By John Denton
Nov. 13, 2017
OAKLAND – With the exception of Aaron Gordon’s immediate family – which he dined with on Sunday night in his native San Jose, Calif. – no one is happier about the power forward’s success this season than Orlando Magic head coach Frank Vogel.
Vogel said as much on Monday as Gordon and Orlando prepared to face the Golden State Warriors. Vogel said that the promise in Gordon’s game has a lot to do with why he is the Magic’s mentor now.
“I’ve got a lot of belief in Aaron Gordon and he’s one of the reasons that I took the job here with the Magic,’’ said Vogel, who is in his second season in Orlando. “When a guy cares as much as he does and works as hard as he does, that impacts the group. And that type of attitude is infectious.’’
Gordon, 22, never cracked 30 percent shooting from 3-point range in his first three NBA seasons, but he came into Monday’s game in Oakland leading the NBA in that category by connecting on 55.3 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. That .265 percent increase – he was a 28.8 percent shooter from 3-point range last season – has him on pace to make the biggest jump in NBA history. According to STATS, Inc., Joe Johnson (.173 from 2003-04 to 2004-05), Kevin Durant (.134 from 2007-08 to 2008-09), Steve Smith (.133 from 2000-01 to 2001-02), Arron Afflalo (.127 from 2012-13 to 2013-14) and Mike Dunleavy (.111 from 2006-07 to 2007-08) have made the biggest jumps from one season to the next (minimum 200 attempts).
Gordon said of the reasons he was able to make such a leap in his game was the confidence that Vogel has instilled in him and his own desire to cull the most out of his enormous potential.
“It’s the second year that I’ve been with Frank and I’m excited to see our journey,’’ said Gordon, who came into Monday averaging 19 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game – all career highs. “We’ve already become a better team – he’s become a better coach and I’ve become a better player. To hear him say that (he came to Orlando to coach Gordon), that means a lot because I know it comes from a place of sincerity.’’
Gordon said what he is doing this season, improving as both a shooter and a decision-maker, is just the start because of the hunger that drives him.
“I want to win and be great and (Vogel) does too, so we’re very like-minded in that sense,’’ Gordon said. “I want to win and be the greatest and I don’t care what anybody else thinks but my teammates, my coaches and my (family).’’
POINT GUARD POWER: The Magic got Elfrid Payton back in action on Monday and that was an obvious boost because of the rhythm, pace and passing that the point guard brings to the team. But there’s another aspect of Payton’s game – the ability to call plays during games – that has been missing while Payton has been out with lingering pain in his strained left hamstring.
Vogel has turned much of the play-calling duties for offensive sets over to Payton. It is a process that started late last season when the point guard was racking up five triple-double performances and has carried over into this season.
“I love it. It’s the best, honestly, being able to call the plays,’’ Payton said. “I just kind of started doing it last year and he built up enough trust in me to know that I knew what I was doing a little bit, so then there was more and more belief and now we’re here.’’
Vogel, of course, still has final say over what plays the Magic run in half-court sets and he still diagrams all of Orlando’s after-time out plays. Turning the play-calling duties over to Payton has empowered the point guard and it’s allowed the Magic to quickly have more flow in their offense when he pushes the ball up court, Vogel said. And Payton has loved the freedom it has created for him.
“I always knew what I wanted to call in my own head, and for the most part we’d always be on the same page,’’ Payton said of the extra duties. “It doesn’t require any more (pregame prep or in-game work) than what I was already doing.’’
HOME BOY: Gordon took advantage of the Magic being in the Bay Area and having a day off on Sunday to get back home to San Jose to see family.
With the Magic slated to be thousands of miles away on Thanksgiving Day – they will fly from Minneapolis to Boston on Turkey Day – Gordon got to have a pre-holiday celebration with all the fixins’.
“I went home, got a home-cooked meal and saw my mom, dad and my sister and a couple of my friends,’’ Gordon said. “We did an early Thanksgiving meal. The stuffing – I always loved my mom’s stuffing with the celery, onions, sausage, bread and mushrooms. She basked it and it was tasty.’’
MO BUCKETS: A native of St. Petersburg, Fla., Marreese Speights has always looked at his move to play for the Magic as a homecoming of sorts. However, Monday’s game in Oakland was also a bit of a homecoming for Speights considering that he played for the Warriors for three seasons from 2013-16. He was a key cog in the Warriors’ 2015 run to the NBA championship and he also contributed heavily during the 2016 season when Golden State won a NBA-record 73 games and came within minutes of capturing a second straight title.
“It’s fun facing these guys,’’ Speight said. “When you win a ring together and win 73 games and go through all of those kind of experiences, it’s like a brotherhood that’s always with you. It’s always fun to come back here and play in front of these fans and against my old teammates.’’
Speights only shot 3-pointers as a last resort for the first six years of his NBA career, but it was Golden State coach Steve Kerr who convinced him to extend his range and become a 3-point shooter in 2015. This season, he made six 3-pointers against the New Orleans Pelicans and he ranks 36th in the NBA in 3-point percentage (43.2 percent).
“I love Mo Speights – one of my favorites with a huge heart, a wonderful teammate who stayed ready every game even though he played once every three games,’’ Kerr said. “The two games that he didn’t play he just smiled, never complained and worked. The third game when we would play him, he’d make four or five buckets. I’d say over the course of the two years when I was coaching him, he probably personally won us eight or 10 games with his shooting.
“He’s always been a great shooter from the minute that he stepped into this league, but it was more from the 20-foot range,’’ Kerr added. “When I took the (Warriors coaching) job and I was watching tape it seemed like he was making a million 22-footers and he just needed to go one step back. I had been with Channing Frye in Phoenix when I was GM and Channing had made a transition (to becoming a 3-point shooter). … I told Mo there’s no reason you can’t add on a couple of feet of range. He didn’t really do it the first year, but he did it the second year, and over the last couple of seasons he’s really become a 3-point shooter. It’s the way the league is going and a guy like Mo almost has to (shoot threes) with the way that he plays.’’
UP NEXT: Orlando will wrap up its four-game swing through the Western Conference on Wednesday night in Portland against Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the Trail Blazers. The Magic won 115-109 in Portland last January – a game in which center Nikola Vucevic scored 30 points.
Rather than return to Central Florida right after Wednesday’s game and arrive as the sun is rising, the Magic will spend an additional night in the Pacific Northwest and fly home on Thursday. Orlando doesn’t play again until Saturday when it faces the Utah Jazz at the Amway Center.
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