By John Denton
Sept. 29, 2017
ORLANDO – Evan Fournier is entering his sixth NBA season, while Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton are heading into their fourth year in the pros and Mario Hezonja will soon be a three-year NBA veteran. All four of the Orlando Magic players are experiencing a first at the NBA level in this training camp.
For the first time in their NBA careers, Fournier, Gordon, Payton and Hezonja are playing for the same head coach for a second consecutive season. That might not seem like that big of a deal, but in the NBA where the margin for winning and losing is often paper-thin, enjoying greatly improved levels of continuity and comfort are causes for celebration this preseason for many of the Magic’s players.
“It’s the first time in my career and I think that continuity is key, especially early in the season,’’ said Fournier, who has incredibly played for six head coaches in five NBA seasons. “When you look at a team like the (Charlotte) Hornets last year, they had a really good start to the season because they had the same coach (Steve Clifford) and the same core (after re-signing Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams). It’s just easier when you already know the plays and know what the coach wants from you. I get to experience that now for the first time in my career and I’m looking forward to it.’’
Several members of the Magic are looking forward to working with head coach Frank Vogel once again after a three-year stretch of much upheaval in the team’s head coaching position. Jacque Vaughn was fired midway through the 2014-15 season and was replaced by interim head coach James Borrego for the final 30 games of that season. Scott Skiles took over in 2015, but he abruptly resigned following just one season on the job.
Vogel, who led the Indiana Pacers to five playoff appearances in six seasons as head coach, became the Magic’s mentor in May of 2016. All the newness of the coaching staff and the roster has taken a major toll on the Magic over the last five seasons, including last year’s disappointing 29-53 finish. Orlando hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012 – the franchise’s longest postseason drought in its history.
Now, with Vogel back in the fold and highly motivated to right the wrongs of last season, the Magic are hoping to ride the continuity provided by having the same coaching staff in place to a fast start. Vogel, maybe even more so than the players, is excited about working with many of the same players again and he thinks that familiarity will lend itself to more success this season.
“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,’’ Vogel said. “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.’’
To a man, Magic players have echoed those same thoughts much of training camp as they have had a comfort level with Vogel’s style of coaching, the drills that he likes to run and the offensive and defensive schemes he wants implemented.
Fournier played for head coaches George Karl and Brian Shaw in his two seasons with the Denver Nuggets and there was coaching turnover in his first three seasons in Orlando. The same goes for Payton, Gordon and Hezonja – players who went into this past offseason knowing that Vogel would be their coach this season and what they could expect going forward.
For Payton, having the same leadership a second consecutive season is especially helpful because of the relationship that must exist between the point guard and the head coach. Payton said he can often anticipate Vogel’s thinking when it comes to play calling or the two of them can simply make eye contact now and understand what is expected.
“It gives me personally a good peace of mind, but it really helps the whole team with stuff being so familiar and we don’t have to spend so much time talking about stuff and we can get more reps in,’’ said Payton, whose performance got better as last season went along while working with Vogel. “Obviously, Frank has looked to add a few things, but it’s been good to have a head start in terms of knowing the system. We built a lot of chemistry at the end of last season and it’s been something that we were able to work on in the summer. I think that’s going to be huge for us this season.’’
Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s longest-tenured player, has played for four coaches during his five seasons in Orlando. He said having Vogel back for a second straight training camp has manifested itself in there being a better comfort and chemistry among the players. Vucevic went as far as saying on Friday that this training camp has been one of the best one he’s been a part of in recent years.
“We’ve had good practices and the familiarity with the offenses and defenses that we already have from last year has helped us,’’ Vucevic said. “Comparing this camp to last year’s camp, I thought this was much better and smoother. You have the mistakes, obviously, from guys being tired with heavy legs, but guys have competed. It’s just much easier when guys are comfortable and already have an idea of what to do and what coach wants us to do. When you know each other, I think that helps and you can see that compared to last year.’’
While the coaching staff is predominantly the same, the front office did change completely with the hiring of President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond. Hammond, 63, has worked in the NBA for nearly three decades – and three times previously with Weltman – and he took it upon himself to address the Magic squad on Friday upon the conclusion of training camp. Hammond told the players that he liked what he saw in terms of their burgeoning chemistry, and he encouraged them to keep pushing and supporting one another in the days, weeks and months to come.
“He was just telling us that he’s excited about this team and one thing he wants us to keep doing is encouraging one another,’’ Vucevic said. “We had a couple of plays where guys fell down and we picked them up and that’s how you build team chemistry. (Hammond) said, `With team chemistry, you don’t have to know how to build it because it just happens.’ Little things like that will help and it’s something that we can control.’’
Vogel took the losing of last season especially hard, and what was often even more troubling to him was the fact that his team never seemed to be completely on the same page in terms of defensive coverages and offensive attacks. A big change came in mid-February when the Magic dramatically changed their style of play to one more suited to today’s NBA. Now, with Vogel back a second straight season, the Magic have been able to pick up from where they left off and accomplish plenty in their four days of training camp. Vogel thinks the chemistry that the Magic have formed – player-to-player and between the returning coaching staff and the players – will mean lots of the team during the grind of a long season.
“The whole camp, quite frankly, (continuity) has helped,’’ Vogel said. “We’re teaching stuff as if it is the first time through for the new guys, but everybody else already knows what I’m talking about and what I’m teaching. They’re helping the new guys implement it.
“(Continuity) is evident all throughout training camp,’’ Vogel added. “I feel like we have a lot in. There’s still a lot to a., cover and b., fine-tune, but for where we are after four days, I feel pretty good about it.’’
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