By John Denton
May 25, 2017
ORLANDO – For fans wondering what kind of effect that the dynamic duo of Jeff Weltman and John Hammond – the Orlando Magic’s new President of Basketball Operations and GM, respectively – can have on a team, consider this seismic, groundbreaking anecdote from four years ago.
“It was Jeff walking into my office and saying, `Hey, I think we should make a trip. We need to go over to Greece and see this player that is getting a lot of attention,’’’ Hammond told The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski in a January podcast. “That was really the start of it. We went together, as a matter of fact, Jeff and I went together.’’
They went halfway around the world together to see the player who turned out to be Giannis Antetokounmpo, the freakishly long and agile forward who was selected No. 15 overall in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Hammond-and-Weltman-led Milwaukee Bucks. This past season – Antetokounmpo’s fourth in the NBA – the do-everything, 6-foot-11, 222-pound star was named second-team All-NBA after averaging 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.6 steals a game while leading the Bucks to the playoffs.
Weltman and Hammond, who have worked together previously with the Los Angeles Clippers, Detroit Pistons and Bucks, will be trying to pull off the same sort of feat of uncovering a hidden gem now for the Magic. The two of them were hired this week to breathe life into a Magic organization that has suffered through five dismal, non-playoff seasons in a row.
Coming off a disappointing 29-53 season, Weltman and Hammond certainly have their work cut out authoring another quick fix in Orlando. However, Hammond believes that the Magic have all the factors in place for future success – starting with Weltman’s innate ability to judge talent and character in players.
“First, you have to start with the kind of person that he is because he’s a great person,’’ gushed Hammond, referring to his new boss and close friend. “I’ve always felt that Jeff has a very keen eye for talent. That’s obviously so important in what we do. He’s always been creative in his evaluating. I can tell you that from working with him, when he goes out and watches a player play – we never get them all right – but, boy, Jeff gets most of them right.’’
Weltman, 52, and Hammond, 62, certainly got it right on Antetokounmpo, who is on track to become the kind of transformational player that the Bucks can build around for years to come. The fact that the Bucks were able to snag Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 pick – after 14 other teams had passed on him – speaks even higher of their abilities to make difficult decisions and uncover talent.
Recalled Hammond in that January podcast on The Vertical: “We sat down in that gym and it didn’t take us long to realize this guy had a chance to be a good player. I wish I could he and I both saw something that nobody else saw. Look, the league knew about him.’’
However, Weltman and Hammond were the ones gutsy enough to gamble on a project from Greece and the rest is history. In the June 22nd NBA Draft, they will be trying to do the same for the Magic with the franchise’s wide array of picks thanks to a couple of earlier trades. The Magic will draft sixth, 25th, 33rd and 35th – picks that should give them ammunition to potentially move up to a higher spot or acquire a much-needed veteran player.
“On the basketball operations side, we need to bring in the right people,’’ Weltman said on Wednesday at his introductory news conference. “We’ve got to get that stuff right. To me, when I think about what is an Orlando Magic player, I want someone who is talented and plays for his teammates. Simple, that’s it. If we can (find) that, then the rest is on us. We have to bring the best out of that player. And if we can get enough of those guys going in the right direction, I’m confident that we’ll build something special.’’
Hammond said that he and Weltman are so familiar with working with one another and keen to the way the other thinks that they can “almost finish the other’s sentence. We can do that and do do that at times.’’ Their dynamic has thrived because each is encouraged to express their true feelings and there’s a respect for the opinions.
“Those are always the most conducive work environments – when people feel like it’s an inclusive environment and feel free to give their opinions,’’ Hammond noted. “I know that when I’ve worked in environments like that, they’ve always been the most enjoyable for me. Jeff and I have always worked that way. All ideas are on the table and then at the end of the day, let’s make the best decision.’’
Hammond helped the Pistons win a NBA Championship in 2004 and he’s stewarded teams to the playoffs 15 times in his 26 years in the NBA. As for Weltman, he was a part of Nuggets and Bucks teams that made big jumps not long after his arrivals and he was a key piece of the Toronto Raptors reaching the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals.
That’s just the kind of experience and proven track records of success that Magic CEO Alex Martins was looking for when he reworked the management structure in Orlando’s basketball operations department. Hammond said that it’s now time for himself and Weltman to use their experience and chemistry to be difference-makers for a Magic franchise that is hungry to get back to contending status.
“Nothing can replace experience,’’ Hammond said. “It’s good to have that experience and it’s good to have on your resume. But our business still is what it is and it’s a results-driven business.
“It’s fun to talk about (experience) and you can walk in and have that in your holster, so to speak, but at the end of the day, the results are going to have to be there,’’ he added. “So it’s still on us to get it done.’’
Uncovering another Antetokounmpo would go a long way in helping make that happen for Orlando’s new brain trust.
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