By John Denton
July 2, 2017
ORLANDO – To fully understand the unbreakable will and fighting spirit of Orlando Magic forward Wesley Iwundu you must go all the way back to the first game of his college career at Kansas State.
A three-star recruit out of Houston, Iwundu impressed coaches enough to earn a spot in Kansas State’s regular rotation. However, he didn’t start that game – a shocking 60-58 home loss to Northern Colorado on Nov. 9, 2013 – but Iwundu still came off the bench and stood out with a team-best 14 points, 10 rebounds and two assists in 20 minutes.
As it turns out, that game would be the only one of Iwundu’s freshman season that he wasn’t in the starting lineup. The burning memory of not being in the starting lineup that first game drove Iwundu all throughout a four-year college career in which he ultimately set a Kansas State school record for starts with 124.
“It’s always been about using an underdog mentality,’’ said Iwundu, the No. 33 pick by the Magic in the June 22 NBA Draft. “Going into college, I put in the work and the effort to give myself the chance to start after that first game. I had a double-double (in that first college game) and I’ve been carrying that mentality with me all through college and it continues here with the Magic. I want to bring that to the Magic and do some things here.’’
Iwundu has been able to show the Magic that he can “do some things’’ thus far in the Mountain Dew Orlando Pro Summer League, averaging 6.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in two games. On Sunday, in the Magic’s 81-68 defeat of the Miami Heat, the 6-foot-7, 195-pound Iwundu had one of the game’s most exhilarating end-to-end highlights. First, he hustled back on defense and viciously pinned Gian Clavell’s layup attempt against the backboard. From there, Iwundu never broke stride and raced the length of the floor where he took a pass from point guard Kalin Lucas for a layup that put the Magic ahead 30-8.
“Wesley is a really nice player and he’s going to come along nicely for us,’’ said Magic assistant coach Chad Forcier, who is serving as Orlando’s head coach during the summer league. “I really like what we see with his length and he’s got really active hands and anticipation. He’s a big guard and he cares about playing defense. I’m looking forward to watching him grow.’’
Iwundu didn’t register an assist in Sunday’s game, but he had a big assist off the court earlier in the day. The 22-year-old Iwundu was there to pick up the tab for the Uber ride to the Amway Center for 19-year-old Magic rookie Jonathan Issac when his car was out of commission. It was quite the gesture considering that Isaac signed a contract on Saturday that will pay him $4 million this season, while Iwundu has zero contract guarantees because of his status as a second-round pick.
“I told him that I’d take it this time, but next time he’s for sure paying for it,’’ Iwundu joked.
Iwundu’s will and willingness to do the dirty work – on and off the floor – will come in handy considering the odds that he facing. As a second-round pick, Iwundu has no guarantees for next season and he is trying to use the summer league to show the Magic that he can help them going forward. He understands that nothing is guaranteed for him going forward and the fighter in him has no problem with it whatsoever.
“Guys are out there competing, it’s not college anymore and guys are fighting for their lives and trying to put food on the table,’’ Iwundu said. “So that just makes me want to go out there and give it my all every day. You have to bring your A-game every day.’’
Iwundu got the most out of his college career at Kansas State, outlasting everyone in his highly decorated recruiting class and playing four seasons. Not only does he rank third all-time in minutes played at K-State, but he also became the first player in school history to record 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 100 steals for the Wildcats. He caught the eye of Magic scouts during his senior season when he averaged 13 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.0 steals a game.
It’s at this point that it should be noted that new Magic GM John Hammond had a big hand in Orlando drafting Iwundu with the No. 33 pick. A year earlier, Hammond snagged four-year college player Malcom Brogdon with the No. 36 pick for the Milwaukee Bucks. Brogdon went on to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award – the lowest-drafted player ever to do so. Forcier, one of the coaches who will be responsible for the development of Orlando’s young players, likes the experience that a four-year college player such as Iwundu brings to the table.
“Guys that have been through it longer and have been coached longer and have been in big situations and had to grow up, there’s a natural maturity there,’’ Forcier said. “The difference between 19 and 22 was meaningful for all of us, no matter what our trade was.’’
Forcier feels that Iwundu’s basketball smarts and willing to fight defensively will eventually allow him to be a player who can check cat-quick point guards. Iwundu’s size could prove to be quite a boon if he can play the point on both ends of the floor. It’s a challenge that he fully accepts – much the way he accepted not starting that first game in college and eventually working his way into a primary role.
“The defensive length that I have, I feel like that helps me fit in with the Magic,’’ Iwundu said. “I (played point guard) in college and high school and a lot of my career, so it’s something I’m comfortable with doing. (Point guards) through (power forwards) I feel comfortable guarding them and using my length to my advantage. I feel I can get out there and make a difference with my defense.’’
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