By John Denton
Oct. 31, 2017
MEMPHIS – Dressed in a full warm-up suit complete with a towel draped over his shaved head, Marreese Speights often looks like someone just happy to have a front-row seat to watch the NBA action being played in front of him.
But, as Speights pointed out once again late Monday night, looks can sometimes be very deceiving when it comes to his mannerisms along the Orlando Magic’s bench.
Whether he’s expecting to play or not – and mostly he hasn’t gotten into games thus far this season – Speights said a big part of his prolonged success as a reserve is because of his very focused attitude along the bench.
“I’m mentally prepared on the bench and it doesn’t matter if I’m going to play or not, I’ll always be locked in on the game, know what’s going on and know how the (opposing) big guys are playing,’’ said Speights, who has been one of the NBA’s best reserves for much of his 10-year NBA career. “Then, when I get into the game, I’m already loaded and ready. But that comes from being locked in and mentally prepared on the bench.’’
Speights’ readiness aided the Magic greatly on Monday night as he made four fourth-quarter 3-pointers and scored 12 of his 18 points in the final period. His rapid-fire shooting helped the Magic surge to an impressive 115-95 defeat of New Orleans to push their record to 5-2. Speights had nearly as many points (12) as the Pelicans (15 points) over the final 12 minutes of the game while out-producing standout big men Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins in that critical stretch.
Speights joked after the game that all it takes for him to get hot is to have the coach tell him to check into the game. He’s able to be effective, Magic coach Frank Vogel said, largely because the veteran big man adheres to a long-time NBA maxim: Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.
“When he checks in, he’s hot,’’ Vogel marveled. “It’s a heck of a luxury to have him.’’
In many ways, Speights is a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type of weapon for a deep and athletic Magic team. On the team’s depth chart, he is the third-string center behind Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo and usually the fourth option at power forward behind Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mario Hezonja. As such, Speights came into Monday’s game have appeared in just three games for the Magic and attempting only nine 3-point shots.
Against the Pelicans, when Gordon and Isaac were in foul trouble and Vogel was playing a hunch, Speights got up 10 3-point shots. And he connected on six of them – four of them allowing Orlando to expand its lead from four to 17 points in the fourth quarter.
“Mo is incredible,’’ said Magic guard Evan Fournier, who sprinted toward Speights during one timeout for a joy-filled chest bump following one of his back-breaking 3-pointers. “Being able to sit on the bench for multiple games and then have an impact like this in (21) minutes? It’s remarkable.’’
Speights said his confidence – even as irrational as it might be sometimes – comes from an earlier stint in his career with the Memphis Grizzlies. Fittingly, the Magic will be back in Memphis on Wednesday night to face the Grizzlies (5-2) for the final stop on their three-game road trip. Both the Magic and Grizzlies sit atop the Eastern and Western Conferences.
“It started, really, in Memphis when I was with Tony Allen, Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) and Marc Gasol and those (Grizzlies) guys,’’ Speights said. “Then, my confidence really took off with the Warriors when Coach (Steve) Kerr was always talking to me and always keeping me ready.’’
Kerr, a coach who is considered an offensive mastermind by many, is credited by Speights for helping him dramatically adapt his game. With Speights always being one of the NBA’s best mid-range shooters, it was Kerr who suggested to the 6-foot-10, 255-pound big man that he move back and try more 3-pointers. After attempting just 23 3-point shots (with only eight makes and a 34.7 percent accuracy) in Golden State’s first 43 games of the 2015-16 season, Kerr encouraged Speights to attempt more threes. Over the final 29 games of that season, Speights drilled 16 of 39 3-point shots (41 percent) to help the Warriors come within an eyelash of repeating as champions.
Having made just 43 3-pointers in the first eight years of his NBA career – many of them coming on buzzer-beating heaves at the end of the shot clock or periods – Speights worked hard in the summer of 2016 to expand his range to the 3-point line. He drilled 103 3-pointers last season with the Los Angeles Clippers, allowing him to fit more into the NBA’s sweeping trend of having 3-point shooting all over the floor – even at the center position.
“Coach Kerr just told me, `Why don’t you just step back sometimes?’’’ Speights recalled. “I was always just so scared to shoot threes because if I missed, then I would come out of the game. But he gave me the confidence to take one step back and shoot it.’’
Speights, affectionately nicknamed “Mo’ Buckets because of his ability to pile up points in short bursts, has carved out quite a career in the NBA by being a high-scoring center who never met a jump shot he didn’t like taking. In 657 career NBA games, he’s made only 75 starts and 54 of those game in 2011-12 while playing for Memphis. He’s managed to score 7.9 points a game despite playing just 15.2 minutes a night. He’s twice averaged more than 10 points a game and one of those came in 2014-15 when he pumped in a career-best 10.4 points a game for the World Champion Warriors.
For now, Vogel said he plans to leave Speights in his role as an emergency option off the bench. With the Magic rolling along and playing some of their best offensive basketball in the history of the franchise – they are averaging a team-best 116.9 points in the first seven games of the season – Vogel doesn’t want to upset the team’s rotation. After all, he knows that Speights will not only keep himself ready, but the big man will come into games ready to get up 3-point shots at a moment’s notice.
“He’s always ready, but I’m not changing the rotation right now I don’t think,’’ Vogel said of Speights, who is averaging 7.8 points in 12.5 minutes a game thus far this season. “It’s just a heck of a luxury to have a guy down there (at the end of the bench) that you can throw into a game at any point and he can change things up.’’
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