In a league increasingly trending towards small forwards and point guards, the Orlando Magic have built their franchise around superstar centers for many years. The position isn't extinct, but it has become more of a luxury and not so much a necessity.
Disclaimer: Yes, Dwight Howard will be mentioned in this article, so we're all just going to have to learn to live with it.
Even though the Howard trade has been revisited more times than we can count, it remains an astounding move by general manager Rob Hennigan. It was not more than two years ago when he and Andrew Bynum were widely considered the two best centers in the game—and both were moved in that deal.
Orlando ended up with a center who is now quite possibly the most valuable piece of all involved in that deal moving forward.
He, of course, is Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic has very large shoes to fill, both literally and figuratively. In Orlando's short history, there has been a huge precedent set for centers by future Hall of Famers Kelvin Cato and Rony Seikaly...I mean Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard.
Does Vucevic have what it takes? How does he stack up?
This may always be the aspect of Vucevic's game that is a bit lacking.
He is just 22—with much room to improve—but it would be difficult to see Vucevic ever turning into a stout defender. He gets bullied by stronger centers and is not a threat in the shot-blocking department, nor does he have very active hands.
He will never be great in this department, but with his offensive potential he can be a great player as long as he can be above average defensively.
Both today and in years past, centers have been more relied upon for defense. Today's great centers such as Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert are viable offensive talents but hold much more value to their teams due to their stellar defense.
Stats support that Orlando was more effective defensively without him on the court last season. He struggles to defend the paint, especially in one-on-one post-up situations. However, he does excel in defending the pick-and-roll.
Can Vucevic be considered great even if he averages 20-10 with mediocre defense?
That is up to each person's own opinion. To me, defense is the parameter by which centers are primarily measured. Defensive impact could be something that holds him back from being considered great.
Vucevic had a very strong first year with Orlando, averaging 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds. He quickly established himself as an elite rebounder who has the chance to be in the top five in the league in that category for years to come.
Offensively, he is a little bit limited.
Being around the basket enough to finish second in the NBA in rebounding, you would like to see him average more than 1.6 free-throw attempts.
His next step offensively is to develop a reliable post game, which he has already appeared to have improved upon during the preseason. The small sample size has already presented us with his much-improved jump hook and drop-step moves.
A number that jumps out is that last year, 47 percent of his shot attempts were jump shots. That is an abnormally high number for a 7-footer not named Andrea Bargnani or Dirk Nowitzki. He has a nice jumper, but his shot chart indicates that he attempts far too many from the wing, where he does not excel.
Vucevic likely has an offensive ceiling similar to a Brook Lopez or a poor man's Al Jefferson if he can develop his post game. He may not ever become a legitimate back-to-the-basket scorer, but consistent offensive production will not be a problem with him.
Vucevic has some tremendous qualities along with the potential to be very good. In order to be great, he will need to develop parts of his game to go along with his already great rebounding, and I just don't see that happening.
Nik put up big numbers last year with big minutes due to a lineup ravaged by injuries. It is still very early in his career, but how much can we honestly expect him to improve offensively? His efficiency could definitely go up a lot, but he doesn't exactly project as an elite scorer night in and night out.
For him to be great, his defense will need to catch up with other parts of his game.
Vucevic can only go so far based on his offense and will never be considered a great player if he doesn't elevate his play on the other end of the floor.
Hibbert, Gasol and Noah are already considered great centers despite scoring right around where Vucevic did last year. Vucevic also trumped all of them in rebounding, but his defense and his intangibles are what will tell the story.
That is what will decide whether or not he gets labeled as great.
As it currently stands, I see him as a very good center for a long time in Orlando. He is a player who can be a vital part of a winning team, but not the anchor. He will never live up to Shaq or Dwight—and he does not have to.
But he has an extremely bright future ahead of him.
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