If someone asked you to name the NBA's top five centers, who would you come up with?
DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins would likely make most lists. However, who would take up the last two spots?
Possibly, but there might be another name to consider.
Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic entered Wednesday night's game against the Atlanta Hawks averaging 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 29.7 minutes per game over 25 contests.
After recording a season-long double-double of 14.6 points and 10.4 rebounds in 28.8 minutes over 75 games last year, the 7'0", 260-pound 27 year old entered 2017-2018 as one of the most unsung stars in the league.
So far this season, he's continued that trend.
On Wednesday, Vucevic played 40 minutes in a 110-106 overtime win over the Hawks and posted 22 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals over that span.
It was his 12th double-double of the season and his seventh double-double in his last 10 games overall.
Although he plays in a small Orlando market, why isn't he one of the first names mentioned when ranking the NBA's top centers? Also, how were the Magic able to sign him to such a team-friendly extension at four-years and $53 million back in the summer of 2015? He's making $12.25 million this season and will make $12.75 next year before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019 if he doesn't receive another extension prior to that.
As of Wednesday, Vucevic ranked 5th in scoring among qualified centers, ahead of Jokic of the Denver Nuggets, Dwight Howard of the Charlotte Hornets, Jusuf Nurkic of the Portland Trail Blazers, Drummond of the Detroit Pistons, Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers and Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder, just to name a few.
He also ranked fourth among qualified centers in field goals made per game (6.9) and fifth in field goals attempted per contest (14.0). To add, he has expanded his game beyond the three-point line, having made 35 threes on 102 attempts. Just DeMarcus Cousins ranked ahead of him among qualified centers in that regard.
While his defensive play has, at times, forced coach Frank Vogel to deploy Bismack Biyombo in his stead, Vucevic is also ranked 15th in rebounding, ahead of guys like Adams, Nurkic and Turner despite averaging under 30 minutes a game.
Here's the latest example of Vuc's defensive struggles:
That wasn't a good look.
However, by all accounts, Vucevic is a well-rounded and dangerous offensive player and has expanded his game beyond the arc to keep up with the evolving league around him. Before this year, he had gone a combined 30-for-101 from three-point range in 399 games over six seasons. He surpassed that number of three-point shots made and attempted in just 25 games.
Despite his personal success this season and over his tenure with the Magic, Vucevic made it clear that he couldn't care less about individual marks. He just wants to win.
"When I first got here, I understood that we were going through a rebuilding process and I was young and going through my second and third years,’’ Vucevic recalled. "We were trying to develop guys and give them a chance, but then after two or three years we knew it was time to fight for something and play for something. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t happened for us," he told John Denton of NBA.com in late November.
"Losing is just awful, man," he said. "When you’re losing like we are now, none of it is any fun.’’
"Winning just takes care of everything," he explained. "We were only (eight) games in and it was just so much fun around here because we were winning. We were having so much fun out there on the court."
Vucevic also seems to have embraced a leadership role on a team that has been rebuilding for a number of seasons. Through his example, he hopes that his teammates develop a burning passion to start winning.
"I know, more than anybody, that this team has taken some big hits and has been through a lot,’’ he affirmed. "I really think I’m the guy who wants this team to win the most, and right now, all we can do is keep fighting. Hopefully we can somehow find a way to turn it around soon.’’
At 11-15, the Magic turned heads at the beginning of the season when they went 6-2 over their first eight games. Since then, they've struggled and even endured a nine-game losing streak in the process. But, with Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier alongside Vucevic, the Magic certainly have enough firepower in their core to make some noise in a weak Eastern Conference.
Vucevic will look to lead the Magic to victory against the Denver Nuggets on Friday before traveling to Atlanta to take on the Hawks again on Saturday. Based on his recent play, there's no reason to assume that he won't continue his stellar offensive play.
Based on his numbers and his expanded offensive skill set, it remains to be seen if he will become more of a household name as the season rolls along.