Denton: O'Quinn Confident in Team's Talent and Direction
By John Denton
April 15, 2014
ORLANDO – As Kyle O’Quinn was knocking down one shot after another and teammates Arron Afflalo, Victor Oladipo and Andrew Nicholson were playing well and the Orlando Magic were making a run at the Chicago Bulls, the second-year power forward briefly allowed himself to dream on Monday night.
O’Quinn said his thoughts went something like this on Monday night: ``(The Bulls) are a playoff team and they set the bar with their physicality. So to hang with those guys, you know that one day we will be there.’’
The Magic were on the end of another loss, their 58th of the season and the 37th on the road. In a season where success is measured more by incremental gains than wins and losses, O’Quinn still allowed himself to ponder a day when it’s the Magic handing out the beatings and on top in the Eastern Conference.
``We’ve got a lot of talent individually and when we put it all together I think we’re going to be really good out there,’’ said O’Quinn, who poured in a season-high 20 points on Monday. ``Very soon we’ll be better. Very soon, we’ll be one of the better teams in the East.’’
It’s sometimes been hard to dream about the future when the present has been filled with so much frustration for the Magic. Orlando had the NBA’s worst record last season at 20-62 and it heads into Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Indiana at 23-58. That mark could have been somewhat better had cornerstone pieces Nikola Vucevic and Jameer Nelson not suffered injuries down the stretch and had the Magic not decided to rest starters Arron Afflalo and Victor Oladipo for extended stretches in games.
Playing with a gaggle of first and second-year players once again, the Magic battled growing pains and a lack of consistency throughout the season. For every stirring home victory there were usually two-to-three frustrating road losses to make finding a feel-good rhythm a near impossibility.
Head coach Jacque Vaughn, who had a lifetime of winning as a NBA player for 12 years, has had to grit his teeth and wring his hands often as the young Magic struggled to find their footing. Vaughn, 39, is the perfect man for the Magic’s rebuild because of the consistency and patience in his persona. But even he pines for a day when Orlando is no longer the young and inexperienced team and it’s the one dominating for long stretches of time.
``Maybe that word (young) won’t be allowed in our locker room anymore in the future,’’ Vaughn joked. ``We’ll grow up. We have grown up this season and we’ve gotten better. That’s still the challenge, but we’re willing to accept that challenge.’’
Never was Orlando’s growth more apparent this season than in the first week of February just before the NBA All-Star break. Over a five-day period, Orlando throttled Detroit, toppled Oklahoma City on a buzzer-beating dunk by Tobias Harris and pulled away from East-leading Indiana for another stirring victory.
Ultimately, those good times wouldn’t last, but they did show some of the vast promise the Magic have with the likes of Oladipo, O’Quinn, Vucevic, Harris and Afflalo playing well all at the same time.
``I’d definitely have to say that stretch of games was my favorite moment because it was so exciting for us as a team,’’ Harris said. ``(Against OKC and Indiana) those were good victories. So I’d definitely say those were the most exciting games.’’
Added Vaughn: ``You take a look of that stretch of very meaningful basketball and the way that our guys were able to give themselves up and be mentally be prepared for games. Our guys got an understanding of what it takes to finish games. To be a part of that, that was a special stretch for us indeed.’’
No two players on the roster embody the Magic’s mantra of daily improvement more than O’Quinn and Oladipo. O’Quinn worked tirelessly over last summer to better his skills, but he played only sporadically early in the season. But the waiving of Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis in February cleared up playing time for O’Quinn, who was determined to take advantage of his big opportunity.
In 18 games as a starter, O’Quinn’s averaged 9.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Most of all, he’s risen from being a long shot second-round pick and he’s proven that he belongs in the NBA.
``I had to stick to the course even though things got tough for me sometimes. I had to be stay consistent with my work and trust everything that the coaches were telling me,’’ O’Quinn said. ``The losing is tough, but you have to take the good out of every situation. I had to take those NBA minutes and utilize them to get myself ready.
``I want us to be ready when we get to that top level of winning games and have to have a win to clinch a spot in the playoffs that we’ll be ready,’’ O’Quinn continued. ``When we get to that next level, we won’t be making those rookie mistakes and young guy mistakes. We’ll be battle-tested because of what we’ve been through and we’ll be ready to win.’’
Oladipo has made the most of his season despite spending most of the season splitting his time as a shooting guard and a point guard and as a starter and a reserve. The second half of the season has seen his scoring average and shooting percentages rise as his turnovers have fallen. Vaughn said he couldn’t be more pleased with Oladipo’s growth. Also, Vaughn said it’s hard for him to be more confident that Oladipo will continue to do all of the things necessary to become a great player.
``He’s a young man that’s very determined that he’s going to get what he wants,’’ Vaughn said. ``He’s going to work at doing that. He’s put himself in a position in life that he’s worked to get here, and I don’t see that stopping. He’s a guy that will take obstacles and definitely try to step over them. He’s been good. He’s played a lot of minutes for us and [faced] a lot of tests throughout the course of the year, and he’s answered them.’’
As he’s prepared for games late in the season, Vaughn has often popped in video of the Magic playing a similar opponent early in the season to see the level of improvement. He is satisfied that several of the players have made significant strides – even if it hasn’t necessarily translated into winning a bevy of games.
Vaughn is big on a player’s habits, feeling that those tendencies are what someone will ultimately revert to in a time of crisis or need. He is of the belief that Orlando’s host of young players have built a foundation of good work habits and eventually that will produce success in the not-so-distant future.
``The habits that we create are the most important thing. We want to have habits that are going to be able to stay with us going forward,’’ the coach said. ``Where we are as an organization right now is us not judging ourselves on wins and losses, but did our guys get better? Was there growth involved? And are we continuing to get better? I think, without a doubt, we’re heading in that direction.’’