Denton: Young Players Plan to Hit Gym Hard This Offseason

By John Denton
April 19, 2013

ORLANDO – To a man, veteran NBA players attest that the biggest growth spurts in their careers came between their first and second seasons.

With that thought in mind, the Orlando Magic’s host of first- and second-year players wasted no time in getting started on their offseason work late Wednesday night because of their desires to grow their games.

Not long after boarding their team plane from Miami to Orlando following Wednesday’s regular season finale loss to the Heat, many of Orlando’s young players huddled together and talked about the plan to use the summer to improve. They vowed to not only push each other through workouts, but also to hold each other accountable as they grew together.

``We’re getting two weeks off and then we’re coming back with a focused mindset. We need all of the time that we can get to push each other and get to where we need to be,’’ Magic rookie center Kyle O’Quinn said. ``We’re kind of far away right now as a team, but we know where we need to be and the work that we have to put in so we’re ready for what’s ahead.’’

At 20-62, Orlando missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years, ending the longest such postseason streak in the Eastern Conference. But the Magic did earn the best odds to win the top pick in the June 27 NBA Draft. The draft order will be decided in the May 21st lottery and the Magic will go in with a 25 percent chance of landing the top selection.

Tobias Harris, one of Orlando’s best young players, said watching the playoffs and not being a part of it will drive the team throughout the summer. Harris, acquired from Milwaukee in late February, averaged 17.3 points in 27 games with the Magic.

``It’s an odd feeling, not being in the playoffs,’’ Harris said. ``It will just motivate us and get us ready for next year and have us even more hungry that we were this year.’’

The encouraging aspect form this past season was the huge steps that second-year center Nikola Vucevic, Harris and rookies Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, DeQuan Jones and O’Quinn made during the past season. When a variety of injuries knocked out Orlando’s veteran players it mean more playing time for the youngsters. And many of them responded by putting up solid numbers while also learning on the job.

Magic GM Rob Hennigan, who wisely traded for Vucevic, Harkless and Harris to build Orlando’s young core, said the experience gained by the team’s first- and second-year players will help immensely in the development process over the summer. He smiled widely earlier this week when told that many of the Magic’s players are already planning workouts to start the process of getting ready for next season.

``I think it’s a sign of growth,’’ Hennigan said of the self-starter nature of the team’s young players. ``When you look at some of the young players that we brought in at the beginning of the year and you look at them now, just to see their mental progress and development, in addition to their skill, it gives you a lot of confidence that they are going to approach the offseason the right way and do what they have to do to get better.’’

``We see this season as more of a starting point of something that will continue to evolve and develop over the next several years,’’ Hennigan continued. ``(The improvement made) is a credit to the guys for putting in the work, trusting our coaches and doing what they have to do to improve.’’

With the Magic expected to once again be in a transition season, the team is expected to once again rely heavily on the likes of Vucevic, Harris and Harkless. That could put the future of veteran fixtures such as Jameer Nelson, Arron Afflalo and Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis in doubt. Hedo Turkoglu and Al Harrington have only partially guaranteed contracts and could be bought out.

Harrington, who gamely battled back from a serious knee injury this season, just concluded his 14th season in the NBA. He made the jump from high school in 1998 to the NBA, and like many of the Magic youngsters, took a while to learn the game. But he boosted his scoring average by 4.5 points in his second NBA season and was averaging 13.1 points per game by Year 4 before suffering his first major knee injury.

Harrington, now 33 years old, knows fell well the importance of young players making major strides during the offseason early in their careers.

``I agree (that players make their biggest jump between Year 1 and Year 2) because you learn so much in that first year and then you are able to apply it to your game and make a move forward,’’ Harrington said. ``If you love the game, then you should be trying to get better. I expect all of the (Magic) guys to come back better than they were this season.’’

Vucevic planned to head to his native Montenegro, but will be back in Orlando next month to work out with his teammates and Strength and Conditioning coach Joe Rogowski. The same goes for Harkless and Harris, who plan to spend much of their time in Orlando following short breaks to recharge mentally and physically.

Harris, a team leader despite being just 20 years old, said players will be held to a high standard this summer as the group works to get better. He said they will be held accountable because the growth of the group will have a direct correlation to how much the Magic can improve next season.

``Everybody knows that you are working for your teammate and working for your team,’’ Harris said. ``Each time we step out on the court, we know for us to be a playoff team and be a good team next year that we have to get better as individuals. Then, when we get into training camp we have to improve as a team. Those are the only ways that we’re going to get better.’’

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