Extension Candidate: Nikola Vucevic

There’s a chance that one day the 2012 trade that sent Dwight Howard out of Orlando will be remembered equally as well for having brought another All-Star center to the Magic. Nikola Vucevic blossomed when coach Jacque Vaughn gave him a starting role and 33.2 minutes a night in 2012/13, the Swiss native’s first in Orlando after he spent his rookie season mostly on the bench in Philadelphia. He was a terror on the boards, averaging 11.9 per game, almost as many as Howard, who led the league that season. Vucevic averaged 13.1 points a night and ran up a 17.8 PER, and it seemed like the Magic had snagged a star in the making at the same time they parted with the franchise’s preeminent 21st century figure.

This past season tempered that sort of optimism as Vucevic’s numbers plateaued and the Magic slogged through another sub-25-win year. His scoring average was up to 14.2 PPG in slightly fewer minutes each night, but his shooting percentage was lower. His rebounding dropped to 11.0 RPG, a declined backed up by dips in his per-minute rebounding numbers and his total rebound percentage. The Magic gave up just as many points per possession when Vucevic was on the floor compared to when he sat in 2012/13, according to NBA.com, but the Magic were more porous when Vucevic played than when he sat last season. There were subtle signs of improvement last season, like his 18.8 PER, a point higher than the season before, but his steps backward in other categories seemed to cancel out those gains, at best. Vucevic turns 24 next month, and it’s worth wondering if he’s simply not going to get much better.

A report as early as January identified mutual interest between the Magic and Vucevic in a long-term future together, and a dispatch from earlier this summer indicated that talks would pick up sometime around Labor Day. We’ve come to that point on the calendar, and both sides must reckon with the trick that is determining whether the improvement between his first and second seasons is more indicative of the player he’ll become than what took place between years two and three.

Vucevic and his representatives at BDA Sports Management have the allure of size in their corner, even though Vucevic is somewhat short for a center at 6’10”. That helps explain why he’s never averaged more than a block per game and hasn’t shown signs of developing into a plus defender, never mind the elite stopper that Howard was during his time in Orlando. Still, defense is a strong suit of rookie power forward Aaron Gordon, and that fact surely wasn’t lost on Magic GM Rob Hennigan when he drafted Gordon at No. 4 in June and decided to address his team’s frontcourt before he did so with the backcourt. The chance to have both inside positions covered with promising young players for the foreseeable future is the dream of just about every GM, and it’s up to Hennigan to figure out just how promising Vucevic really is.

The Pistons have faced a similar dilemma over the past year with Greg Monroe, who has a track record of greater production than Vucevic has. Detroit has Andre Drummond to go with Monroe on the interior, but the team complicated that dynamic when it signed Josh Smith for four years and $54MM last summer. Still, the Pistons never seemed willing to meet Monroe’s demand for a max salary, and now he’s poised to slip away in unrestricted free agency next summer after signing his qualifying offer. There’s been no suggestion that Vucevic will similarly hold out for the max, but with the agent for Ricky Rubio having asked for it and the Warriors having budgeted for such a deal with Klay Thompson, it wouldn’t be shocking if Vucevic wants to test his worth on the market.

The Magic have more cap flexibility for the years ahead than the Pistons do, but Orlando also brought in a veteran on a fairly lucrative contract who plays Vucevic’s position, just as Detroit did with Monroe and Smith. Yet there are few other similarities between Smith, whose faulty three-point shooting makes him a focal point for criticism, and Channing Frye, a career 38.5% marksman from behind the arc. Frye is also on a four-year, $32MM deal that’s almost half as expensive as Smith’s, and Frye’s contract is frontloaded, making it less of a burden as years go by.

Still, the Magic must be careful when they hand out extensions, since Vucevic is one of eight Orlando players on rookie scale contracts. They’ll have to be especially judicious when it comes to handing out a five-year extension, which would trigger the Designated Player rule and keep the team from giving out an extension of that length to any of its other guys on rookie scale contracts. It’s unlikely that the Magic will be able to retain every one of those former first-round picks long-term, so tough choices loom.

I suspect that Orlando will pass on an extension for Tobias Harris this year, as I explained earlier. Conversely, I predicted that the Magic would go for a four-year, $48MM extension with Vucevic, similar to what the Jazz and Derrick Favors settled on last fall. There were more unknowns with Favors, who had yet to assume a full-time starting role when he signed that extension, but Utah was in a similar position, with plenty of young players poised to come up for new deals in the years ahead. If either side were to balk at such an arrangement, it would be Vucevic, who might be unwilling to tether himself to a contract that would have the potential to become a bargain even before it took effect if his game takes a leap this year. It’s tough to argue that a player who’s not a prolific scorer or a stout defender is worth more than $12MM a year, but it seems reasonable to think that Vucevic’s decision will come down to whether he’s willing to gamble that he can add at least one of those distinctions to his résumé in the near future.

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