For the first few years of Nikola Vucevic’s career, the Montenegrin was a back-to-the-basket center and there was nothing wrong with that. After all, many NBA bigs with his exact skill set – an arsenal of post moves, solid touch around the basket, great footwork and rebounding prowess – were very successful (and handsomely compensated) over the years. He led the Orlando Magic in scoring for two straight seasons, from 2014 to 2016, thanks to his post moves and mid-range jumpers.
But as the NBA evolves, Vucevic knows he must adapt too. After attempting just 26 three-pointers during the first five seasons of his NBA career, the 7-footer made 64 of 204 threes this season (good for 31.4 percent). He hit 1.1 threes per game, tying DeMar DeRozan, Draymond Green, Doug McDermott and Luke Kennard among others. The 27-year-old also averaged 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1 steal while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 81.9 percent from the free-throw line. Unfortunately, he was only able to play 57 games due to a fractured left hand.
The good news is that Vucevic was back on the court by the end of the season and isn’t limited in his summer workouts. He knows that improving his three-point shot is extremely important for his development in today’s NBA, which is why he’s emphasizing shooting during his offseason training. He’s determined to become an even bigger threat from long range, which Orlando could really use since the Magic ranked 28th in team three-point percentage last season (35.1 percent).
HoopsHype caught up with Vucevic to discuss his growth as a player, the evolution of NBA big men, Orlando’s new head coach Steve Clifford, the development of Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, the possibility of finishing his career with the Magic and much more.
As you enter this offseason, what is the focus of your training? What aspects of your game are you trying to work on the most?
Nikola Vucevic: I try to improve all aspects of my game, but the three-pointer is something that I’m going to keep working on a lot. Last year, I think I took a big step forward with that and I think the biggest thing for me was [my confidence]. I was always able to shoot really well from mid-range and even a bit further out, so I just had to get used to the extra few steps back and get over the fact that it’s a new shot that I’m not used to taking. I got up a lot of reps to improve, and to get over the mental part I just had to not think about it being a three-pointer. I had to think of it as being just like any other shot I would take. I think having figured that out, next year I’ll be able to shoot the ball even better. This is something that I’ve wanted to add to my game to help our team get better, so I think that’s going to be the biggest thing for me this summer. I’ll continue to focus on that.
I’ll be working on a lot of other things too. I’m always watching film, trying to find the things that I didn’t do well and seeing how I can improve those areas of my game. You can never stop improving, you can never stop getting better, so I’m trying to add some new stuff while getting even better in the things that I already do well.
The NBA has evolved to the point where some centers are basically required to shoot three-pointers now. Even just in the seven seasons you’ve been in the league, there’s been a huge shift. How much has the game evolved just over the course of your career and was it difficult adjusting to the changes?
NV: It’s changed so much, even just over the last few years. I remember two or three years ago, there were still a lot of post-ups for centers; some teams would come down the floor, throw the ball down low to the center and play out of the post. There’s still a little bit of that, but definitely not as much. We did a lot of that, playing out of the post, during my fourth and fifth year in Orlando [when Vucevic led the team in scoring]. Then, it seemed like the league kind of went away from that. There are still times when the ball will go to the post. Sometimes there’s a post-up, and sometimes the post player is facilitating and all four guys are cutting and you’re trying to get one of the cutters the ball for an easy basket. The game is definitely evolving. It’s played at a much faster pace and teams are shooting many more threes now.
One thing that a lot of people were saying was, “Oh, big men are done,” or, “There won’t be any more big men.” But what I think actually happened is that big men evolved and we can do so much more now, which makes it even harder for defenses to guard us. When we were young and growing up, you just had to be able to bang in the paint and be good at stopping post-ups [to slow down centers]. But now, you have bigs like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and so many others who can catch the ball at the free-throw line or even the three-point line and just take you one-on-one. They can attack you in so many ways. It’s much harder to defend that as a big because you’re just not used to seeing that and it’s another thing you have to work on [to adapt]. We’re also seeing more bigs who are great at passing the ball, so the offense is basically run through them. Big men aren’t going anywhere. We’re just evolving a lot, and we can do so much more now. We’re just seeing big men who are more versatile and dangerous than ever.
The scary thing is that they should only continue to get better too.
NV: It’s crazy how young a lot of these big men are. I’m 27 years old and I’m going into my prime years now. You look at the guys like Embiid and Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic who are all playing so great, they’re so young. A guy like Anthony Davis just turned 25 years old and he’s such a nightmare match-up for just about every team in the league. I know I’m forgetting some guys too, but there are just so many bigs who are so talented and also so young. These guys are going to be good for so many years to come.
What did you think of the Steve Clifford hire? He has some experience working with great bigs. What are your initial thoughts on your new head coach?
NV: I think it’s a great hire for us. I actually had dinner with him last Thursday and it was a great dinner. We talked a lot about the team. He obviously just got here, so he was still trying to learn our team and everything and he hadn’t gotten a chance to watch as much film of us as he would’ve liked to. But just based on everything he said, I can tell he’s a really smart coach and just a really smart person in general. You can tell he knows the game really well. He’s really creative. He’s going to do a really good job of putting our guys in positions to be successful and making us better. Everything we talked about throughout our conversation was very positive. He’s someone who is very direct and straightforward, which I think is very important, especially with our team since we are still so young. He’s someone who may be hard on you, but that’s the only way you can improve – when you’re willing to listen to constructive criticism and use it. I think he’s the type of person who can really help us.
When we played Charlotte [when Coach Clifford was there], we always knew that they were going to be very good at executing their stuff and defensively, they were going to do what they do. They were a team that didn’t beat themselves. We really struggled against them. Out of all the teams, they were just one of those teams that we just couldn’t beat for a while. I think he’s a coach who can step in and really help us. I also think he’s a coach who can be here for a long time and that would be great because we’d finally have stability with the coaching staff, which is important.
What are your expectations for next season? Do you have any goals for the team at this point?
NV: I think it’s still very early to say. We don’t know what the team will look like; we need to see what happens over the summer with the draft and free agency and all that. I expect us to do better than we did this year. And if you look at what Coach Cliff has done, he was able to help Charlotte turn things around pretty quickly so hopefully he can do the same with us. Whenever you bring in a new coach, it can provide a boost of positive energy and kind of kick-start some things a bit. So I do expect us to be better and play better throughout the season, but I think it’s too early to talk about [specific goals or expectations] since we aren’t even sure what the team will look like yet.
You’ve gotten a behind-the-scenes look at the development of guys like Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac, who are so important to the team’s future. What have you seen from them in terms of their growth so far and how good they can be if they reach their full potential?
NV: With Aaron, I’ve been in Orlando since he arrived here and he’s a much different player than when he first came into the league. His jump shot has improved a lot since he got into the league. He’s really improved in all areas of his game, which I think was on display this year. He’s still very young, he’s still learning the game and he’s still figuring out how to be his most efficient. He’s been in the league for four years, but he’s still only 22 years old and that’s still so young. I think he’ll just continue to improve the more he plays. I hope he can play 82 games next year and I hope we can make it to the playoffs, so he gets even more experience and more opportunities to improve. He has a really bright future. He also has a great work ethic; he works as hard as any guy on our team – if not harder. He’s always showing up early and staying late. He works on his body in addition to his on-court stuff. Some people may think he’s just a freak athlete [and it all comes easy to him], but they don’t realize how much work he has put in to improve the way he has year after year, especially this past season. With Aaron, I think he can go as far as he wants to in this league.
As for Isaac, he’s very young as well. His main thing right now is improving his body and adding some weight. He’s already done that a bit and I know he’s determined to do that this offseason too, which is good. He’s a very bright kid… Man, I feel old calling somebody “kid.” (laughs) But he has a really good feel for the game. He’s a very unselfish guy who likes to play for the team and put the team first. His length gives us a great advantage defensively. There are going to be times when the defense breaks down because there are great players in this league and we can’t always get everything right, and that’s when his length can cover up some of those mistakes and [bail us out]. Unfortunately, he had some issues with injuries so he didn’t play as much as he would’ve liked and as much as we all would’ve liked, but I think he has a bright future as well. He’s only going to keep improving and he’s a really good guy. He works really hard too and I know he’s going to continue to put in the necessary work to keep getting better. I think he’s going to be a very good player for a very long time.
While you are still relatively young at 27 years old, you’ve become one of the veteran leaders on this team and you’re the franchise’s longest-tenured player as well. It’s funny that you caught yourself when you called Isaac a “kid” because it wasn’t long ago that you were the young kid joining the Magic in the three-team Dwight Howard trade. As you’ve become a leader and face-of-the-franchise player for this team, what has that adjustment been like?
NV: I didn’t really try to become a leader, it just happened because I did certain things over the years like performing well for several seasons, being consistent in what I do, doing the right things in practice and off the court, making time to try to help the younger guys and things like that. I’m not the most vocal guy – and people know that about me – but one thing I’ve tried to do is lead by example. I do try to say things at certain times and point things out when I see them, but I mainly lead by example.
I think over the years, you have to earn that role. It’s not something that’s a given and it’s not like you can say, “Okay, I need to do this so that people will think of me as a leader.” I think you need to have those leadership qualities within you and then others need to recognize it. I think people in our organization have done that. I think the players we’ve had have seen those qualities in me. I also think the fact that I’ve been here so long helps; people respect that and they’ve seen the consistency in my play over the years. That definitely helps. And it’s very important to earn the respect of your teammates and from players around the league. I think you need that to become a leader for your team.
The Magic obviously have the No. 6 pick in the draft this year. Is there anything specific you’d like to see them do with that selection and have you looked into any of the prospects at this point?
NV: I know some of them. I’ve watched some of the prospects a bit more since our season ended. But I don’t usually get involved in those kind of things. If they ask me, I will give them my opinion, but I don’t like to initiate that discussion. I think that’s their job. My job is just to do the best that I can to help the team win on the court. I believe in the front office that we have; we have a ton of experienced people. John [Hammond] and Jeff [Weltman] have been around the league for a long time and they’ve built some great teams, so I’m confident that they’ll make the right move for our team.
You have one year remaining on your contract for the 2018-19 season, then you’ll be an unrestricted free agent. Could you see yourself remaining in Orlando for the rest of your career or is that something that you’ll have to consider whenever that time comes?
NV: I could [see myself remaining in Orlando long-term]. I’ve been here a while now and obviously we haven’t had much success on the court for different reasons, but I believe we aren’t too far away and we can compete very soon. That’s obviously something that’s really important to me – for us to start winning – because at the end of the day, that’s all that matters. All of the stats and individual things are great, but none of those compare to having team success. When you win in this league, that’s the best feeling. So that’s what is most important to me. I do believe we can get there, though. I don’t think about [my free agency] too much. When the time comes to address that, I will. But I am happy in Orlando and I could see myself being here for a long time, so we’ll see what happens.
You’ve been in Orlando long enough to see a lot of your teammates move on from the organization. You’ve certainly seen firsthand that the NBA is a business, watching players like Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Moe Harkless, Kyle O’Quinn, Elfrid Payton and others leave over the years. I know you were really close to some of those guys too. How tough is it to lose so many teammates you’re close to and how difficult is it to deal with the roster constantly changing?
NV: It’s not always easy, especially when it’s a guy who’s been here a couple years and you’ve built a relationship with them – on the court and off the court – but it’s part of the business we’re in. You have to realize that it can happen to anybody at any point. We’ve seen some of the biggest stars in this league get traded – guys that you never expected would be traded. It’s just part of it and you have to accept it. Sometimes, the GM thinks that the team will be better by making a certain move and you have to accept it. In sports, our job as players is just to play and give our best on the court while trusting that the front office will put together the best team possible. It’s hard, especially when you’ve built a bond with somebody and you’re close friends, but it’s part of this business. Then, you just look forward to the games when you’re able to play against them and catch up. It can be fun to go up against the people you’ve played with before.