Denton: Rookies Taking Advantage of Opportunity
By John Denton
February 2, 2013
PHILADELPHIA – If lemons produce lemonade and storms yield rainbows, the professional sports equivalent would be injuries leading to opportunities for others.
In the case of the undermanned, injury-ravaged Orlando Magic, the one positive of the team being without starters Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis is that it has opened the door of opportunity for a group of rookies eager to take advantage of this chance to play extended minutes.
While the Magic (14-33) are stuck in the throes of their second extended losing streak of the season due in large part to the depletion of three-fifths of their starting lineup, one positive that has emerged is the promising play of second-year standout Nikola Vucevic and the core four rookies. Throughout the team’s current road trip, which concludes Monday night in Philadelphia against the 76ers (20-26), the foursome of Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn and DeQuan Jones has shined.
Their unbreakable will and grit has allowed the Magic to remain competitive despite the loss of three of the team’s top scorers. Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn has been highly complementary of the fight his team has shown in the face of adversity.
``The best part of this group is that when I get to the huddle, it’s not just the coaches talking; it’s also the players being involved,’’ Vaughn said of his team’s fighting spirit. ``Having a say in what we’re doing shows that they are investing and competing. That’s the greatest part for a coach when the guys are still engaged in what we’re trying to do. That’s a good sign for us.’’
Vucevic will be back in Philadelphia for the first time since he was traded to Orlando last August in a four-team, 12-player trade. Vucevic, who spent his rookie NBA season with the Sixers, has blossomed into one of Orlando’s most consistently productive players and is the league’s only second-year player averaging a double-double in points (12.1 ppg.) and rebounds (11.3 rpg.).
Harkless, 19, had the finest game of his NBA career on Saturday in Milwaukee by registering career highs in points (19), rebounds (14), steals (four) and minutes (42). According to basketballreference.com, Harkless was only the second teenager since 1985 to register at least 19 points, 14 rebounds and four steals in a game. (Former Golden State power forward Anthony Randolph was the other).
Harkless repeatedly cut hard to the rim and was rewarded. And he used his basketball smarts and wiry frame to pound the glass for six offensive rebounds.
Harkless credits Afflalo for pushing him to take advantage of this starting opportunity. Afflalo, who likely won’t play on Monday because of lingering soreness in his strained left calf, has tried to make an impact by offering up tips to the blossoming Harkless.
``Arron, more than anybody, he’s the one telling me to be aggressive and telling me to take advantage of him not being in there,’’ Harkless said. ``We talk a lot and he’s been helping me.’’
Nicholson has moved into the starting power forward slot in place of Davis, who fractured a bone in his foot on Wednesday and will likely be lost for the season. Despite facing Celtics’ great Kevin Garnett, Nicholson had the first double-double (14 points and 10 rebounds) on Friday and he made all three of his shots on Saturday in Milwaukee. Nicholson said he’s slowly become more comfortable in the low post, and feels he’s making progress every time on the court.
``You know, I’m still hanging in there,’’ Nicholson said. ``It’s still a learning process for me. I’m picking up things a lot quicker, you know the game is slowing down so it’s an opportunity for me to accelerate that.’’
O’Quinn and Jones have earned Vaughn’s trust by consistently delivering when given playing time. Jones scored eight points, grabbed four rebounds and did a good job of locking down Mike Dunleavy in the second half. O’Quinn had 11 points late in Friday’s loss in Boston, and in addition to scoring nine points on Saturday his jumper from the free throw line gave the Magic the lead midway through the third quarter.
``He has to play just the way that he did to finish the game in Boston – high energy, high effort and continue to just play with a pace that’s relentless,’’ Vaughn said. ``Whether it’s getting offensive rebounds, pushing a guy and diving for a ball and just being aggressive, that’s how he’s going to continue to get a chance to be on the floor.’’
Harkless, for one, knows that as important as it is for the Magic’s rookies to keep progressing, it will be equally vital for them to make big strides over the summer.
Harkless, who is a lithe 210 pounds, is eager to spend the summer in the weight room in hopes of adding some bulk that will make him even tougher on the boards and around the rim next season.
``That (muscle) is going to come because I’m still just 19 years old and it’s kind of hard for me to put on muscle right now,’’ he said with a laugh. ``But once I get that (added bulk), it’s going to make the game a lot easier for me because I will be able to take contact and finish.’’
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