Heading into last season, his name was underlined, capitalized, italicized and surrounded by dollar signs in my rankings:
$$$ NIKOLA VUCEVIC $$$
The reason for my excitement: Starting on Dec. 31 (when he closed out 2012 with a 20-point, 29-rebound outing) and continuing through the end of the season, Vucevic averaged 14.7 ppg, 13.2 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.9 spg and 1.0 bpg, shooting 52.7 percent from the field in 47 games. And he finished on an even stronger note: With three 20-20 games (including a 30-20 game) during the last six weeks of the season, Vucevic posted 17.0 ppg, 14.5 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.4 spg and 1.1 bpg over his final 16 games. Heading into 2013-14 at age 23, a monster season seemed inevitable.
Unfortunately, it never quite came together. Vucevic was good (14.2 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 1.1 spg, 0.8 bpg), but he wasn’t great, and he missed 25 games due to injuries.
It wasn’t a huge disappointment, but it was a disappointment nonetheless. And as a result, I didn’t have his name written on my draft list in the boldest ink possible.
Through his first nine games of the season, the 24-year-old has averaged 18.7 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.0 spg and 1.2 bpg on 52.7 percent shooting, his perimeter game and post moves on full display, combined with increased aggression (he’s attempting 16.2 shots per game this year, a full 4.0 per game more than he took last year).
So if you drafted him and are wondering if this level of production can last, I absolutely think it can. And if you’re determined to sell high to maximize his value, make sure you get a stout return. Aside from scoring – where he might be overachieving a little bit – none of these numbers surprise me. One year later than I expected it, the full-scale Vucevic breakout is upon us. If you were smarter than me and managed not to hold last season against him, please feel entitled to enjoy the production all season long.
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A few other topics on my mind this week…
Is this the end of Evan Fournier’s run, or just the beginning? Over his last four games, Fournier has posted 22.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.8 spg and 2.5 3s, raising his season stats to 18.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.9 spg and 2.1 3s – a solid impersonation of 2013-14 Klay Thompson.
The question, of course, is can he keep it up after Victor Oladipo returns? And on the surface, that looks like a challenge. The Magic seem committed to giving No. 10 overall pick Elfrid Payton a chance to develop (28 minutes per game so far), which would leave Oladipo playing the majority of his minutes at shooting guard. However, this recent Orlando Sentinel article suggests that Fournier “blossoming” is making the Magic at least consider the merits of an Oladipo-Fournier backcourt.
So what does all this mean for Fournier? It’s not like Payton (and Luke Ridnour) are suddenly going to disappear, so adding Oladipo back to the mix makes Fournier likely to lose some of his current average of 34 minutes per game. But I wouldn’t bet on him losing a ton of it. Between backing up Oladipo and playing alongside him, there’s still an opportunity for Fournier to piece together 25-30 minutes per game. So while his current stats may be a high-water mark, I don’t think it’s correct to assume he’ll suddenly be useless once Oladipo returns. Even with less chances, Fournier could easily average somewhere in the range of 15 ppg with plenty of 3s going forward.
From the déjà vu department: Jonas Valanciunas. For the third straight year, Valanciunas is off to a slow start in November. To refresh your memory:
November 2012: 9.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.2 bpg, 24 minutes per game
November 2013: 8.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 0.9 bpg, 26 minutes per game
November 2014: 9.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 23 minutes per game
It’s an annoying trend, no doubt, but in each of his first two seasons, Valanciunas eventually raised his level of play. His rookie year, he posted 15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 1.9 bpg over his final 14 games. Last year, his run was much longer: a respectable 12.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg and 0.9 bpg over his final 61 games, including 15.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 0.7 bpg over his final 18. Bottom line: This is frustrating, but history has shown us that it’s wise to stay patient here. His ceiling is probably closer to Marcin Gortat than Nikola Vucevic this year, but there should still be plenty of solid production ahead.
Meanwhile, we have a Ben McLemore sighting. After an awful start to the season (3.8 ppg, 26.3 percent from the field through his first four games), McLemore has come to life over his last five, posting 15.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.4 spg, 0.4 bpg and 2.8 3s in 34 minutes per game. The deficiencies in that stat line are obvious, and it’s way too soon to say that McLemore has figured out how to score consistently, but he’s worth a look right now if you need help in points and 3s.
Other Random Thoughts: Jared Sullinger is averaging 14.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.3 apg, 0.3 spg and 1.0 bpg, and things can still get better. He has hit just 2-of-18 3s so far after connecting on 15-of-30 in the preseason. Once his outside shot starts falling, watch out. … Speaking of 3s, after attempting 2.7 per game last year, and making a career-high 0.8, DeMar DeRozan has attempted just 10 treys in nine games this season (1.1 per game). He’s still plenty valuable thanks to points (20.6) and free throws (82.3 percent on 8.8 attempts per game), plus he’s averaging 2.0 spg early on, but it’s starting to look like last year’s increased 3s may have been a fluke for the career 26.6 percent 3-point shooter. … Al Horford has averaged just 8.7 ppg and 5.3 rpg over his last three games heading into the weekend, so there’s a buy-low window open right now. Horford’s current averages of 13.1 ppg and 7.1 rpg are well below where he should end up. … Harrison Barnes cooled off after a fast start Thursday (eight points in the first quarter, 12 in the game), but he has still averaged 15.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 1.3 3s in his last three games. With that said, I like him better as an option in deeper leagues, because even when he’s going well, he doesn’t contribute much outside of points, rebounds and 3s. … I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of inconsistency from Terrence Ross, but lately it’s been fun times for Toronto’s explosive small forward: 16.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.0 spg, 0.8 bpg and 3.5 3s in his last four games.
Throwback Box Score of the Week
Almost exactly 10 years ago (Nov. 20, 2004), a vintage Andrei Kirilenko posted 11 points, 14 boards, seven assists, a steal and seven blocks to almost single-handedly maul my poor hometown Hawks (who were lit up by Nick Van Exel in the throwback box score last week). That was the first of two consecutive seven-block games for Kirilenko, who led the NBA with 3.3 bpg that year (along with 15.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.6 spg and 0.6 3s).