Among all the twists and turns that have already happened this season, there’s one that hardly anyone would have seen coming.
With a record of 10-11, the Orlando Magic so far have been a halfway-decent team, holding their ground as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Here’s another one: The primary reason for their success has been the play of their longest-tenured player, Nikola Vucevic.
Coming into the season, the most excitement surrounding the Magic was centered around the future of their frontcourt, led by the likes of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. Those three have done about as well as what could be expected from them this current season, but Vucevic has taken the reins as the alpha dog of the squad.
Though he already has a pretty solid reputation offensively, “Vooch” is putting up some of his best numbers as a pro. His scoring average of 20.4 points is the highest of his career, which can be attributed to him playing the most efficient basketball of his career. The man’s currently shooting 55 percent from the field, including 40 percent from three-point land on 2.8 attempts a game, which are the best percentages he’s had since becoming a pro.
Throw in his 11.3 rebounds a game (the highest since his first year with the Magic), that Orlando’s offense is plus-14.5 in net rating when he’s on the floor and going by practically any advanced metric: per-36, offensive rating, true shooting percentage, etc. – it shows that Vucevic has established himself as one of the league’s best big men.
This is one of the feel-good stories that’s not getting enough attention when you think about all that Vucevic has gone through since landing in Orlando. He arrived in Disneyland just as the Magic were rebuilding from the first “Dwightmare,” had to watch previous ownership repeatedly make bone-headed moves and found himself in endless trade rumors.
Even as he made a name for himself, his play led to nothing of value, as the Magic have never made the playoffs with Vucevic onboard.
After all this time, it looks like Vucevic’s patience and efforts are finally starting to pay off. The Magic appear to finally be on the up-and-up, but one question remains.
Do they keep Vucevic after this season?
The quick response would be that they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. It’s too early to be thinking about this upcoming offseason, but it’s never a bad time to ponder about the team in the long-term.
Vucevic is going to be looking for another payday this summer. Presumably, it’s one that’s going to be much more lucrative than the four-year, $53 million extension he signed in 2015. Orlando will have plenty of cap room this summer. Between him, Terrence Ross and potentially Jonathon Simmons (his deal is non-guaranteed), the Magic will have a shade under $30 million coming off the books.
This writer is by no means an expert with the salary cap, but the Magic should have enough room to give him the contract he desires with the cap going up to around $109 million and the luxury tax set at $133 million. The conundrum would be whether they think that would be the right move.
As fantastic as the Swiss center has been, it originally appeared as though his days in Orlando were numbered when they took Bamba with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft. Bamba’s impressive summer league performance combined with his freakish length made him seem like Orlando’s center of the future and Vucevic’s successor. So far, the Magic have integrated him into the league slowly.
Bamba has by no means lit the world on fire. The Harlem native averages 6.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 17 minutes per game while shooting 51 percent from the field, including 32 percent from three. Those are decent numbers for a rookie who many believed was going to come into the league with a very raw game.
Every young player gets nurtured differently for them to achieve their potential. In Bamba’s case, having him work his way up is probably the best path for him. Perhaps by Orlando drafting him, Vucevic pushed himself to play at a higher level.
But if the Magic plan to keep Vucevic, that could do some harm to Bamba’s development. Unless they’re the Philadelphia 76ers, teams don’t take talented centers that high in the draft hoping that he’ll be a backup. If Orlando believes Bamba is the future, having him play as a second stringer for an extended period could stunt his growth.
Since drafting Bamba would have assuredly meant that they believe the latter has a brighter future than the former, the logical move would be to let Vucevic go. That’s playing with fire for Orlando, however, because there’s no guarantee that Bamba will be as good as or will the lead Magic to more success than Vucevic.
Maybe the Magic roll the dice and let Vucevic walk. But let’s remember that they’ve been burned in recent years when they got rid of talented players for what turned out to be either basically nothing or pennies on the dollar. Sure they didn’t know that Victor Oladipo and Tobias Harris would pan out as well as they have, but with Vucevic playing at arguably an All-NBA-esque level, maybe cutting ties wouldn’t be the smartest move.
Right now, it is too early to decide what Orlando should do as the season is still young. Although, that label loses more and more validity by the day. How this ordeal with Vucevic gets solved depends on how the Magic play from here on out.
If the Magic start to revert back to where they’ve been for the past six years, then they should let Vucevic go. There’s no point in keeping the 28-year-old around on a lottery team as he enters his prime. If it goes that way, then trading him mid-season with the value he has would be the best route.
That pathway would be much easier than if, say, Orlando keeps up its stellar play or gets even better as the season progresses. If that happens, then this gets more complicated.
The Magic potentially making the playoffs with Vucevic as their best player would make it harder to let him walk. Unless Bamba proves without a shadow of a doubt that he is the better option long-term, keeping Vucevic may be a necessity to sustain their success, which could make what they do with Bamba all the more interesting.
This, of course, is thinking too far ahead. It’s just nice that, for once, Orlando is in the headlines because they’ve played some good basketball.
Whether that continues depends on what route they choose with Vucevic, who could be the team’s first All-Star since Dwight Howard.
NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard
The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.
At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.
Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.
The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.
He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.
“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.
Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.
“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”
There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.
Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.
Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”
Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.
Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.
But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.
There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.
But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.
“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”
But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.
More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.
“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.
He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.
NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up
Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.
When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.
This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.
Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.
“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”
The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!
Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.
“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”
No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.
“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.
After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.
Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.
Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.
“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”
Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.
Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.
In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.
To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.
“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”
The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.
“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”
NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards
Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.
From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.
Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.
He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.
Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.
And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.
Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.
“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”
But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.
“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”
Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.
“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”
And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.
While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.
“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”
To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.
Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.
“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”
If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.
Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.
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