By John Denton
Sept. 7, 2017
ORLANDO – In between their preparations for Hurricane Irma – a first for many new to Central Florida – the Orlando Magic’s players have already begun preparations for the start of training camp on Sept. 26.
One of the biggest steps in that preparation process took place voluntarily in California two weeks ago – a mini-camp gathering that could go a long way toward helping the Magic establish some much-needed early-season chemistry.
Many of the Magic’s players met up recently in Los Angeles for an informal, five-day mini-camp that featured individual drills, conditioning work, five-on-five pickup games and nightly dinners designed to promote team-bonding. Coaches weren’t around and neither were center Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro) and guard Evan Fournier (France) because of their commitments to playing for their home nations in the EuroBasket 2017 tournament. Still, the rest of the team felt that they got a lot accomplished during the sweat sessions.
“It was good for guys really getting to know each other off the court and then when you get on the court things jell even better,’’ said Magic veteran point guard D.J. Augustin, who took part in the five days of work in Los Angeles. “And it was good to have the young guys there and let them see the NBA lifestyle and the hard work that goes into this. It was a really good outing for all of us.’’
Magic coach Frank Vogel, who along with several players and coached packed disaster relief kits on Wednesday for those affected by hurricanes in Houston and the Caribbean, said he’s also started his preparation early for training camp. For some time now, Vogel has met daily with members of his coaching staff to begin formulating how he wants the team to play this season.
“On Labor Day weekend, I was waking up and watching game tape because my mind is already racing about what we’re going to do this year and how we’re going to look,’’ Vogel said. “I’m definitely getting excited. Our guys are very eager to get started and get rolling. It’s an exciting time for us and the numbers look good for us (in informal workouts) – both our (Magic) guys and (G League) Lakeland guys. So there’s a lot of juice in the gym with workouts and pickup games.’’
A Magic franchise now led by new President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and new GM John Hammond were active in re-working the roster this offseason. The Magic signed Jonathon Simmons, Marreese Speights, Arron Afflalo, Shelvin Mack and Khem Birch in free agency and selected rookies Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu in the NBA Draft. All of those new faces will need to mesh quickly with a core of Vucevic, Fournier, Augustin, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Bismack Biyombo, Terrence Ross and Mario Hezonja for the Magic to get off to a strong start.
The hope is that the time spent together in Los Angeles – both on the basketball court and off of it – will help to shorten some of the learning curve that exists on a roster full of newcomers.
“L.A. was super fun and being around all of the guys and learning how they are and how they play, that’s going to be really helpful,’’ admitted Isaac, the No. 6 pick from last June’s NBA Draft. “What I liked about it was that it wasn’t so serious. We had fun, worked out and just played (basketball) with each other.’’
It will be especially important for the Magic to come together as quickly as possible considering the difficulty of their schedule early in the season. Orlando plays 28 of its first 50 games on the road – the most in the NBA over the first two-thirds of the season. Their unity will have to be strong during the long stretches on the road and periods such as Nov. 9-15 and Nov. 21-27 when the Magic will be away from home 14 out of 19 days and play road games eight times.
“Building chemistry off the court is really big for a team because it carries over (to the court),’’ said Augustin, who is heading into his 10th NBA season. “This is my third time going to L.A. for an event like this with a different team. Guys are buying into doing things like that more and more. We had a good turnout and we got a lot of work done.’’
Augustin said in addition to the nightly dinners that were filled with laughs, there was an afternoon session where Magic players left the basketballs behind for a different kind of bonding.
“One of the really cool things we did was going to boxing at The Wildcard Gym,’’ Augustin said. “We boxed as a team. It was just something different to do as a team and it allowed us to get some exercise and conditioning in. So it was fun.’’
Augustin likes what he’s seen so far with the Magic’s new pieces meshing with the team’s young core. He likes the professionalism and toughness brought by the likes of Simmons, Afflalo, Mack and Speights, and he is expecting young players such as Gordon and Payton to make big jumps this season. He said the team’s willingness to get together and work a month before the start of training camp shows the seriousness the group will take into this season.
“Guys are coming together, the rookies look good and everybody is working hard already,’’ Augustin said. “It was a long summer for all of us and we don’t like having long summers like that. Our main goal is to make the playoffs this year. It’s been five years since Orlando has been in the playoffs and it’s time to get back there and we really want to be a part of that again.’’
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