Denton: Raised Expectations for Afflalo


By John Denton
October 3, 2012

ORLANDO – On the surface, Arron Afflalo appears to have lived a charmed basketball life. But his steady climb through the only sport he’s ever loved has been filled with highs and lows, making him appreciate his success now even more.

A Los Angeles native, he was a hometown hero while starring at UCLA. A first-round draft pick, he served somewhat of a NBA internship with the veteran-laden Detroit Pistons. And his career later blossomed in Denver after getting traded to the Nuggets.

Now in Orlando, Afflalo is being looked to by the Magic to evolve into both an elite shooting guard and a face of the franchise. All of the numbers – Afflalo’s scoring average rose all three years in college and has climbed all five years in the NBA – seem to suggest he is on the path to becoming elite, but he is taking nothing for granted.

That’s why he was running five miles a day during the summer, doing sprint work under Florida’s blazing sun and watching game footage when others were enjoying blockbuster movies.

Somewhat of a self-made player, Afflalo knows how hard he’s had to work to get to the point he is now. But he’s in no way satisfied and wants to be even better in a Magic uniform.

``It’s such a positive, but the process and the journey were so difficult,’’ Afflalo said of the improvement throughout his career. ``There are so many ups and downs and struggles and you are impatient and you want it all now. But it’s been a grind, a lot of hours in the gym and a lot of mental wars with myself. But I’ve had some success along the way. I’m happy, but I still have a long way to go. I’m trying to push forward to a much higher position.’’

Higher position, as in being considered one of the elite shooting guards in the NBA. After averaging a career-best 15.2 points a game last season for the Nuggets, Afflalo is hoping to expand his role to the point where he’s a go-to scorer and a shutdown defender for the Magic. Whereas some might have thought he was disappointed about leaving a Denver team that made the playoffs last season for a Magic squad retooling after the loss of Dwight Howard, Afflalo sees Orlando as the perfect place for him to announce his star power to the basketball world.

Cracking the all-star hierarchy at the shooting guard position could be difficult considering the star power of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Manu Ginobili, Ray Allen and Joe Johnson. But Afflalo is hoping that he can be considered among the elite players at his position with a successful season in Orlando.

``The opportunity is there, but those things really aren’t in my hands. All I can do is control how I do on the court and how my success affects the team,’’ the usually mild-mannered Afflalo said on Wednesday, following the Magic’s third practice of training camp. ``If those two things are going hand in hand, (making the all-star game) would be a wonderful accomplishment. But the team success is the most important. As much as I can push myself within that team success, I’m going to try to go for the top.’’

When the Magic deemed it necessary to trade Howard back in August, the organization sought a player of Afflalo’s talent and character in what resulted in a four-team, 12-player deal. The Magic had some inside information in the form of Assistant GM Scott Perry, who was a part of the Detroit Pistons leadership group that drafted Afflalo with the No. 27 pick of the 2007 NBA Draft. The scouting report from Perry has been dead on so far, and the Magic have been delighted with the way Afflalo has played and led the younger players in training camp.

``I see him doing like he’s done every year – getting better. He’s done an unbelievable job of making himself a player,’’ Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. ``He believes in his abilities and I do, too. He’ll be a leader on this team and we’ll lean on him, for sure.’’

Afflalo will battle incumbent veteran J.J. Redick for minutes and shots at the shooting guard position. That’s somewhat ironic considering the battles the two have had the past two years when Afflalo was in Denver and Redick was in Orlando. Last April in Orlando, Afflalo made three 3-pointers and scored 22 points, while Redick countered back with 15 points and two 3-pointers. And two seasons ago in Denver, Redick hit six 3-pointers and scored 29 points, while Afflalo had 15 points, three 3-pointer and four assists against the Magic.

``I’m excited to play with him and I really think we’ll see some time on the court together,’’ Redick said of Afflalo. ``He’s always been a guy who I’ve enjoyed battling against because he plays extremely hard. Now, I get to play with him and I’m excited about that.’’

As Afflalo pointed out on Wednesday, facing competition for playing time is really nothing new to him. He’s had to prove himself every step along the way, and he thinks the daily battles with Redick will only make the two of them better.

``It’s been a constant thing for me. I got a chance to compete against Richard Hamilton (in Detroit), got a chance to compete against J.R. Smith (in Denver) and now I’ve got a chance to compete against J.J.,’’ Afflalo said. ``Having a very competitive, elite player to push you every single of practice will be beneficial for both of us.’’

Afflalo had to push himself early in his career to break out of the perception that he was merely a limited, defensive-minded player. Despite being an All-American at UCLA, he dropped to the end of the first round in the 2007 NBA Draft. He was used mostly as a reserve early in his career in Detroit and he averaged only 3.7 and 4.9 points in his first two NBA seasons.

His career took off in Denver over the past three seasons, becoming one of the focal points of the offense after the Nuggets were forced to trade away Carmelo Anthony in similar fashion to what Orlando did with Howard. Last season in Denver gave a glimpse of his growth and enormous promise as he scored at least 20 points 16 times and topped 30 points twice. He was also a model of consistency, scoring in double figures in each of the final 22 games of the regular season and 33 times in a 34-game stretch at one point.

``He’s an extremely hard worker and he’s come a long way from his Detroit days,’’ said Magic injured forward Al Harrington, who played with Afflalo the past two seasons in Denver. ``From watching him mature every year, he’s getting better every year and adding something to his game. It’s a compliment to how hard he works.’’ That tireless dedication was on display this summer in Los Angeles and Orlando when he went to work on trying to build up his stamina for the upcoming season. Because he is an elite defender, Afflalo knows that he will usually be asked to guard the biggest star on the other team, while also being depended on to score on the offensive end. He vowed that if he was going to be an elite two-way player for the Magic that he would have to work like never before.

``My body was the first and foremost (focus) because I realized last year that stamina is such a big key,’’ he said. ``I feel like I’m a very skillful offensive player when I’m fresh and motivated. I’ve been at my highest when I had the most energy and when I could put forth the most effort.

``I made diet changes and really there’s no way around it, just a lot of running,’’ Afflalo continued. ``You’re always trying to find a magical formula of a bike ride, elliptical (machine) or a pill or something, but for me it was just about flat-out running. I was running up around 5 miles a day. Or there were variations with a three-mile run over 30 minutes or I would do sprints. And then you top that with on-court work, that builds me toward being an elite two-way player.’’

Afflalo knows a golden opportunity is ahead of him to establish himself as an elite NBA shooting guard. He feels the chance to play of Orlando was a part of his basketball destiny and he fully intends to make the most of it.

``The Dwight trade was a trade that had to be made and sometimes guys get moved around when that happens. But I tend to think things don’t happen just because,’’ Afflalo opined. ``I tend to think that there was some need for me here, for some sort of purpose and I’m ready to take on that challenge.

``Me as a player, you don’t get this opportunity to continue to grow too often,’’ he continued. ``This is an environment where the expectations are for me to do more and the incentive is there to do better.’’

John Denton writes for OrlandoMagic.com. John has covered the Magic since 1997. E-mail John at jdenton@orlandomagic.com or follow him on Twitter at @JohnDenton555.

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