Denton: O'Quinn Makes Special Return Home

By John Denton
January 29, 2013

NEW YORK – Since leaving for college five years ago, Kyle O’Quinn has been back home to New York dozens of times. But this time, he’s coming back as a member of the Orlando Magic – as an NBA player – and that’s a monumental accomplishment considering how far he’s come in such a short period of time.

Unlike many of his teammates, who devoted their lives to basketball, traveled the AAU circuit for years and had designs on playing professionally after time in major college basketball programs, O’Quinn is something of a late-blooming marvel.

Up in until his junior year of high school, O’Quinn was a baseball player who had little-to-no interest in basketball whatsoever. No interest, as in, O’Quinn would walk past the playground courts near his Jamaica, Queens, home and not even think twice about joining them for a pick-up game.

``I just didn’t have any interest and in New York City you have to bring it when you play basketball,’’ O’Quinn remembered. ``Basketball is big-time in New York and I didn’t have what it takes at the time, so it just took me a little while.’’

Then, a funny thing happened. O’Quinn shot up from 6-foot-2 to 6-foot-9 between his sophomore and junior years of high school. That meant that his days as a catcher were over and he could finally throw away those knee-saver pads that he had once used his allowance to buy. A year later, he was a starter on his high school basketball team, but only good enough to barely register in the eyes of college scouts. The only offer was from tiny Norfolk State, one that O’Quinn made the most of and ultimately parlayed into his current NBA career with the Magic.

The latest of late-bloomers, O’Quinn has been somewhat of a surprise to the Magic with his ability to defend pick-and-roll plays 20 feet from the basket, knock down the occasional jump shot and still mix it up inside on the glass. On Wednesday, O’Quinn’s unlikely basketball journey will take him to a place once thought to be a million miles away – New York’s Madison Square Garden – when the Magic (14-30) face the Knicks (27-15).

``That’s big for me because Madison Square Garden is big-time in New York for everything. To go there and be on that court is going to mean a lot. I never got a chance to play there (in college), so that will be great,’’ O’Quinn said. ``It always feels good to go back and get that hometown love, but going back as a NBA player is a little bit different. It will feel good.’’

O’Quinn is one of four Magic rookies who the team is trying to mold while also pushing to win as many games as possible. Fellow New Yorker Maurice Harkless had a career night in Brooklyn on Monday by scoring 16 points and hitting two 3-pointers.

Fellow rookies DeQuan Jones and Andrew Nicholson have had their bright moments this season, and the foursome of rookies lean on each other to make the transition to the NBA easier. O’Quinn and Harkless have grew up in an area about 10 minutes apart, but they never knew one another until they got to Orlando because of their age difference and vastly different paths in basketball.

``It helps having someone like Kyle, DJ and Andrew in the same situation as me,’’ said Harkless, who was a highly sought-after high school player and spent one season at St. John’s before opting for the NBA. ``Kyle and me being from the same place, we’re kind of closer and we lean on each other for a lot of things. It helps out.’’

O’Quinn had no NBA guarantees when he was drafted by the Magic last spring in the second round, but he played his way into a contract by averaging 8.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in the summer league. The grit that he showed while outplaying No. 9 overall pick, Andre Drummond, was the same as he displayed late in college career when he led 15th-seeded Norfolk State to an upset of second-seeded Missouri in the NCAA Tournament.

O’Quinn knows he’s living the dream in the NBA, and his energy and enthusiasm usually pore out with the way he congratulates teammates during timeouts and celebrates along the sidelines. And when he’s in game, he doesn’t hold back whether it’s diving for loose balls or fighting on the inside for rebounds. He snatched two offensive boards in Monday’s loss in Brooklyn and scored four points.

Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said he’s fallen in love with O’Quinn because of his exuberance and willingness to learn. He has steadily gotten better, going from one of the last options off the bench to a big man that Vaughn trusts to play in big spots now.

``He’s great around the guys and in the locker room. He’s the first one up off the bench when something happens – good or bad – to either congratulate a guy or pick a guy up. For me, that’s huge,’’ Vaughn said of O’Quinn.

``Kyle is going to be good athletically for us getting out and guarding pick-and-rolls. He has a knack for going after rebounds and he has an aggressive nature about himself,’’ Vaughn continued. ``The way I look at it is we get a chance to teach him some things. There are some concepts that he’s never been introduced to. So to me, that tells me there’s an extreme upside to him and there’s a lot of learning to be done. And physically he has a lot of tools that relate to this level. He’s a willing learner.’’

O’Quinn is having to learn at warp speed because he is still so new to game of basketball. He played tight end in football and catcher in baseball until that growth spurt finally opened his eyes to basketball. But before soaring to 6-feet, 10-inches tall, O’Quinn never gave playing professional basketball a thought.

``I had no interest in it at all. I wasn’t that tall and I didn’t have the physical ability that I have now. I had a nice growth spurt and a coach worked with me,’’ O’Quinn recalled.

The self-made player has made himself into a useable part this season for the Magic. One of his biggest moments of the season came in early December when O’Quinn got the call to battle Lakers center Dwight Howard and power forward O’Quinn. He made his mark in just eight minutes on the court, scoring six points, grabbing two rebounds and swatting two shots.

Playing n Staples Center was quite a climb from his college dorm where he watched the NBA last year and wondered if this unlikely journey would allow him to play professionally. Now back in New York City as a NBA player, O’Quinn knows that he put in the work to make this dream possible. It hasn’t been easy, and he knows he’ll have to keep working and keep improving if he’s going to stick in the NBA beyond this season.

``It’s been a learning experience every day,’’ he said with a wide smile splashed across his face. ``It’s just a lot harder than people think. All you see are the games, but people don’t see the time that you put in to actually go out and play. And it’s a lot of traveling. But you don’t think about those things when you just want to be out on that court. It’s a blessing to be here and you just try to enjoy the journey.’’

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