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NBA Daily: Is Nikola Vucevic’s Future In Orlando?

If it continues, Nikola Vucevic’s All-Star caliber play could potentially put the Magic at an impasse this summer, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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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.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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