BOSTON – Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucević has adapted his game over the past three seasons to try to fit the mold of a modern NBA big man. All the while, the 7-foot, eighth-year veteran has been modeling his game after one of his longtime opponents – Celtics big man Al Horford.
Vucevic has gradually expanded his offensive repertoire of late, stepping out beyond the 3-point arc to shoot triples, while also helping to facilitate Orlando’s offense as a primary playmaker. His line of progression is similar to that of Horford’s, which makes total sense considering how much of an impact Horford has had on Vucević’s game.
“He’s a guy that does that a lot, so he’s one guy I watched a lot growing up,” Vucević said Monday morning, roughly eight hours before facing off against Horford and the C’s at TD Garden. “He’s had a great career, is just a great team player, and he does all the little things for his team – things that don’t necessarily always show up on the stat sheet. So, that’s why I have a lot of respect for him.”
By modeling his game after that of Horford and the Gasol brothers, Marc and Pau, Vucević has grown into one of the most versatile big men in the league. He was always been a double-double threat throughout his career, but now he’s inching towards becoming a triple-double threat as well, thanks to the evolution of his passing game.
That passing game was on full display Saturday night, when Vucević tallied a career-high 12 assists, to go along with 27 points and 13 rebounds during a 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
What made the high number of dimes during that game possible was how the Montenegrin big man established himself as an outside threat. Shooting a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arc, Vucević was able to pull Philly’s bigs out to the perimeter to guard him, which opened up the passing lanes so that he could feed his teammates.
“What he does is every night, with his presence on the floor, his ability to shoot, it creates space,” said Magic coach Steve Clifford, who joined Orlando after spending the last five seasons as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. “What a range-shooter does is create space to cut into, and when you have a guy like him who can make the passes into those types of cuts, it’s an added dimension into your offense.”
Last season, Vucević dished out 3.4 assists per game, which was nearly twice that of his career average of 2.0 helpers per contest. He seems to have taken his passing to a whole new level at the start off this season, averaging a team-best 6.7 dimes per game, while also scoring 17.0 points per game and corralling 9.7 rebounds per contest.
Vucević believes he has always been a strong scorer, rebounder and passer, but the latter skill didn’t translate onto the stat sheet often during his first six NBA seasons. Now that the game is evolving along with the rising number of stretch bigs like Horford, he is finally able to exploit those playmaking skills.
“It just kind of gives me more opportunities to find cutters, play hand-offs and stuff like that, where before it was more post-ups,” said Vucević. “I mean, you can still pass from the post, but it was less opportunities. So, the more I do it, the more comfortable I get at seeing different reads.”
Reading defenses is a skill that Horford has nearly perfected over the years, and one that Vucević admires.
“He can step out and shoot it, he can play inside, and he always makes the right play,” Vucević said of his peer. “And you never really know what he’s going to do. Even in pick-and-rolls, he might roll, he might pop, you never really know. So, you have to be ready for anything, and you have to react quickly.”
Vucević has spent years testing his reaction-time against Horford, having faced off on many occasions while they were both playing in the Southeast Division. Vucević’s team has often come up on the short end of the stick, with Horford owning a 13-4 head-to-head record, including a 5-0 mark while playing for the C’s.
Monday night’s battle between the bigs may be more evenly matched than those of the past, however, now that Vucević has grown more comfortable with his playmaking skills and has furthered his evolution as a modernized big.