Nikola Vucevic, Magic Cruise to Win over Hawks Despite Trae Young's 21 Points

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2019

ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 18: Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Orlando Magic shoots the ball against the Brooklyn Nets on January 18, 2019 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

The Orlando Magic were without Aaron Gordon on Monday afternoon, who missed the game with a back injury, but it hardly mattered against the struggling Atlanta Hawks.  

The Magic snapped a three-game losing streak and cruised to a 122-103 win over Atlanta, led by Nikola Vucevic's double-double (29 points and 14 boards to go along with two blocks). Evan Fournier was excellent as well, chipping in a season-high 29 points, while Terrence Ross added 16 points and seven assists off the bench.

Dewayne Dedmon went for 24 points and nine boards in the loss, sinking five threes, while rookie standout Trae Young added 21 points and six assists. He clearly outplayed fellow rookie Mo Bamba, who managed only eight points and two rebounds in just 13 minutes.

With the win, Orlando moved to 20-27 on the season, 2.5 games back of the Charlotte Hornets for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, while Atlanta dropped to 14-32.

              

Nikola Vucevic Deserves to Be an All-Star

You can question whether Vucevic is the long-term answer at center for the Magic. That distinction probably belongs to Bamba, the No. 6 overall pick in last year's draft. It's just as fair to question if a team could compete in the playoffs with Vucevic as one of its two best players. 

But you can't question how good Vucevic has been this year for the Magic. And once again Monday, he proved he deserves to be an All-Star.

The Magic would be downright awful this season without Vucevic. When he's on the court, the Magic have a net rating of 0.9, according to NBA.com. When he sits, that net rating drops to a dreadful -10.1. With Vucevic on the floor, the Magic score 108.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, that number drops to 96.0.

He leads the team in scoring (20.3 PPG) and rebounding (11.9 RPG) and is second in blocks (1.1 BPG). Among Eastern Conference centers, only Joel Embiid (27.0 PPG, 13.2 RPG, 2.0 BPG) clearly outclasses Vucevic from a statistical perspective. 

He deserves to be on the All-Star team. 

In the long term, players like Bamba, Gordon and Jonathan Isaac will be the building blocks in Orlando. It's possible that, if the Magic fall out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, the team will entertain trading Vucevic before the deadline, given that he can become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

The smart play for Orlando would probably be acquiring more draft assets and young players for Vucevic while taking the long view on its rebuild. The Magic desperately need an upgrade at point guard, for one, and at some point are going to want to give Bamba the chance to prove he can be a franchise center. That will be difficult with Vucevic remaining in Orlando.

So yes, he's probably on borrowed time with the Magic. But he's taken that time and proved he's one of the better centers in the league this year. He should be rewarded for that performance. 

               

Kevin Huerter's Absence in Loss Proves His Value to Hawks

Young may be the rookie that gets the most buzz in Atlanta, but Huerter has been excellent for the Hawks in January, averaging 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 42.2 percent from the field and 37.0 percent from three in eight games. 

His absence was felt Monday.

Huerter's range from deep (39.2 percent this season) stretches defenses, opening driving lanes for players like Young. His ability to impact a game was most apparent in a surprising Jan. 11 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, when Huerter exploded for a career-high 29 points in 39 minutes. He sank five threes in the win and finished an impressive 11-of-17 from the field, showcasing how dangerous he can be.

Frankly, he resembles a particular Golden State star when he gets cooking:

The Hawks missed that flavor Monday. Take away Dedmon's 5-of-7 shooting from three, and the Hawks as a team were just 4-of-23 from beyond the arc. Young, DeAndre Bembry and Taurean Prince combined to go 1-of-11 from deep. That's a tough shooting performance to overcome from three key starters, especially for a young Hawks team still finding itself as it rebuilds.

Huerter has shown with his recent play that he's a central figure in Atlanta's rebuild alongside Young. The hope in Atlanta was that the pair would become the next Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. That might be a stretch, but it was obvious the Hawks sorely missed Huerter's presence against the Magic.

             

What's Next?

The Hawks will travel to face the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET, while the Magic are on the road that same evening against the Brooklyn Nets at 7:30 p.m. ET.

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