2011 NBA Draft: Grading The Sixers Selection of Nikola Vucevic

Despite how disappointed I was with the Sixers selection of Nikola Vucevic with the sixteenth overall pick, I've tried to take a step back, now that the dust has settled, and properly evaluate the selection of Air Nicky, without completely bashing him.

Bottom line is, I don't think Nikola is a terrible prospect. In fact, I think he's an incredibly mediocre prospect. I simply don't think he was the correct pick at 16, whether the strategy was best player available, or player with the most potential. If the Sixers' strategy was strictly based on short-term need, then sure, Nikola fills a significant short-term need on a team lacking any reliable big men, but I have a hard time believing he's the long-term answer at center. So, for a team as far away from truly contending as the Sixers are, I didn't feel drafting for need was a smart strategy.

I would've much rather seen them select either A) The best player available (Chris Singleton), or the player with the most potential (Either Donatas Motiejunas, Tobias Harris, or Nikola Mirotic). 

But what's done is done, and it's time to move forward with our shiny new, Ronnie-from-Jersey-Shore-Look-A-Like, sweet-instrument-playing center. Make the jump for an attempt at un-biased analysis and fact. 

(STRENGTHS)

Improvement/Work Ethic 

Let's start with the improvement Vucevic has shown during his three years at USC. Below is a table comparing a few key advanced stats of Vucevic's during his three-year college career. The fourth and fifth columns are thrown in just for fun – Spencer Hawes' advanced stats for his last year in college, and his last year with the Sixers.


Freshman

(2008)

Sophomore

(2009)

Junior

(2010)

Hawes (College 2006)

Hawes  (Pro 2010)

Minutes 11.0 32.3 34.9 28.9 21.2
ORtg 110.0 107.3 115.7 109.3 97.0
FTR 17.7 34.0 38.2 26.9 15.0
TS% 60.4% 55.2% 57.8% 56.2% 48.1%
OREB% 11.1% 12.1% 9.8% 8.1% 8.7%
DREB% 17.8% 23.1% 25.5% 18.1% 22.5%
AST/TO 0.5 0.6 0.9 0.8 1.25
BLK% 3.9% 4.5% 4.3% 6.3% 3.1%
TO% 25.4% 18.8% 12.0% 20.0% 13.8%
FOULS 1.48 2.73 2.82 2.26 2.50

You always like to see consistent improvement from young players because it usually indicates hard work. Although Vucevic became bigger and stronger during his three-year career in Southern California, he also showed significant improvement in almost every area of basketball.

His freshman year is kind of a throw-away, because he only played 11 minutes per game, but if you look at the difference between his sophomore and junior years you'll see legitimate improvement. His Offensive Rating was +8.4. His Free Throw Rate improved. His True Shooting Percentage improved by 2.6%. His Defensive Rebounding Percentage increased. His assist-to-turnover ratio improved. And he cut his turnovers down significantly. 

(Also, just for spits and giggles, Vucevic ranked ahead of Washington Huskie Spencer Hawes in nearly every advanced stat. Keep in mind, Hawes was only a freshman.)

It's not just the numbers that have seen improvement. Draft Express mentions his actual, visible improvement numerous times throughout his prospect profile (emphasis is mine):

One of the most improved players on the west coast this season, Nikola Vucevic has seen his stock rise considerably over his three year career at USC.

A player we profiled extensively just three months ago, Nikola Vucevic actually managed to slightly increase his production and efficiency numbers in conference play, continuing to play excellent basketball all season long.

Looking at Vucevic's on-court performance this season, he's shown an outstanding learning curve and has made a lot of adjustments to his game that benefit his prospects as a potential NBA role player.

... It's a good sign that he's still trying to expand his game, and at just 20 years old with his overall feel, there's a good chance there's more improvement to come here.

Size

You can't teach size and Vucevic is a massive piece of man. His standing reach of 9'4.5" was good for the second tallest in this year's draft class; it's is also taller than Greg Oden, Dwight Howard and Bismack Biyombo's. He weighs in at a solid 260, with surprisingly only 6% body fat. Although he doesn't look it, that means he's chiseled. His 7'4.5" is also one of the largest in his class.

Jump Shot

From Draft Express:

[Vucevic] ranked in the top-5 in our sample in jump shooting efficiency.

Vucevic is spending a lot of time here working on his jump shot, which looked terrific in the session we watched. At one point, Vucevic knocked down 11 straight college-three pointers, showing terrific mechanics in the process. Considering he made a solid 39% of his catch and shoot jumpers last season according to Synergy Sports Technology, Vucevic is already a solid shooter, but is still looking to improve his consistency even more.

While his spot shooting ability is still in its early stages of development, he's already an extremely dangerous shooter from the mid-range in spot-up and pick-and-pop situations, while his three-point attempts and percentages both gradually increased as the season went on.

Post Game

Again, from Draft Express:

The USC product is working hard on his post-game, and has a number of quality moves over both shoulders. Showing promising footwork, Vucevic is one of the more versatile and polished offensive big men in this draft.

From our own Derek Bodner:

In the post, Vucevic has good footwork and touch, showing the ability to go over both shoulders. His footwork is one of the more advanced and most diverse in the draft, and he shows a willingness to go down and play in the post, with an increasing ability to pass from this spot.

Defensive Rebounding

Vucevic ranked 25th in the nation last season with a Defensive Rebound Percentage of 25.5%. Draft Express adds "[he shows' a good nose for the ball and [uses] his length and size well". How a player rebounds in college is usually a good indicator of how he'll rebound in the pros.

(WEAKNESSES)

Athleticism

Check out this post from earlier. He is really, really unathletic. In case you're too lazy to click the link, this is all you need to know:

  1. Vucevic measured with half the body fat of Spencer Hawes at the combine. His vertical was still 4 inches shorter.
  2. Only 14 players benched less than Vucevic at the combine. Only one of those players was over 6'8".
  3. Of players drafted in the top 30 over the previous 11 years, only 1 had a worse vertical than Nikola Vucevic. His name was Pavel Podkolzine. Pavel Podkolzine was 7'5", 303 pounds.

Defense

From Derek Bodner:

His lower body is still not the strongest, and as such will struggle at times defending post scorers in the NBA. The bigger concern on the defensive end is defending the perimeter, as he has average (at best) foot speed.

From Draft Express

On the defensive end, Vucevic shows a solid fundamental base in the post, though he's prone to being both backed down and beaten laterally by stronger and quicker opponents. He does a good job compensating for this with his length, contesting shots and showing good timing with his shot block attempts, but he's still mostly overmatched against NBA caliber athletes. On the perimeter, he likewise shows decent fundamentals, but his lateral quickness is severely lacking here, being beat off the dribble often and being forced to foul from behind. This is the area of his game that could hold him back the most as an NBA prospect.

Ceiling

There's virtually zero chance Nikola Vucevic ever turns out to be an All-Star caliber player, or come even remotely close. Draft Express has his ceiling as Mehmet Okur. Mehmet was a really nice NBA player in his prime – and I know he made an All-Star team – but if he's your absolute best case scenario, that's a relatively low ceiling. Then again, what more do you expect with the sixteenth overall pick?

Video

Here's the best highlight video I've seen of Vucevic.

And here's a video/interview of one of his workouts via Draft Express.

Summary

I probably went a little overboard driving the "F This Pick!" bandwagon on Twitter. My rationale being, I really wanted to come out of this draft with either the best player available, a prospect with a high ceiling, or a significant defensive improvement at center. Some guys like Bismack Biyombo fit all three categories. Vucevic fits none. I don't believe he was the best player on the board; we've established his ceiling is average-to-low, and he's not a significant defensive improvement over Spencer Hawes, if at all. 

Before I get into my final thoughts, I want to address the Spencer Hawes comparison a bit. Both players are big, unathletic, white, and poor defenders. There are only two differences between Vucevic and Hawes, in my opinion, both in which Vucevic has a slight edge. Number one, Vucevic is a better offensive player. I don't think he's necessarily more talented than Hawes, which brings me to number two: Vucevic seems to get more out of his tools, and work harder at his craft.

Hawes overall offensive game, including his "advanced" post moves was also highly-touted coming out of high school and following his one year at Washington University, which is part of the reason he was selected tenth overall in a pretty decent 2007 draft. However; unlike Vucevic people have questioned Hawes character and work ethic in the past, and you have to wonder if that's the reason he's never really shown any significant improvement during his four years in the NBA. As previously mentioned, Vucevic has shown significant improvement over the previous three seasons because of hard work – a good sign that he may continue to work on his game and improve at the NBA level.

Nikola was the most mediocre/boring/ehh possibilities, and in true post-Iverson Sixers fashion, sure enough they took him. With that said, I think the Sixers come out of the draft with an improvement over Spencer Hawes. (They're equally poor defenders, and serviceable rebounders, but Nikola should be an improvement on the offensive end. Hawes is also an unrestriced free agent after next year, assuming no one signs him to an offer sheet this off-season.)

Vucevic probably tops out as a 7th or 8th man on a championship caliber team, should the Sixers ever reach that point. You can't ask for too much more with the 16th pick, especially in a draft perceived as weak as this year's. Although there were still quite a few names (5-10) on the board I would have rather had than Vucevic. 

Who knows, maybe Vucevic shocks me and proves to be a steal at 16, but I doubt it.

Pick Grade: C/C-

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