A knee-to-knee collision against the Houston Rockets has sidelined Nikola Vucevic for the Orlando Magic’s last two games—victories against the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. The injury will also keep the 7-footer out for Monday’s contest against the Indiana Pacers.
While Dewayne Dedmon has done a fantastic job filling in for Vucevic in the starting lineup, with Jason Smith providing valuable help as a back-up, the injury is unfortunate because Vucevic had gotten a great start on what appeared to be an All-Star caliber season.
More than perhaps any other player on the Magic, the arrival of defense-minded coach Scott Skiles has been a huge boost to Vucevic’s on-court effectiveness. This season, Vucevic’s Defensive Rating has improved dramatically, going from a middling 106 in 2014-15 to an elite 98 in his first five games. His ability to get consistently great looks at the basket from the low post has been a distinguishing mark of his game since he put on the Magic uniform four seasons ago, but this new defensive intensity is lifting Vucevic to the rare category of high-scoring two-way player.
Another statistic that points to Vucevic’s near-instantaneous defensive improvement is the percentage of opponent field goal attempts that he has blocked. Vucevic’s 6.4 block percentage is second on the team behind Dedmon’s 8.7% — but it also represents a huge leap over Vucevic’s previous career high of 3.1%.
This is no early-season statistical fluke. Vucevic has been very diligent in providing help defense for his teammates, especially in when protecting the baseline from driving scorers. Here are two examples of him extinguishing drives from two of the game’s great scorers: Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant:
With few established veteran centers in the Eastern Conference, Vucevic has a legitimate shot at being an All-Star, which would be the first for the franchise since Dwight Howard’s last season for the team (2011-12). Here’s an early look at the Eastern Conference centers who will be Vucevic’s main competition:
1. Andre Drummond / Detroit Pistons
At the moment, Drummond is on pace to put together one of the great rebounding seasons in league history. Given that Drummond is averaging a 20/20 so far, I think it’s safe to say that the All-Star starting spot belongs to him, with Vucevic and company competing to be his back-up.
2. Hassan Whiteside / Miami Heat
Whiteside is well ahead of Vucevic regarding hype, and he just might be the best shot-blocker in the game, averaging four per night so far. Still, Whiteside has only played 55 games in a Miami Heat uniform and has yet to maintain this level of play over a full season.
3. Greg Monroe / Milwaukee Bucks
While Monroe has the edge over Vucevic in straight-up scoring average (18.1 to 15.8), it will be interesting to see if Vucevic’s superior defense emerges in the voting process.
4. Al Jefferson / Charlotte Hornets
I list Jefferson because he does have a better PER than Vucevic so far (25.3 to 20.9). But Jefferson hasn’t been an All-Star before in his career, and it’s hard to imagine that the nod will come for Big Al in a year when his scoring average is the lowest it’s been since he was a Boston Celtic.
5. Brook Lopez / Brooklyn Nets
Lopez is pouring in 20 a game again, his usual consistent self. But it’s hard to imagine anybody from the currently winless Nets making it to the Mid-Winter Classic.
6. Jonas Valanciunas / Toronto Raptors
Valanciunas is shooting 60% from the field and playing stellar defense for a great team. Plus, Toronto is hosting the All-Star Game this year. Valanciunas is, statistically, one of the most similar players to Vucevic in the league, and the hometown sympathy just might push him over the top.
After looking at the competition, I don’t think it’s at all far-fetched to imagine: If Vucevic gets healthy, and the Magic continue to win the games they’re supposed to, the Swiss center could be an All-Star reserve.