Monday, May 12, 2014

Examining Nikola Vucevic's 2013-2014 Magic Season

Over the course of the Magic's offseason, leading up to the NBA Draft, I'll be analyzing all of the Orlando players that are still on the roster and how they did in their 2013-2014 campaign. I'll be going in ascending order based on games played. I won't be assigning grades or scores.

Previously in the series:

Doron Lamb
Jason Maxiell
Ronnie Price
Dewayne Dedmon

Let's take a look at Nikola Vucevic

It's never fun to go from a 77-game breakout sophomore season to a 57-contest campaign that involved hurting your ankle by tripping over a camera guy or getting concussed, but that's what Nikola Vucevic has been through. It's unfortunate that Vooch's EuroBasket experience last September could've gone much better. Even after all of that, Vucci Mane's future is very bright.

His importance to this franchise is well known. Orlando's record this season with Vucevic was 19-38. Without Nik, the Magic were 4-21. Vooch tallied 36 double-doubles. Nik had 46 of them last season. His 11.0 rebounds per game was still good enough for 8th-best in the NBA.

The Montenegrin notched ten games last year where he scored 20+ points. In '13-'14 that total was eleven contests. So Vucevic took up more scoring responsibility, raising his average to a career-best 14.2 ppg from the previous 13.1 ppg. Doing it by playing a minute and a half less per contest. The 1.1 spg, 0.8 bpg, and 76.6 FT% were also career-highs. Vucevic matched his career-high with 30 points early this season against the Clippers (as you see above). That film is a solid sample platter of Nik's improved arsenal, and Jacque was impressed.
Coach Vaughn on Vucevic: "He was extremely determined from the first play of the game. His aggressiveness on both ends of the floor, I love it. He looked over at me and wanted me to call his number. That's a first in our time together and so it's great to see and great to be a part of. Just seeing his growth overall of looking forward to playing the game of basketball, competing every night, I love it."
The man can score efficiently, he's one of the best offensive weapons on the team (even when the veterans ignore him) and one of the better scoring centers in the league. Jump shot consistency is being developed. Coach Vaughn needs to feed him the ball even more next season. I wouldn't fret about the slight drop in rebounding and FG%. That's a testament to Nik's injuries and shaking off rust in his return games.

Room for improvement exists, but Nik still shot over fifty percent. Examining the game logs, you'll notice that Vucevic got off to a superb start to the season, missed time in December, and really didn't get back to that full Vucevic form until after the All-Star Break. Vooch received his first ever NBA honor by winning Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the final week of March.

Nik being shut down for the final 7 games of the year can be viewed as the coaching staff being pleased with Vucevic and seeing no need to put him on the court in that 'tanking' stretch. We'll never know how many of those 25 missed Vooch contests were due to actual injury or a tactic to lose more games.

It's also unknown if Vucevic will play for the Montenegrin national team in the EuroBasket qualifiers that will occur in August, especially with the same coach from last year still handling the team. We'll know the answer later this month or in June. If Nik doesn't go then obviously his risk of injury significantly drops. Vooch can focus solely on preparing for a possible Magic playoff push in '14-'15.

There is the offseason matter of GM Rob Hennigan deciding on whether or not to offer Nikola Vucevic a contract extension. Talks will definitely occur and it's very clear that Nik wants to spend his fourth NBA season and on with this Magic franchise. Nik greatly improved on his one-on-one and help defense this season. The numbers prove it, as does the eye test. Nik moves his feet and body a lot better now. Vucevic continues to add strength to his 7-foot frame and knows how to balance himself properly when defending finesse and power opponents. Nik will never be an enforcer, but Vooch isn't a liability protecting the rim.

The only thing that can derail Vucevic's rise to stardom are injuries. Unfortunate ankle sprains do not signify any lack in durability. Any more future concussions are a concern though. He's sustained two in his two Magic seasons. It's not something that should be worried about in basketball, but getting hit by another player in the head or slamming your melon onto the parquet court are part of the professional hazards. Once you get a few concussions, players are more prone to having additional concussions symptoms occur in their playing careers. Ask Jameer Nelson who was one of the first to pioneer the stricter NBA guidelines on how to deal with concussions. Nelson has had more concussions in his Magic career than we'll ever know.

Vucevic's situation isn't that extreme yet, but there's no doubt it's something that will be factored in when deciding on a contract extension. Nik will make $2.75 million next season. So what is the 23-year-old worth? Let's peek at new CBA era deals.

The Pacers matched the Blazers' offer to Roy Hibbert for a 4-year, $58 million 'max' contract in the summer of 2012 when Roy was 25 years old. It was good timing as Roy had completed his first All-Star season with 12.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.0 bpg averages. Nik's already better than that. The now 25-year-old Larry Sanders' 4-year, $44 million contract extension begins in '14-'15. Let's just say it needs to be a much better campaign than this past season. The Warriors also gave Andrew Bogut an extension in 2013. Golden State handed the big 29-year-old Aussie a 3-year, $36 million deal that will have incentives for additional money.

Then there's the player Nikola Vucevic wants to emulate his game after. Marc Gasol. Back in December 2011 - just as the new CBA was agreed upon following the Lockout - the big Spaniard signed a maximum 4-year, $57 million deal. So just doing a basic per year cost analysis of the four deals I listed, you're looking at $14.5 mil, $11 mil, $12 mil, and $14.25 mil per season. On average, that's a hair under $13 million per season. It's not cheap retaining a center that teams believe to be a perennial All-Star.

I believe that Hennigan should offer Vucevic and his agent 4 years at $44 million with an incentive to be as much as $48 million. That's $11 million per season with it potentially being $12 mil per year. The deal ends at age 28 where Nik will be able to get a full maximum contract. Nik's present talent and potential moving forward is as valuable if not more than Hibbert, Sanders, Bogut, and even Marc Gasol. Anything lower than an 8-figure per season offer would be an insult. Nik may never reach the primes of Shaq or Dwight, but he doesn't need to in order to dominate the East in the years to come. Vucci Mane can and most likely will be a cornerstone as this franchise progresses to championship contention. If he's not locked up this summer, then next summer there will most likely be a team that offers Nik the maximum.

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