Denton: Rookies Ecstatic to be in Orlando

By John Denton
June 29, 2011

ORLANDO – On more than one occasion on Wednesday, Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations/GM Otis Smith mentioned how lucky his franchise was in getting forward Justin Harper with the No. 32 pick and DeAndre Liggins with the No. 53 pick.

While neither of those players felt particularly fortunate about dropping to second-round spots lower than they were expected to be selected in last week’s NBA Draft, both vowed that they would use the sleights by other teams as motivation as they attempt to make an impact with the Magic next season.

For inspiration Harper and Liggins have to look no further than across the Magic locker room to Gilbert Arenas, who was the 31st overall selection of the 2001 draft and went on to make three NBA All-Star Games. Arenas greeted both of the Magic’s newest players this week and told them that they have to use their falling into the second round as fuel for their inner fires as he once did.

``If you look in the past drafts a lot of great players get overlooked and they fall into the second round,’’ said Harper, who was briefly interrupted by Smith, who informed the crowd that he was once chosen 41st overall in the NBA Draft. ``The fact that so many great players have made it out of the second round I look at that as inspiration. I’ve got one in the locker room with me in Gilbert and it speaks to his success. It will be even more satisfying when you can become a successful basketball player when you weren’t expected to be as great as some other players. I’ll use it as motivation to push forward.’’

Harper, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward, and Liggins, a 6-foot-6, 209-pound guard, have spent the past three days in Orlando, drilling with the Magic’s coaches and learning a couple of the team’s basic plays. Harper was chosen because of his 3-point shooting ability as a 6-foot-9 player, but he also impressed with his dribbling and basketball IQ. Liggins is primarily known as a defensive specialist, but he showed an ability to shoot that impressed the Magic’s coaching staff.

``On draft night I know how excited our scouts were for us to be able to get these two guys,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. ``We’ve had them in here working out the last three days and they are both very hard workers and in good shape. If we started tomorrow, they’d be ready to go. That speaks to their maturity and I think both of them will have great opportunities to make our team and help our organization in the coming year.’’

Harper, who compares his style to that of former Magic forward Rashard Lewis, is somewhat of a late-bloomer in basketball and has grown accustomed to being overlooked. He didn’t make the varsity of his high school team in Richmond, Va., until his junior year and he wasn’t a starter until his senior season. Then, he chose to play collegiately at Richmond after only receiving scholarship offers from Providence, East Carolina and Richmond.

Harper’s game exploded as a senior, averaging 17.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a game while shooting 53.4 percent from the floor and 44.8 percent from 3-point range. He ranks fifth all-time in school history in 3-pointers made (179) and seventh in blocked shots (113).

``The late-bloomer label is basically the label that I have been given since I started playing basketball,’’ said Harper, whose sleeves on his crisp, white shirt were monogrammed with the ``J. Harp’’ nickname. ``But a lot of people have seen me grow over the years and they realize my potential to keep growing and getting better. I’m just a guy who is going to keep working and keep improving my game.’’ reported that one of the reasons that Harper slipped into the second round was because of injury concerns. He started all 37 games at Richmond this past season and played in 137 career games. Van Gundy said that no injuries were reported to him when Harper underwent his physical with the Magic earlier in the week.

Like Harper, Liggins had hopes of getting drafted in the lower half of the first round and was briefly disappointed that he slipped to the second round where he’ll have to fight to earn a guaranteed contract. Playing on a star-studded roster at Kentucky, Liggins was often overlooked in some respects, but he earned acclaim from his coaches for his toughness and grit.

``It’ll definitely be motivation for me, falling into the second round,’’ said Liggins, who will wear No. 34 for the Magic, while Harper will wear No. 32. ``Gilbert told me that he was chosen in the second round and he made it. He just told me, `Hey, everybody has to play on the same court so it really doesn’t matter (whether they were chosen in the first or second round).’’

A defensive specialist who prided himself on being widely considered the toughest defender in the Southeastern Conference this past season, Liggins knows that he will have to make his mark in the NBA on the defensive end of the floor. He is good friends with Memphis forward Tony Allen, who is one of the NBA’s best wing defenders, and he is vowing to add some much-needed toughness to the Magic’s roster.

``At Kentucky, the way I earned my minutes was being tough,’’ Liggins said. ``I was a guy who would come off the bench and give my team whatever it needed and working to shut down the best player on the other team. That’s what I want to do here in the NBA. I always had to guard the toughest scorers in college and try to shut them down, and I want to bring that same edge, toughness and grit to the Magic.’’

With the NBA headed toward a possible lockout on July 1, Harper and Liggins said that it was important for them to meet several of their future teammates, their new coaches and the Magic management staff. Both received tips from the coaches on what they should be working on during the offseason and were given workout plans to improve their strength and explosiveness.

The hardest part of all, Harper said, will be waiting until next season begins.

``In some ways it’s not too bad because I get more time now to work on my game and build my body up and conditioning before training camp,’’ said Harper, who considers himself more of a small forward than a power forward. ``I’ll just take (the lockout) in stride, wait it out and try to use it as an opportunity to get better.’’

John Denton writes for E-mail John at Submit a question to John for his mailbag segment at