The Orlando Magic center rotation is a gigantic cluster of question marks. Having Khem Birch, Bismack Biyombo, (who was traded for Timofey Mozgov), and Nikola Vucevic already on the roster, most fans believed the front office would aim for a playing guard in this year’s draft. Jeff Weltman and John Hammond ended up repeating their trends by drafting a player with incredible length. Mohamed Bamba is a 7ft center with the largest wingspan ever recorded in the NBA combine that reaches 7.10ft.
The previous year they drafted a 7ft forward in Johnathan Isaac. The future of the front court with Isaac, Bamba and Gordon seems to be set. Where does that leave Vucevic? Why was he not traded? Will Bamba start over him?
At this point we know that Vucevic is a 7ft center who strives on offense but has some pretty big holes defensively. We have seen him step out of the way of players driving to the rim and lack the ability to guard the paint. His lateral movement is slow, and he has a hard time guarding perimeter players. It certainly doesn’t help him having poor defenders in the guard positions, either. So why would the Magic keep him when they drafted Bamba, who can do all of these things?
The truth is Nikola Vucevic still holds a lot of value on this team’s roster. Not only does he play an efficient post game and execute pick and pops well, but he also continues to modernize his game by stretching the floor with his 3-point shot. Last season he picked up his 3-point shot attempts with 3.6 attempts per game, while making them at a rate of 31%. He averaged 16.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, and is an underrated passer. His assists went from 2.8 to 3.4, making him one of the better big men in the league at playmaking.
With the Magic having a glaring hole at the point guard position, play-making will be a challenge. Vucevic’s ability to read the floor and help create for others is not only going to be important for the team to gather wins, but also help the development of our younger players like Isaac. This aspect of his game should allow them to create better positioning as Vucevic attracts defenders. The Magic would take a huge offensive threat away if they traded him now, and Head Coach Steve Clifford feels the same.
“If you ask guys in the NBA about Orlando, most of them, the first guy they are going to talk about is Vucevic,” Clifford said. “Coaching against them, a big part ever since I have been here, is you have to learn how to take him away. Some people are underselling how respected a player he is and how valuable a player he is. He allows you to play 5-out with a 5-man who is like a point guard. He’s a very accomplished player.”
Vucevic also has value off the court for the Magic. Instead of being threatened by the organization drafting a center who will be his replacement at some point, he has taken this as an opportunity to mentor Bamba. “He’s my teammate and I’m obviously going to help him, and he’s a really good person. He’s willing to listen and willing to learn, and when you see something like that I’m obviously willing to help. I could have gotten upset, but I didn’t see a purpose in to doing that. I know my value and how valuable I am to this team, and I know what I’ve done throughout my career,” Vucevic said.
When Bamba is ready, he is no doubt the future at the center position for the Magic, but he has a long way to go. He must not only get used to playing basketball at NBA speed, but also grow further physically. In summer league, he was bullied in the paint by stronger centers like Deandre Ayton. He will need to build some more strength to avoid getting pushed around by larger centers in the league like Andre Drummond and Joel Embiid.
Until Bamba develops, Vucevic will be the starter and Coach Clifford has made that clear. “Vooch is going to start. I mean, Vooch is one of the more respected centers in the NBA. Mo’s a young guy trying to learn the NBA & it’s a different scenario. Both are going to play a lot & Mo’s going to have a big role,” Clifford said.
Bamba might be the future for this team, but until he is ready Vucevic is the present. He will be an essential to the team’s success this season, and the team will need every aspect of his game to take the next step. With this being a contract year for Vooch, we could witness one of the best years we’ve from our starting center, provided Coach Clifford can bring his defense up to a more consistent level.
Stephen Cameron is a lead contributor and Video Graphic Designer for The Up&Under, and is the host of the Close Up Magic podcast.