With the NBA All-Star break just days away, teams and players alike are gathering an idea of where they currently stand among their peers. One of the league’s most noteworthy distinctions is the Most Improved Player Award. Last season’s winner was then-Orlando Magic forward Ryan Anderson, and if second-year center Nikola Vucevic continues his stellar play, the franchise could be the first team with back-to-back winners of the award. The Magic lead the league with five (Anderson, Hedo Turkoglu, Tracy McGrady, Darrell Armstrong and Scott Skiles).
As a rookie last season, Vucevic was in and out of the Philadelphia 76ers lineup. In just over 15 minutes, he averaged just 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. But this year, the Swiss-born big man has more than doubled his output with 12.5 points and 11.6 rebounds per game as a starter. Despite being just 22 years old, Vucevic displays good awareness and instincts. He’s always around the ball and takes high-percentage shots (52-percent scorer)- he knows how to play to his strengths.
The Magic center trails only David Lee and Zach Randolph for the most double-doubles with 29. He was also named to the Rising Stars Challenge set to take place during All-Star Weekend. Playing on a 15-36, small-market team Vucevic does not get much notoriety. Considering their struggles and lack of star power, it’s not much of a surprise.
Orlando is not even a year into the post-Dwight Howard era, but general manager Rob Hennigan may have found a cornerstone for his franchise. Working as a member of the front office for the highly-acclaimed San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, Hennigan has played a role in establishing those organizations. His acquisition of Vucevic is his first step in rebuilding the Magic.
Vucevic seemingly came out of nowhere, and is a lone bright spot for the Magic. As a “throw in” in the Howard trade, the second-year center may have made the Magic the long-term winners. Given the Los Angeles Lakers’ disappointing year, and the friction between Howard and Kobe Bryant, there’s no guarantee that Howard will re-sign. The 76ers gave up Andre Iguodala and netted Andrew Bynum, but who knows if/when Bynum will return to form. The newly-acquired Sixer has yet to play a single game this season due to multiple knee issues.
Even though there is a lot of basketball to be played, Vucevic is distinguishing himself as one of the best up-and-coming players in the league. Only time will tell if he is deserving of more than just the Most Improved Player honor.
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