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Why Nikola Vucevic Is Key to Orlando Magic's 2013-14 and Beyond

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Why Nikola Vucevic Is Key to Orlando Magic's 2013-14 and Beyond
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2012, and the Philadelphia 76ers received Andrew Bynum in return. The Lakers stars appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated NBA preview issue, while Bynum was proclaimed the future of the 76ers. The poor Orlando Magic were deemed the Charlie Brown of the entire trade.

As the Lakers and 76ers were soaked in media attention and hype, the Magic received guard Arron Afflalo from Denver and some guy named Nikola Vucevic from Philadelphia, who was acquired to "replace" Howard at center.

But then, Vucevic introduced himself to the world with his seismic style and Montenegrin impetuousness. 

A lottery pick by the 76ers in 2011, Vucevic played just 51 games that year and averaged just 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds. 

But then he went to Orlando, and while Dwight was getting angry glare-faces from Kobe Bryant in L.A., Vucevic was busy melting opposing team's big men's faces like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark by averaging 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds a night. He shot 52 percent from the floor and threw down 46 double-doubles. Vucevic also finished his 2012 campaign second in rebounds, behind one Dwight Howard, while laying waste to the entirety of Japan in his massive battle with Mothra.

So far in this young season, Vucevic has shown no signs of slowing down his ability to take a cinderblock to opponent's faces.

The Magic's offense isn't going to go supernova on anyone anytime soon. But with Vucevic as their centerpiece, they're always in contention. Orlando's offense goes through the seven-footer, and he has slowly morphed into a double-double machine, like Robo Cop mixed with the Swedish Chef. 

A glimpse into what Vucevic can do when he's fully engaged came in the Magic's dismantling of the L.A. Clippers early this season.

Vucevic dropped 30 points on the Clippers, along with 21 (twenty one!) rebounds, as he left DeAndre Jordan a smoldering heap of ash. 

The 30 points matched his career high, while he was eight rebounds short of his personal best. 

As far as NBA big men are concerned, Vucevic is right up there among the best of them, crushing opposing NBA teams into a fine dust in his bare giant hands with the likes of Dwight Howard, and Kevin Love, averaging 17.points and 10.9 rebounds a game so far this season.

And Vucevic isn't just a mindless double-double spewing heap. He's a man who can command the game and will his team to victory. Lost in the Hulk-like numbers from that Clippers game was the fact that the Magic were floundering at one point and needed someone to step up.  Vucevic was that someone.

Orlando let a 15-point lead slip through their fingers in the second half of the Clippers game, and it looked as if the Magic were gonna Magic their way to another humiliating loss, when Vucevic hurled the hammer down on L.A. and brought the pain.

He demanded the ball in the paint like Shaq in his prime and wasn't afraid to take his fight to the Clippers. Nikola turned on the Death Ray and willed the Magic to the win.

Of course, Vucevic has a tendency to disappear at times. His defense could use some help, and consistency is something he'll have to master.

And, as the Miami Heat displayed in their 120-92 socking of the Magic in their November 20 matchup, when Vucevic is neutralized, the Magic suffer. Against the Heat's signature "shut down the opponent's best player" style, Vucevic shot a dismal 2-for-7, scoring just six points and grabbing the same number of rebounds. Last season, however, he dominated the world champs and gave them a handful of Montenegrin awesomeness.

And, at 23, his future is certainly bright.

Fernando Medina/Getty Images

According to John Hollinger's PER (player efficiency rating), Vucevic is a top-10 center and is clearly the best player on Orlando's roster.

via NBA.com/stats

He's a center that can score and demands the basketball. He's shooting 57.5 percent from the paint and is scorching the competition from the right side of the basket at 81 percent.

Translation: Vucevic loves to be around the rim. And when he is, he goes Human Torch on NBA opponents.

A 7'0" center who can average doubt-digit scoring and rebounding numbers is NBA gold. Vucevic is a near-complete center, and that can only mean hope for the Magic's future—a notion that seemed laughable at the time of the Dwight Howard trade.

The Magic have a rich history of great centers that have moved on to greener pastures in Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard. Vucevic is in his third year of a four-year rookie contract, which means the Magic need to do whatever it takes to lock him down long term as soon as humanly possible.

He's the key to their present and their future.

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