MILWAUKEE — Andrew Nicholson showed flashes of brilliance, mainly on offense, during his rookie season with the Orlando Magic.
This season, the second in the NBA for the first-round pick from St. Bonaventure, has turned into an extended struggle for Nicholson, who developed a reputation for a velvety touch from the post to beyond the three-point arc during his storied career with the Bonnies.
Nicholson is working to regain the shooting prowess that sparked the Bonnies on a magical run to their first-ever Atlantic 10 conference tournament title and a berth in the 2012 NCAA tournament, where the 14th seed, came agonizingly close to pulling off a first -round upset of No. 3 seed Florida State.
“I’m in a tough stretch right now and I’m just trying to get it back offensively. It’s not really falling right now but I’ve got to stay positive, Nicholson said during an interview Monday night in the visitor’s locker room at the BMO Harris Bradley in Milwaukee following the Magic’s 105-98 loss to the host Bucks.
Nicholson entered the game shooting just 41 percent from the field this season, compared with nearly 53 percent last year. Since mid -December, when Nicholson’s shooting touch began to vanish, he’s connected on barely 30 percent of his shots. Against the Bucks, who have the league’s worst record, Nicholson scored six points, making three of nine shots from the field. He added two rebounds and an assist in nearly 16 minutes of play.
Despite his shooting woes, Nicholson showed some aggressiveness on offense, often calling for the ball as the Magic held a lead throughout the second quarter, when he first entered the game.
The soft-spoken Nicholson said he’s been putting in extra work in an effort to regain his shooting touch.
“I come in early and get up some extra shots,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep shooting the ball.”
Nicholson averaged eight points and nearly 17 minutes per game last season. His scoring average has dipped to six points per game this season, while his minutes have declined to 16.
Orlando coach Jacque Vaughn, the former University of Kansas standout guard, seemed pleased at times with Nicholson’s play on the offensive end last year, but he often lost minutes because of his struggles on defense, where he often had difficulty containing stronger power forwards.
Nicholson said he has concentrated on improving his defense and is convinced he’s made considerable strides this season.
“My defense has definitely improved from last year. It’s like night and day to me, said Nicholson, a power forward who was forced to play center for a key second-quarter stretch as the Bucks sliced into what had been an 18-point lead for the Magic.
Earlier this season, Vaughn told the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins, who covers the team, that Nicholson was playing more aggressively on defense this year and that he’s “caring to an extreme point of wanting to win and doing whatever it takes to win."
Although realizing the importance of being better on defense, Nicholson knows it’s his ability on offense that drew the attention of scouts and got him to the NBA.
“I know I’ve improved my defense but I can’t forget what I do best. I’ve just got to get back on track,” Nicholson said.
Against the Bucks, Nicholson converted a soft hook shot in the second quarter, reminiscent of the move he displayed so often at St. Bonaventure. In the fourth quarter, he nailed a long-range jumper to cut the Bucks lead to four. But he missed a wide open 10-footer earlier in the game and failed to convert his only three-point attempt.
He’s shooting just 29 percent from three-point range this season, converting 23 of 78 shots. During his senior season with the Bonnies, Nicholson nailed 23 of 53 shots from beyond the arc, an impressive 43.4 percent clip for the 6-foot 9-inch forward.
“I’m comfortable inside and outside but it’s just not falling right now,” he said.
Nicholson had seen his playing time diminish greatly as the season has progressed but has been on the court more in recent weeks after the Magic bought out the contract of forward Glen Davis in late February.
Orlando reportedly made the move so that it could create more court time for Nicholson and other youngsters, including Kyle O’Quinn, another second year player.
In the Magic’s first seven games in February prior to Davis’ departure, Nicholson averaged just six minutes per game. This included two games in which he didn’t play at all. In the 10 games since the Magic bought out Davis, Nicholson’s playing time has more than doubled to 14 minutes per game.
Nicholson said he needs to take advantage of the increased playing time.
“When I’m out there I do what I can in the time that I get,” he said.
Nicholson insisted that his shooting struggles haven’t shattered his confidence. With the NBA season winding down and the Magic well out of the playoff race, Nicholson understands that he’ll need to be focused during the off-season if he expects to improve on this season’s performance.
“I just need to continue to stay on track and work hard during the summer, he said.
(Rich Rovito, a former Bradford, Pa., resident, covers the Milwaukee Bucks and the Milwaukee Brewers for the Associated Press).