By John Denton
Sept. 21, 2017
ORLANDO – All you need to know about Orlando Magic coach Frank Vogel’s drive, passion and will to win can be summed up in one decision from 1993 – one that he still defines as “a life-changing moment for me’’ today.
A junior and a captain on the Division III Juniata (Pa.) College basketball team, Vogel was dumbfounded and angered when his coach told the squad that it wouldn’t be practicing over the three-week break for the Christmas holiday. Instead, the team would practice just the once on the day before resuming game action in early January.
As it turns out, that time off away from basketball – something that Vogel always detested – shaped the rest of his life.
“During that Christmas break, I’m watching (ESPN’s) SportsCenter and I’m seeing that (then-University of Kentucky coach) Rick Pitino is having double practice sessions on Christmas Day,’’ recalled Vogel, who ultimately left Juniata and transferred to Kentucky to be a student-manager before the 1994-95 season. “Doing something like that allowed (Pitino) to take a (Kentucky) team (two years earlier) with little-to-no players with scholarship players (because of NCAA sanctions) and they almost upset the mighty Duke Blue Devils, who were the returning champions.
“Kentucky did it all through hard work and I knew then that I wanted to be a part of something like that that cared that much and worked that hard,’’ added Vogel, who later became the video coordinator for Pitino’s Wildcats. “That’s how much basketball and winning mean to me – it did back then and it still does now. It was kind of a life-changing moment for me.’’
Working and winning still matter a great deal to Vogel, and those two principle ideas have pushed him all offseason to help the Magic be successful this season. Vogel’s first season in Orlando didn’t go so well with the team limping to a 29-53 finish after opening the year with playoff aspirations.
Vogel spent much of the offseason working – studying film of last season’s squad and scouting future foes to better understand how to adapt and combat the trend of small-ball basketball in the NBA. All while he was working, Vogel was thinking about how much he doesn’t want to repeat the struggles of last season and how much he wants to get the Magic back into the NBA postseason.
Vogel talked about his offseason work, his new-look roster and his goals for this season recently with OrlandoMagic.com. Here is that question-and-answer session – one that should make it apparent that the head coach is doing everything in his power to turn things around for the Magic this season.
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You’ve never experienced many seasons like last year, making the playoffs five times in your six years in the NBA prior to coming to Orlando. How long did it take you to get over struggling and missing the playoffs?
COACH VOGEL: “I still haven’t gotten over it. I don’t want to do that again and I’m not going to do that again. We’ve got to have a better year this year. The whole summer has been spent on the upcoming season and getting ready for the job that we have in front of us. I’m excited about it.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You are someone who likes to watch a lot of film in the offseason. How much video did you watch of how the team played last season and also in preparation for the small-ball styles that are sweeping the NBA?
COACH VOGEL: “I did a ton of film watching. That’s what most of the summer was spent doing – looking back at what we looked like in those final 24 games last season (after trading Serge Ibaka and switching to a smaller, quicker lineup). We looked for the areas where we can improve and pick up where we left off in terms of playing some of our best basketball with that style that we had at the end of the season.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You are working with new leadership now in President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond. What have you learned about them and how much comfort does it give you that they have nearly 60 years of combined experience at the NBA level?
COACH VOGEL: “They’ve got great experience and they’re going to be cautious and not make any decisions that aren’t well-thought-out and very thorough. They should really help us out in a lot of ways right away.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Jeff Weltman has talked about wanting to create competition and depth at every position on the team. How improved do you think the team will be this season with the addition of scrappy veterans such as Jonathon Simmons, Aaron Afflalo, Marreese Speights and Shelvin Mack?
COACH VOGEL: “We’ll see how much better we’ll be. Those guys have really good reputations around the NBA and that’s why they are here. Hopefully they will give us a really good boost with their experience and toughness.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon are going into their fourth seasons and both still seemingly have loads of untapped potential. How much are you relying on the two of them to make a jump individually so that it can benefit the team?
COACH VOGEL: “We’re sort of banking our season on getting improvement from within, so those are two of our core guys and two of our starters who need to take a big jump. I thought they both did that last year in terms of their improvement and we need them to make another big jump this year.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Your schedule will be extremely difficult early in the season with 28 of the first 50 games on the road – the most in the NBA. How important will it be for the team’s new players and returning players to bond quickly and form chemistry to avoid a choppy start?
COACH VOGEL: “I feel night and day better right now than I did at this time last year when I was trying to get used to a new coaching staff, input a new style of play and get used to 15 new guys. There’s just a familiarity factor that I have already that gives me a lot more confidence. Knowing that they are going to be familiar with me and what I expect of them, I really think that’s going to give us a big boost. All of the continuity that we will have with me here and a lot of the guys back, it will be great for us.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: How much easier does it make your job having veteran players such as Simmons, Afflalo, Mack and Speights – guys who are known for being fighters and fearless – to set the tone for the team?
COACH VOGEL: “That should help a lot, but they’ve got to come in here and be that image here. They’ve got to come in and raise the bar for how things have been done around here.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: As a coach who has been known for years for having elite, hard-nosed defensive teams, last year was a huge disappointment for you in terms of the Magic’s struggles on that end of the floor. What has to happen for you guys to be better defensively this season?
COACH VOGEL: “We’ve got to work a lot harder are guarding our own man. That’s where it all starts. A big emphasis this summer was to not just go out and get up shots, but work on your defense every day. It starts there and hopefully with the defensive scheme that we’re running, everyone should be on the same page on that end of the floor.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: How do you find minutes for and develop rookie Jonathan Isaac – someone who has shown signs already of being NBA ready – while still keeping the focus on winning and playing the best players available?
COACH VOGEL: “He’s got to get experience. We’ve got to get him in there and he’s got to play and practice a lot. We want him to get a lot of reps and be a sponge. He needs to learn everything that we’re teaching him – both about the NBA game and what we’re doing here with the Magic. His ability to pick things up quickly will dictate a lot of his success.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Mo Speights has never met a shot he didn’t like, but he can really pile up the points in a hurry. How nice will it be having a stretch-center who can come off the bench and give you reliable scoring every night from that reserve role?
COACH VOGEL: “Last year he added the 3-point shot to his game and he was already one of the best spread-centers in the league. He definitely gives us an entirely different dynamic (with his perimeter shooting) than what we’ve had. And he has great experience having won a championship. He’ll be a welcomed addition around here.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: Jonathon Simmons was a standout in the playoffs last spring with the Spurs, locking down James Harden and scoring well while Kawhi Leonard was out. What have you learned about him so far and how much of a weapon will he be for you this season on both ends of the floor?
COACH VOGEL: “We’re still getting to know Jonathon because I haven’t spent much time with him yet. I’ve talked to him on the phone because he’s been in Houston a lot with the hurricane stuff. We’ll know more about him as camp goes along, but I really like him.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: What areas specifically are looking for to see improvement from Gordon, Payton and Hezonja?
COACH VOGEL: “They’re all different in terms of their individual growth, but they’ve got to show that they contribute to a winner – whatever that looks like. It might take shape in different forms on different nights, but that’s what they’ve got to do. The biggest jump those guys have to make is being able to consistently contribute to a winner.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You said repeatedly last season that because of the reliance on small-ball and space-and-pace basketball you have to re-think how you teach the game. How much are you better prepared to play that style and combat it now that you have a team full of versatile wing players?
COACH VOGEL: “We’re prepared for it, and I believe that we’re playing the right style for today’s NBA. I feel like we have the right bodies on the roster in terms of having lots of (shooting guards), (small forwards) and (power forwards). Now, the positions could be broken down almost into point guards, centers and wings and we’ve tried to build our roster in that fashion.’’
ORLANDOMAGIC.COM: You said all of last year that every team in the league should have the goal of making the playoffs. Do you see this team as currently constructed having the talent and leadership to reach the postseason?
COACH VOGEL: “It can be (a playoff team), but we’ve got a lot to do and we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve got to have a lot of improvement from within. That’s what a lot of this season is going to be about because that’s the way we’re set up as an organization right now. We won 29 games last year, so it can’t be small improvements if we expect to make the playoffs. We’ve got to have some dramatic improvements.’’
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