Denton: Bright Future Ahead for Magic

By John Denton
April 16, 2013

MIAMI – There are times when Tobias Harris looks out across the court and sees Maurice Harkless dunking over foes or Nikola Vucevic gobbling up rebounds in bunches and he dares to dream about how bright the future could be for the Orlando Magic.

Why, just last week, Harris and fellow Magic forward DeQuan Jones were sitting around talking about how promising the roster will be if the gaggle of young players continue to make strides.

After all, Vucevic has become one of the NBA’s most dominant and consistent rebounders in just his second NBA season. Harris has evolved into a go-to scorer capable of a couple of 30-point games and nine 20-point games since joining the Magic in late February. Then, there’s Harkless, who at 19 years old, has already guarded a Who’s Who of NBA stars and seems to be making strides offensively from night to night. Add in the promise of first-round pick Andrew Nicholson and scrappy rookies Doron Lamb, Kyle O’Quinn and Jones and it’s easy to see why the Magic feel that brighter days are ahead for the franchise as their young players continue to blossom.

``I think about that a lot,’’ Harris said of daydreaming about the vast potential of the Magic’s young roster. ``We’re a young unit all out there together, but we’ve been making great strides. So I think about what the future can be for us as a team. I think it’s going to be a really good team in the future.’’

The future for the Magic (20-61) will begin late Wednesday night when they wrap up the regular season against the rival Miami Heat (65-16). For the first time in seven years, Orlando won’t be heading to the playoffs, a factoid that will snap the longest such postseason streak in the Eastern Conference.

But while the Magic will be home for the postseason this spring, Harris thinks it could be a much shorter absence from the playoffs than some think for the franchise. He fully believes that if Orlando’s young players can improve as much over the summer as they have this season that they could be in the hunt for a playoff spot this time next year.

``This season is winding down, but going into next year our goal should be nothing less than the playoffs. That’s got to be our mindset,’’ he said confidently. ``If you want to be the best kind of player and the best team you have to set your goals high. Next year, when we step on the floor, we want to be that team that other teams know is ready to go. We’re not just a young unit anymore and we’ve gained the experience.’’ Because a host of circumstances, Orlando’s five rookies and three second-year players were shoved to the forefront and in a position to get plenty of experience this season.

Orlando was once 12-13 early this season, but that was with Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo, Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis, Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick factoring heavily into the rotation. But injuries, trades and a suspension systematically wiped out all of those veterans, forcing the Magic to jump-start their youth movement right away. That has presented plenty of challenges for Jacque Vaughn, but the first-year head coach has remained positive while demanding growth and improvement from the Magic’s young players. Like Harris, Vaughn is eager to see more development this summer and can’t wait to chart the growth of his promising squad.

``I love the fact that they’ve tried to get better and will have the chance to grow together,’’ Vaughn said. ``Another great part of it is how each one of them is going to push the others. Seeing now that they can get better is one thing, but they have to do their part. The next step for us is an offseason where our guys can push each other, make each other better and see what unfolds.’’

When looking for one moment this season to show the vast promise of the Magic’s core players one would have to look no further than last week’s thrilling 113-103 overtime defeat of Milwaukee. Not only did Orlando rally from five points down in the final 52 seconds of regulation, they also put up some jaw-dropping numbers. When Vucevic hammered the Bucks for 30 points and 20 rebounds and Harris had 30 points and 19 rebounds against his former team, it allowed the Magic to accomplish something no NBA team had done in 46 years (two players with at least 30 points and 19 boards in the same game).

As one Magic fans asked on Twitter, ``How many NBA lottery teams can say they’ve had two players with at least 30 points and 19 rebounds in the same game?’’

Vucevic embodies the improvement of the Magic this season with his massive strides this season. After rarely playing as a rookie last season in Philadelphia, Vucevic was acquired by the Magic in the massive four-team, 12-player deal that centered around Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala. But it’s Vucevic who has made the biggest strides this season, ranking second in the NBA in rebounds and third in double-doubles. That improvement has put him into consideration for the NBA’s prestigious Most Improved Player award.

``I think I’m a lot better and I’ve improved in every area of my game,’’ Vucevic said. ``My confidence is a lot higher, so when I go out on the court I just do what I do best so I don’t think as much. I’ve gotten stronger and I’m more mature, so I feel like I’m better overall. I’ve played the game and played through mistakes, so I’ve been able to get better.’’

But in the same breath, Vucevic also embodies his team’s need to make progress this summer, saying: ``I still have a long way to go. I’ve made some improvements, but to get where the elite big men are I still have a long way to go. I’m still young and have a lot of work to put in. Hopefully I’ll get there someday.’’

One common theory in the NBA is that young players make their biggest improvements between their first and second seasons. In that vain, several of the Magic players have already made plans to spend their summer in Orlando and working out at the team’s headquarters. Adding strength is a major point of emphasis for the likes of Vucevic, Harkless and Nicholson. Meanwhile, others just want to continue working together and pushing one another to get better.

``It’s a huge summer for all of our guys. Now, it’s about separating ourselves and building off all of the stuff that we’ve learned this year,’’ Jones said. ``Me and Tobias were just talking about (the future of the team) the other day. We’re a young, inexperienced team, and our record isn’t what most would want it to be, but we’re going to use all of the negative comments and remarks to fuel us all summer and push each other.’’

Harris is just 20 years old, but Vaughn and others on the Magic have already marveled at his maturity and natural leadership skills. He is already looking forward to setting an example for others this summer and use his strong will to push Orlando’s young players toward greatness.

``It’s funny because I talk about the young guys and a lot of them are the same age as me,’’ Harris said. ``But from your first year to your second year it’s a big leap, I know it was for me. But these guys already have more experience than I did because I didn’t play that much at all (in Milwaukee as a rookie). Our guys with the Magic have been playing crucial minutes all season. Making a big leap now shows your desire to make strides as a player.

``My maturity is something that I’ve always had. My father and my mother have always raised me to work hard and have a good work ethic,’’ Harris continued. ``I may be young, but I’m determined. I want the best out of myself and the best out of the people around me on this team. I’m striving to be the best that I can be and I think my teammates will continue to do the same.’’

MORE STORIES: Big Responsibility for Harkless | Jones Progressing at Fast Rate | Hennigan Made Right Decision on Bynum | Nelson Appreciated by Fans

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Magic and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.




Follow John Denton on Twitter here