By John Denton
July 27, 2017
ORLANDO – Say what you will about Marreese Speights – and many throughout the NBA have had plenty to say about the 6-foot-10, 255-pounder’s shoot-first, pass-only-when-necessary brand of instant offense – but the talented big man certainly has the ability to adapt with the dramatically shifting style of play in the NBA.
After making 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 last summer to expand his shooting range to the 3-point line. Speights drilled 103 3-pointers this past 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.
Speights’ newfound ability to make shots from distance made him even more appealing to the Orlando Magic, a team that struggled to make 3-point shots last season and has long been in search of outside shooting. Enter Speights – a native of nearby St. Petersburg and a member of the University of Florida’s National Championship winning team in 2006-07 – who officially signed with Orlando on Thursday. He is one of just 42 players in basketball history – seven of which are still active in the NBA – to have won championships in college and the NBA.
“Mareeese (Speights) has developed into an effective shooting big man during his pro career,’’ Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “He is a veteran player that brings playoff and championship experience to our team. We are very happy to have Marreese and his family in Orlando.’’
Speights’ signing with Orlando will end up being a homecoming for the big man and his family. Through the years, Speights said he has averaged roughly 55 family members at every game in Orlando and he plans to institute “a raffle’’ this next season for all of the family members expected to attend games.
“It’s an unreal feeling and if I try to explain it it would be an understatement, so it’s just a blessing to be here because I never thought I’d be playing for my home team,’’ said Speights, who noted that he saw the Magic play in person in a preseason game in Tampa but never watched a game in Orlando because of finances. “Where we’re from you only see the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic and you think that’s the only teams in the NBA. All my years growing up, I watched (the Magic) and my family is just so happy for me to be here, finally. Now, that I’m here my family can come and see me more often.’’
Speights’ wife, Kimberly, grew up in Clearwater and is also excited about the return home. His sister, Willena Speights, attended his photo shoot and media session in Orlando on Thursday and said her brother couldn’t be more excited about playing close to his adopted hometown of Clearwater.
“The Magic were his team growing up and once he made the decision to come here he’s been so excited about it,’’ Willena Speights said. “The whole family is very excited. He’s close to home and we’ve been waiting for nine seasons for him to get closer to home. So we’re all just so excited.’’
Speights, 29, was one of three players signed by the Magic on Thursday, joining veteran guard Arron Afflalo and scrappy power forward Khem Birch. Those players should greatly help to bolster the Magic’s bench and give the team some offensive firepower on nights when the starters struggle.
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 653 career NBA games, he’s made only 75 starts and 54 of those game in 2011-12 while playing for the Memphis Grizzlies. He’s managed to score 7.9 points a game despite playing just 15.3 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.
“I just know my role in this league and if I want to stay in this league I’ve got to be a role player,’’ Speights said. “That’s my role and it always has been my role – coming in and giving a team a spark when it is down. That’s what championship teams (need).’’
Golden State coach Steve Kerr is thought to be a visionary when it comes to many facets of basketball, and he gets the credit for helping Speights expand his shooting range out to the 3-point line. 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 – already an excellent mid-range shooter — 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.
“A lot of that has got to do with confidence and when you have confidence it gives you a will to do it,’’ Speights said. “My coaches gave me the confidence to (shoot threes). When I was at Golden State, everybody was shooting threes and you’ve got to learn how to shoot them. It’s just all got to do with confidence, consistency and working on it.’’
Speights moved onto the Los Angeles Clippers last summer and worked hard to make the 3-point shot more of a weapon in his offensive arsenal. A diehard fan of former sweet-shooting big man Rasheed Wallace while growing up, Speights limited his number of “long twos’’ in favor of dramatically 3-point shots.
It took him just 41 games last season with the Clippers to attempt 141 3-point shots – the same number of attempts that he had from beyond the arc in the first 571 games of his career over seven seasons. That 41st game came, coincidentally enough, against the Magic and Speights coolly made five of seven shots and three of four 3-pointers for 13 points in just 16 minutes on the court.
“I always had a soft touch and would always shoot threes by myself in practice, but I never had the confidence to shoot it in a game because I knew if I missed, I might come out,’’ Speights said, referring to the early stages of his NBA career while playing for the Sixers, Grizzlies, Cavaliers and Warriors. “That all changed at the All-Star break two years ago.’’
Speights has never been shy about getting shots up, and he’s usually done so despite getting just a handful of minutes in games. He averaged 8.7 points and 4.5 rebounds a game last season for the Clippers despite playing just 15.7 minutes a night. Among players who played in at least 70 games as a reserve last season, only Lou Williams (17.6 ppg.), Enes Kanter (14.3 ppg.), Tyler Johnson (13.7 ppg.), James Johnson (12.5 ppg.), Jamal Crawford (12.1 ppg.), Greg Monroe (11.7 ppg.), Allen Crabbe (10.8 ppg.), Marco Belinelli (10.5 ppg.), Shabazz Muhammad (9.8 ppg.), Jamal Murray (9.5 ppg.), Patty Mills (9.2 ppg.) scored more than Speights (8.6 points per game in 80 games as a reserve).
Because he struggles defensively and doesn’t always make others around him better with his lack of vision as a passer, Speights has played more than 20 minutes a game just once in his career. However, his abilities as a shooter and a volume scorer in short, explosive bunches have kept him in the NBA for nearly a decade. And the fact that he has expanded his range all the way out to the 3-point line, that has made Speights an even greater weapon for a shooting-starved team such as the Magic.
Now, Speights will be filling his role as a scorer and a 3-point shooter for the Magic – a team he grew up rooting for as a child in St. Petersburg. He admitted that tugging on a Magic jersey and playing before family as part of the hometown team will emotional for him.
“When I put (the Magic jersey) on, it’s going to be really emotional,’’ Speights said candidly. “Being from Florida, (others) really don’t understand what it means to put that jersey on. It means more than anything else to me. I feel like this year is going to be one of the most important years that I’ve ever had in the NBA because (Orlando) is a name of a team from where I’m from. I’m going to cherish that.’’
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