ultimately, Orlando invested two years developing Vucevic, not just in terms of giving him playing time but also emotionally. After Howard forced his way out and cost the franchise Stan Van Gundy in the process, Vucevic has become part of their culture and a certain part of their core, in comparison to the less certain prognoses of others such as Tobias Harris, Moe Harkless, Andrew Nicholson and head coach Jacque Vaughn. Even if Vucevic does not develop into more than what he is now – very much a worse case scenario considering his age – the Magic are retaining him at fair market value, especially in light of comparable deals elsewhere this summer – the Washington Wizards, for example, signed the considerably older Marcin Gortat to a five-year, $60 million contract. Bigs, of course, have always cost more.
Entering his age-24 season, Vucevic is an average scorer at this point. He dealt with injuries that limited him to just 57 appearances last season, yet his 1.16 point per shot average was in line with his 1.12 career average, and low for a center. His main role in Orlando’s offense was as a finisher off of ball-screens, but despite this, Vucevic is only an iffy screener, in part because the Magic’s guards were not particularly great at leading on-ball defenders into him and he often needed to drag his leg in order to draw contact. For a guy listed at seven-feet tall and 250 pounds, Vucevic is not all that big in comparison to other NBA centers and opponents managed to navigate around his picks without much struggle.
Orlando ran a lot of pick-and-rolls from about 28 to 30 feet away from the basket, and Vucevic showed good hands to catch the ball on the move and good quickness when diving down the lane with momentum. But he does not play above the rim as a target for lobs (only 19 alley-oop scores in his three-year NBA career) or play with a lot of explosiveness through traffic. And with Orlando’s inability to generate any sort of spacing last season, there was a lot of traffic inside the lane. As a result, he shot just 42% out of the pick-and-roll.
Popping into the in-between range, Vucevic was elite, hitting his 254 shots at a 44.5% clip. He is a very good jump-shooter off the catch due to smooth mechanics, a quick trigger in comparison to other big men, and a high release point. This is also reflected in his 76.7& foul line shooting, and perhaps Orlando should attempt to extract higher value from his jumpshooting by having him develop into a stretch five, stretching out the jump shot he already has. It seems like a waste of a rare shooting talent not to, especially considering that Vucevic does not earn free throws at a rate expected of someone his size (shooting a single foul shot for every five field goals he attempted last season).
As a shot creator, Vucevic improved a lot from his second season and did rather well in the post. He lacked strength to back opponents down or create much separation, but nevertheless proved quite effective with his turnaround jump-shots and hooks, capable of releasing over either shoulder, even when well contested. His 46& shooting on post-ups ranked him in the top 100 in the league. He is a capable passer out of there, too, identifying shooters rotating into open spots on the perimeter, although he is far from the type of player who can ignite consistent ball movement at this point.
Vucevic’s strengths and weakness are roughly the same on the other end. He played very impressive post defense, allowing just 0.72 points per possession, which ranked him 43rd in the league. He surrendered deep position at times, and struggled to hold his ground against stronger players but kept himself alive in these plays and contested shots extremely well thanks to his length. That length also helped him challenge a lot of close range shots, although it did not translate into quality rim protection, as opponents shot 56.6% at the basket with him protecting it. Vucevic is a capable shot blocker on occasion and has flashed decent quickness rotating from the weak side, but either he was coached to stay bound to the ground or he simply does not feel as comfortable leaving his feet. As a result, his mere lengthy presence was not as effective as hoped.
Vucevic also was not very effective contesting shots out of the pick-and-pop. The Magic had Vucevic guarding the ball screen flat, positioning himself at the foul line, even against notoriously good mid-range shooters, for it was the best he could do. Vucevic has good feet to move in space, but lacks great short range quickness to be effective against these plays. Overall, Orlando allowed almost a point and a half less per 100 possessions without him in the line-up.
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A player of average efficiency on offense and negative impact on defense, Vucevic’s difference making skill is as a rebounder. He collected 66.5 percent of available boards last season, which ranked 10th in the league among big men who logged a minimum of 20 games and 20 minutes per game. Vucevic has very good instincts tracking the ball off the rim a split second quicker than the opposition, and can rebound outside of his area due to his seven-foot-four wingspan. He is also very active fighting for tipped balls thanks to impressive “second jump-ability” (term coined by Jay Bilas). Tip-ins and put-back layups accounted for 98 of his 181 field-goals at the rim.
By re-signing Vucevic now rather than letting him reach restricted free agency next summer, the Magic are counting on him having a better season and making that deal look better after the fact. The Raptors, for example, lucked out when doing that with DeMar DeRozan. Orlando worked this offseason on making sure there is a better ecosystem around Vucevic for that to happen – after drafting Oladipo last year, the Magic added two more athletes with the same defensive pedigree in Payton and Gordon to play in front of him, a signed star role player Channing Frye in free agency to open up the lane some on offense. Yet the supporting cast can only do so much. The real justification for the paycheck can only come from Vucevic. And when still stuck with defensive concerns and offensive inefficiency, Vucevic has a way to go yet.