Denton: O'Quinn Transitioned to Hoops in High School

Kyle O'Quinn

By John Denton
March 27, 2014

ORLANDO – There are times during games, such as when he’s going head-to-head against idol Kevin Garnett or getting his name called out as part of the Orlando Magic’s starting lineup, when Kyle O’Quinn wonders where life would have taken him had he not decided to pick up basketball seven years ago.

O’Quinn’s first love was always baseball, where he was a long-legged catcher and a first baseman with surprising agility. But O’Quinn was jarred to the core as a teenager when he was cut from the team as a high school freshman.

He sat out of sports for a year and even dabbled in football and didn’t particularly care for it. A change in high schools close to his home in Queens, N.Y., got him interested in basketball largely because he was the tallest kid in school.

O’Quinn had said he was ``horrible’’ at the game back then and would usually ``go in and foul a guy twice and come out.’’ But of his smarts, maturity and ability to adapt quickly to his surroundings, O’Quinn was able to pull off a couple of minor miracles as it relates to his life as a basketball player.

The 6-foot-10, 250-pound center played well enough as a high school senior to earn a college scholarship. He played well enough as a college senior at tiny Norfolk State University to find his way into the second round of the 2012 NBA Draft. And he has played well enough over the past two seasons to claw his way into the starting lineup for the Magic as a power forward.

There is no pretense to O’Quinn whatsoever when he talks about how a series of events altered the course of his life and led to this basketball path even though he got a relatively late start in the game.

``I always say that I picked the perfect time to play,’’ O’Quinn said, cracking a smile under his bushy beard. ``I guess it was planned that I play, the opportunity struck, I transferred schools and the coach was really interested in me playing. Everything happened for a reason. I picked the perfect day to start.’’

And the Magic feel like they picked the perfect player with their second-round pick two years ago because of O’Quinn’s willingness to work to improve his game. He is but a complementary piece, but he has become immensely valuable to the Magic because of his willingness to fill any role and play with the purpose of making others better.

``His ability to find a niche in this league has been pretty good,’’ said head coach Jacque Vaughn, whose Magic (20-52) host the vastly improved Charlotte Bobcats (35-37) on Friday at the Amway Center. ``Something we stress is developing internally, that’s a big part of us. The guys that we have in our locker room, we’re about getting them better. … Kyle is a guy who has really taken some good strides for us.’’

Those strides can often be seen in the hustle plays and gritty board work that O’Quinn gives the Magic on a nightly basis. He had six points and six rebounds in Tuesday’s defeat of Portland, but one of the biggest plays of the night came when O’Quinn swatted a Will Barton floater in the lane that led to a Magic fastbreak that ended with a Victor Oladipo dunk.

In his nine games as a starter at power forward alongside of center Nikola Vucevic, O’Quinn has averaged 8.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.8 blocks in 23.2 minutes a game. Vaughn determined that it was time to test O’Quinn’s progress in the NBA and put him in the starting role three weeks ago against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. It was a test that O’Quinn passed and he’s held onto his spot in the Magic rotation.

``Whatever (Vaughn’s) objective and motive is, it’s his and I just looked at it as another opportunity just to be on the court with more time,’’ said O’Quinn, who has averaged 5.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.14 blocks for the season. ``I wanted to take advantage of it and fit in like I always do. If it was a test, hopefully one day he’ll say whether I passed or failed.’’

The unanimous verdict so far is that O’Quinn has proven himself to be a legitimate NBA player. There might have been some questions about that initially when O’Quinn struggled with NBA concepts, defensive rotations and battling bigger, stronger players. But O’Quinn has made so much progress as a defender and a high-post passer that he’s cemented his spot in the NBA.

``Every road trip, we’re always in each other’s rooms just talking. I don’t want to take any credit for it, but we talk about (him playing with more confidence) all of the time. I’m always trying to instill confidence in him and he’s done the same for me,’’ said Magic forward Maurice Harkless, who also hails from Queens, N.Y., and is one of O’Quinn’s best friends on the team. ``Now, he feels a lot more comfortable and confident. Now he knows he belongs here. Whether it’s the center position of the power forward position with Nik (Vucevic), he knows that he can hold his own against a lot of guys in the league.’’

Added Vaughn: ``Over time guys can really show themselves. You give a situation time and it will show itself. He has put in enough games and evidence that he belongs. You put him in the game and you have confidence that good things are going to happen. He’s earned it.’’

O’Quinn’s earned it even though basketball wasn’t always the plan. Growing up, he wanted to be ``just like Mike Piazza,’’ referring to the former Dodgers, Mets and Marlins All-Star catcher. That plan changed the day he was cut from the freshman team, forcing him to find a different path.

O’Quinn said that his parents, Tommie and Regina O’Quinn, supported him in whatever he wanted to do and they are still a driving force in his life. He said that he still talks to mother every morning and his dad every other night.

``They helped me out becoming a young man and whatever I wanted to do, they wanted me to work hard at it, but they never pressured basketball on me,’’ he said. ``I think that’s why the transition from getting cut, to playing football, to being a regular student was so easy. I knew they would accept me no matter what – if I passed or failed. Of course, they helped me out a lot at home, keeping me well-grounded.’’

O’Quinn had a little difficulty staying grounded last season when he faced off against Garnett for the first time when the superstar forward was still playing for the Celtics. O’Quinn admitted that it’s the one time that he’s been a bit starry-eyed around other NBA players.

``I had worked out with (Garnett’s) trainer and he’d tell me how intense he was. I would hear all of the stories about him. Then, to see him go through his pregame routine and see his intensity from the start of the game, it was amazing. I caught myself staring at him a little bit,’’ said O’Quinn, who had two double-doubles as a rookie last season. ``He actually said something to me and that was a good part of my rookie year. He told me, `Keep up the hard work,’ so he acknowledged me. He could have said `hello’ and I would have been all right with that.’’

That night last Feburary, O’Quinn took advantage of his seven minutes on the floor, scoring 11 points and grabbing three rebounds. He caught the eye on Garnett and several others in the NBA since. Now, he’s proven that he belongs in the NBA and he’s here to stay even with his odd entry into basketball. He’s overcome more than a few long odds and now he wants more from himself.

``When you start something new you want to be in the mix that everyone is in. It’s not like I said that because I was drafted in the second round and out of a small school and I’m OK with sitting on the bench,’’ he said. ``I go to work every day just like anybody else. You want to do as much for yourself and your team as you can. I just wanted to be a part of the organization and that’s what I’m doing so far.’’