Sunday, February 10, 2013

How Good is Nikola Vucevic?

As promised, I wanted to take a closer look at Nikola Vucevic and the unexpected success he has experienced during his first year in Orlando.

I'd go into his background and how he got to Orlando, but it's irrelevant really. The fact is that he is producing right now. And very well, might I add. As of today, he currently sits at 12 points per game (52% FG) and 11 rebounds per game. Solid numbers for anyone, nonetheless a 22 year old that has already this season doubled the number of minutes that he played last year during his rookie campaign with Philadelphia. How rare is the 12 ppg/11 rpg stat line at 22 years of age? The number of active players that have accomplished the feat are as follows: Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Elton Brand, Kevin Love, Carlos Boozer and Blake Griffin. And if he holds suit for another 30 games, Nikola Vucevic will join that list. The point being, is that guys that young don't usually produce numbers like that. And if they do, they go on to have solid careers at the very least. Extremely promising data for anyone that thinks Vucevic was just a throw in to the Dwight Howard trade.

Here's the thing though: He's getting better. Considerably.  Check his month-by-month breakdowns:

November (15 games) : 28 MPG,  9.5 PPG (46% FG), 7.9 RPG, 1.1 BPG.
December: (16 games): 33 MPG, 12.1 PPG (54% FG), 12.8 RPG, 1.2 BPG
January (14 games):      36.1 MPG, 14.4 PPG (57% FG), 12.9 RPG, 1.2 BPG
February (5 games):      35.1 MPG 16.6 PPG (49% FG), 13.4 RPG, 1.2 BPG

Exactly the type of improvement that you would want to see from a young player. His 49% FG thus far in February is the only real "blemish" here, and it can be chalked up to him receiving more field goal attempts as he becomes a bigger part of the offense. I have little doubt that he can get it up over the 50% mark by the end of the month. The increased workload is not in vain: In February he matched his career high in points (with a 20 points/12 rebounds/6 assists performance against Milwaukee) and set a new career high less than a week later (with a 25 points/13 rebounds/3 assists performance against the Cavaliers).

Career games against the Bucks and Cavaliers of the world are good signs, but hardly anything to get excited about. So I took a look at how Vuc performed against 2013 All Star big men (Joakim Noah, Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh). In a combined 14 games against our All Stars, Vuc held his own with 13 PPG, 11 RPG and 1.3 BPG on 52% FG. This includes notable performances against Howard (17 pts/12 rebs /4 blks), Bosh (20/29!!!/2, Noah (20/12/1) and Garnett (14/14/2).

Among centers playing at least 30 MPG (I picked 30 in an attempt to weed out guys that have the luxury of playing at maximum effort off the bench for their 15 or 20 minutes), he ranks a respectable 11th in Player Efficiency Rating, sandwiched right between the underrated Al Horford and our aforementioned All Star, Joakim Noah. His rebound rate is third in league amongst guys getting 30 MPG, right behind Anderson Varejao (out for the season) and Omer Asik. He's third in the league with 28 double doubles in 50 games played this season. And he doesn't turn 23 until the start of next season.

My next bit of research on Vucevic lead me to wonder not so much about the points he scores, but about how he scores them. I headed over to to see how his bread is buttered. Again, breaking the numbers down to centers that played at least 30 minutes per game, I wanted to see where he did most of his damage offensively and where he needed improvement. On shots at the rim, he's at a respectable 66% FG which puts him one notch behind Marc Gasol (more on him later) and one notch above Demarcus Cousins. On shots 3-9 feet away from the rum, he's at 40% FG. This sounded extremely low to me, but is respectable when compared to the other centers I looked at. Hes right below Al Jefferson and right above Chris Bosh. Shots 10-15 feet away from the hoop is where Vucevic excels. He's at 55%, which puts him right behind Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah for tops amongst big men. This is a bit unfair though, as those two combine to take about one third of the shots Vuc alone takes from mid range. He's taking considerably more jumpers than they are and making them at a great clip. At shots from 16-23 feet from the basket, he's right in the middle of our data. This puts him right in the middle of Andrea Bargnani and Brook Lopez, two big men known for their shooting touch. These type of numbers early in his career, the fact that he hit 35% of his three pointers during his last year at USC and this pure shooting stroke lead me to believe that he could potentially expand his range to knockdown the NBA three pointer comfortably. Even the threat of a big man that can hit the three is enough to open the floor tremendously for his teammates.

Brett Koremenos of Grantland, writes a fine article here suggesting that with a few tweaks to his game, Vucevic could be the next Marc Gasol. Koremenos covers some of the strengths that I've mentioned above, but also goes into his weaknesses. First of which, is his defense. His defensive rating (used to show about how many points a player will allow on defense per 100 possessions) ranks around Al Jefferson and Brook Lopez, two guys not known for their defense. His lack of athleticism will probably keep him from ever becoming a dominant defender, but as Koremenos notes, Omer Asik is not known for his athletic prowess but has excelled defensively due to his use of positioning. Marc Gasol has used to the same tactics to counteract his lack of elite athleticism. This is a time where I wish Stan Van Gundy was still around in Orlando. He worked wonders at turning Dwight into the best defender in the league and made passable defenders out of Rashard Lewis and JJ Redick because of his emphasis on position and communication. I am hopeful that Jacques Vaughn will be able to bring out the best defensively in Vucevic. Koremenos also notes that a high dose of long two pointers keeps his field goal percentage from being even higher, and suggests the use of pump fakes to help him in getting to the free throw line more often. Incorporating these minor changes will be vital in helping Vucevic take his game to the next level.

Vucevic has the unfair position of following the footsteps of a great player. Despite how it ended, Dwight Howard was a hell of a player in Orlando and it will be difficult impossible for Vucevic to match his production on both ends of the court. Offensively his game could mimic Mehmet Okur, who had some solid years in Utah drawing defenders away from Boozer in the post, giving Deron Williams room to drive and making defenders pay with his three point shot. Rebounding wise, Vucevic is less than half of a rebound away from the league leader in rebounds (coincidentally, Howard). His rebounding is already elite, and appears to be something he can sustain for the duration of his career. Defensively, with some work on his positioning he can have an Asik/Gasol like impact, despite his limited athleticism. (Sidebar: I found out that Vucevic played his college career and the NBA combine at 260 pounds. The video I posted of him nailing jumpers, was him at 7'0, 260 pounds. All the combine numbers that listed him as a subpar athlete were when he was 260 pounds. He's now listed at 240, so he's shown he can play effectively at 260). All of the factors above lead me to optimistically believe that Vuc can be in the All Star game as early as next season. Combine that with the fact that he's making a combined $6.4 million for the remainder of this season and the next two, and at the very least, he is one of the league's biggest bargains. Hopefully, his tenure in an Orlando uniform extends long beyond those two seasons.


Dusty Evely said...

Really loved this post. Good work. I haven't really seen him play this year, but I'm going to make it a point going forward.

Tyler said...

Thank you, sir. Glad you enjoyed it. The rest of the team is abysmal, but Vucevic gives me hope.