When the Orlando Magic appeased the wishes of Dwight Howard and traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason, they knew it was going to be the start of a rebuilding period in Orlando. Their 15-36 record this season is a pretty solid indication that they are starting from the bottom.
In the four-team deal that sent Howard to L.A., the Magic received three protected first-round draft picks, Arron Afflalo, Nikola Vucevic, Al Harrington and Moe Harkless. Afflalo and Vucevic have been quality additions that have put up respectable numbers, while Harkless has been a run-of-the mill rookie, and Harrington has yet to play this season due to knee surgery and a staph infection.
The difficult part from the Magic is that Afflalo and Vucevic are the core of their team. Though they are quality NBA players, they aren’t centerpieces that you can build around.
With the Magic starting from scratch with their roster, it makes sense to start developing young players that could potentially become key assets to the team. They’ve done a solid job with getting Vucevic, in his second year in the league, exposure and experience this season.
But, they haven’t really done the same with Nicholson, and that’s actually kind of puzzling.
Nicholson might be the Magic player with the most potential to become a force in the NBA. This is a guy who averaged 18.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and two blocks per game while shooting 57.1 percent from the floor in his senior year of college. He definitely has the skill-set to perform in the pros.
That’s been evident in the limited minutes that he has received over this season. For the whole season, he’s averaged only 15.5 minutes per game. But his per-36 minute numbers have been fantastic. Nicholson is averaging 18.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per-36 minutes. He’s also shooting 53.8 percent from the field and has the fifth-highest Player Efficiency Rating among rookies at 16.23. Those numbers are solid for any player, much less a rookie.
Then with his minutes increasing in February due to Davis’ injury, Nicholson has continued to perform well. In the six games the Magic have played this month, he’s averaging 17.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per-36 minutes. His field goal percentage has also improved to 59.6. The fact that his per-36 stats are close to the same with his increased workload shows that his season-long numbers are not a fluke. He can play at this level.
But the problem comes back to the fact that, even with gaining the starting role, Nicholson is still only getting those 25 minutes per game.
If Orlando is interested in building a team that will have a chance to succeed in the future, they need to focus on developing Nicholson. He’s proven that he can be effective in the NBA as a rookie, which means that he still has time to become a better player. Minutes shouldn’t be going to guys like McRoberts and Ayon that are mostly ineffective and have little potential for growth, when Nicholson is healthy and has the opportunity to gain experience.
For the sake of the Magic, they need to focus on getting Nicholson more time on the floor. If what he’s done this year in limited time continues, they won’t regret it now or in years to come.