By John Denton
Sept. 28, 2017
ORLANDO – Judging by the smiles on their faces, the passion in their online posts and pride in wearing Orlando Magic jerseys, Arron Afflalo and Marreese Speights have shown that it means everything to them being back in Central Florida for two different kinds of homecomings.
Ultimately, the faith and strong beliefs that the two accomplished veterans have shown to Orlando as the franchise attempts to claw back into contention could be even more significant to the Magic. At least that’s how Jeff Weltman, Orlando’s President of Basketball Operations, views the commitment of Afflalo and Speights to a Magic franchise that has struggled in rebuilding much of the past five seasons.
“Huge – in capital letters,’’ Weltman said, referring to having Afflalo and Speights signing free-agent deals with the Magic back in July. “Considering where the organization is and having guys say, `I want to be here. I want to wear that (Orlando Magic) name on my chest.’ It might be the most important thing that you can try to find right now.
“Mo is local and his wanting to be here is something that he expressed to us with great emotion. He wanted to play for his home team,’’ Weltman said of Speights’ hometown of St. Petersburg. “And when we visited with Arron, he said, `this is my favorite stop that I’ve had’ and `I’m coming to a point in my career where doing it with people that I trust and in a place that I love matters.’ Having those guys express those sentiments to us was no small thing.’’
Afflalo, 31 and about to enter his 11th NBA season, was a standout with the Magic from 2012-14 and he admitted that he started missing many things about Orlando not long after being traded to the Denver Nuggets and while playing for the Trail Blazers, Knicks and Kings in recent years. Speights, 30 and entering his 10th NBA season, grew up in nearby St. Pete rooting for the Magic and even as he’s bounced around the NBA he always hoped he would someday play close to home and in front of family for his favorite team.
Now, after reaching out to the Magic in July and agreeing to one-year, free-agent deals, both players will be in Magic jerseys and they seemingly couldn’t be any happier about it.
“It’s definitely real now,’’ Speights said earlier in the week during Media Day. “This is one of the best days of my life of playing basketball, walking into the locker room and putting this jersey on.’’
Then, there was this from Afflalo on his Instagram account (@thearronafflalo), one that he’s used repeatedly to thank Orlando and the Magic in the weeks leading up to training camp: “The franchise that believed in me the most. … There’s no city that I would rather give everything I’ve got for. … Looking back, you become more desirable every day. Hope our team and presence in every corner of your community uplifts you.’’
Strong stuff, indeed from Afflalo, whose first stint in Orlando was marked by the growth in his game and the willingness to win that he regularly displayed. He isn’t the same player that he was back in 2013-14 when he averaged a career-best 18.2 points per game in Magic pinstripes, but he is hopeful that the good vibes from his Orlando return will turn around the slide that he’s experienced over the past three oft-turbulent seasons.
Looking back on the past, Afflalo said he never realized how happy he was in Orlando until he went elsewhere. The franchise struggled both of those seasons, but Afflalo’s career blossomed in Orlando, his daughter (Dylann) was born here and he was generally happy with his life. Now, he’s back living in the same downtown Orlando condominium he was in three years earlier, hitting up his favorite Orlando restaurant (Hillstone in Winter Park) and back in the No. 4 that he wore four seasons ago when he pumped in a career-best 43 points in a double-overtime game against Philadelphia in 2013.
“Obviously, you sometimes take for granted some of the good times and you think that things are always going to be good – whether you are a playoff team or you are just having individual success – and you figure that’s going to continue no matter what,’’ said Afflalo, who was traded from Denver to Portland and the Knicks and Kings teams he played for were plagued with infighting. “But that’s not always the case. Every team has got its own issues. You’ve got to be careful asking for more and wanting more or complaining about things because (the grass) may not be greener on the other side. I just hope every guy here appreciates what they’ve got.’’
As for Speights, he can’t wait until next Thursday’s preseason home-opener when he will have friends and family travel over from St. Pete to watch him play for the first time in a Magic uniform. Those same people have packed the stands as Speights has played for the 76ers, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Warriors and Clippers, but this, he said, will be different considering how much his family rooted for the Magic years ago. His favorite players growing up were Shaquille O’Neal and Nick Anderson and he later grew an affinity for Tracy McGrady, a native of Auburndale who made a similar return to play for his hometown team from 2000-04.
“A lot of people always hit me up on social media and stuff and they are happy that I’m playing for the Magic,’’ said Speights, who is also looking forward to driving back home on off days and potentially seeing his old high school team play some nights. “Having my family in the crowd every night is going to be so good. I’ve got this ticket (plan) on the way and I’m going to have group-rate tickets to every game.’’
As excited as Afflalo and Speights are about being in Orlando, Magic coach Frank Vogel is just as enthusiastic about having the two veterans’ experience, toughness and shot-making abilities on the floor and in the locker room. Speights has been one of the NBA’s best sixth-man scorers for years – he’s averaged at least 6.0 points per game in seven straight seasons – while Afflalo shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range for the sixth time in his career last season.
“Those guys have an important role on our team and they’ve got to come in invested playing their part on the court,’’ said Vogel, who likes that both veterans can play multiple positions. “Also, they’ve got to play their part (of the court), sharing their experiences and making sure that things are being done the right way with the young guys. So we’re very excited to have them.’’
Magic guard Terrence Ross agreed with Weltman that having veteran players such as Afflalo and Speights brings credibility and respect to the roster. The 26-year-old Ross can’t wait to chat more with two of the oldest players on the team and hear stories about their experiences.
“You have to pick their brains, start conversations with them and understand things about other players that have been on their teams,’’ Ross said. “Mo has played with Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant and Steph (Curry). It will be so good for our young guys because we’re in that locker room so much and we have so many conversations. The guys won’t always know it, but everything they are learning from them will help them grow. It’s always great to have great veteran players like that and they are helping us already.’’
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