By John Denton
Oct. 13, 2017
ORLANDO – From the first day of training camp all the way to Friday’s preseason finale, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon promised that his focus would remain affixed on the process and not so much the results.
Whether Gordon got a contract extension, whether he had a big individual jump in his production this season or whether the Magic eventually make the playoffs – all of it would be as a result of the work that he’s put in and none of it would ever distract his focus, Gordon insisted.
That mindset helped Gordon carry over a strong finish from last season into this preseason where he has shown major signs of making a major breakthrough. In Gordon’s first four preseason games, he’s averaged 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds a game while shooting 51.9 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3-point range – all of which would be career-best numbers compared to what he’s done in the first three years of his NBA career.
Gordon’s production has come at a time when he is eligible to sign a contract extension with the Magic – a pact that must be agreed upon before Oct. 16 or he will be a restricted free agent on July 1, 2018. He has been able to successfully block out that potential distraction by simply focusing on his play on the court.
“That’s never why I played the game and not why I play the game (now),’’ Gordon said, referring to the chance to cash in and secure his long-term future. “I trust (Magic President of Basketball Operations) Jeff Weltman and (GM) John Hammond to make the right decision and I’m going to continue to play my game, help my team and improve as a player. They see how hard I work, they see how far my game has come and I’m only 22 (years old).
“My game is going to continue to get better and there’s still no ceiling for me,’’ he added. “I’m looking to be the best in the NBA at some point in my career, so I’m going to continue to improve and continue to help my team get wins.’’
DEFENSIVE PROGRESS: To make a major jump this season and go from 29 wins to one that is contention for a playoff spot, the Magic must make significant gains on the defensive end of the floor. Head coach Frank Vogel has poured over the numbers and video footage from last season and he knows that minimal improvements simply won’t cut it considering how woeful Orlando was defensively last season.
It’s just the preseason, but so far Orlando’s defensive strides have been quite dramatic. Last season, the Magic ranked 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per game (107.6), 25th in field goal percentage allowed (46.7 percent) and 24th in 3-point percentage allowed (36.8 percent). Through the first five preseason games, Orlando has ranked fifth in the NBA in points allowed per game (93.6), third in field goal percentage allowed (39.8 percent) and third in 3-point percentage allowed (29.3 percent).
Impressive numbers, indeed, but they also come with the caveat that several teams were without their star players in all or part of the preseason games against the Magic.
According to SportVU, the Magic gave up 30.4 drives per game last season, most in the NBA. Also, Orlando was the only squad in the NBA to surrender 70 points in the paint last season three different times.
Vogel spent a big portion of training camp working on improving the team’s defense and emphasizing the importance of playing winning one-on-one battles as it relates to containment of drivers. Thus far, the Magic have been somewhat better about containing dribble drives and in their first five preseason games they allowed just 38.4 points a night in the paint.
Vogel knows the Magic still must make more strides defensively if they are going to make a significant jump in the standings.
“ I’m hopeful, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do to become a good defensive team,’’ Vogel said. “We seem to have a better grasp of what I’m asking them to do this year as opposed to last year and hopefully that’s part of the continuity bump. They’re working, they’re trying and they understand that a big part of the reason that we didn’t have a successful season last year was because of our perimeter defense, so these guys are working to improve that.’’
ROOKIE REVIEW: While Magic first-round pick Jonathan Isaac has caught the eyes of most with his speedy transition to NBA basketball and his stellar play, second-round pick Wes Iwundu has mostly flown under the radar with his solid, if not spectacular, play.
Iwundu, who missed Friday’s finale with a mildly strained right hamstring, has impressed Vogel with his ability to defend on the perimeter and make plays for others offensively. The 6-foot-7 Iwundu hasn’t shot the ball well (seven of 20 from the floor and 1 of 6 from 3-point range) – a knock on him after spending four seasons at Kansas State – but he’s been impressive with his abilities to move laterally and contain scorers.
“He’s one of those guys who can really guard, he has great length and he fits our style in terms of being able to run and shoot the three,’’ Vogel said. “The future is bright for him.’’
Orlando is hopeful that Iwundu will be healthy enough to return by Wednesday’s opener. Vogel noted that if there are scenarios this season where Iwundu goes several games without seeing playing time off the Magic’s bench, the team could use their G League squad, the Lakeland Magic, to help him keep his skills sharp.
GREEN RETURNS: Friday’s game saw the return of mercurial Cleveland forward Jeff Green, who struggled through a disappointing 2016-17 season in Orlando.
The 31-year-old Green averaged just 9.2 points and 3.1 rebounds a game last season – both career worsts. He played in just 69 games and shot a dismal 39.4 percent – two more career lows.
Green said his return to Orlando allowed him to visit with friends Bismack Biyombo and D.J. Augustin, but otherwise there was no sentimental tug going back to a city where he’s played before. After all, the Cavs are his sixth NBA franchise in 10 NBA seasons.
Green said there was no contact between him and the Magic in July about a possible return, so he instead signed with the veteran-laden Cavaliers. He added that he’s given little thought to why Orlando slumped so badly last season.
“Honestly, I haven’t given it any thought at all,’’ Green said. “Once a season ends for me, I try to erase it and get mentally fresh for the next season. So, honestly, I haven’t even thought about why it didn’t work. I just know we didn’t do as well as we thought we would and you move on.’’
UP NEXT: With the Magic wrapping up the preseason on Friday night, the team will be off on Saturday before returning to the practice court on Sunday to start preparations on the Miami Heat. The two Sunshine State rivals will open the regular season against one another at the Amway Center on Wednesday night.
It is the second straight season that the Magic and Heat will open the season against one another – and the fourth time in the history of the franchises. The Heat won that opener last season, but Orlando rebounded to win the final three meetings. Miami became the first team in NBA history to get back to .500 after once being 19 games below the break-even mark, but they missed the playoffs largely because of their failures against Orlando.
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