Denton's Notebook: Sunday, Dec. 23

By John Denton
December 23, 2012


ORLANDO – After an offseason full of questions surrounding the Orlando Magic’s inside play following the August trading of Dwight Howard, Nikola Vucevic has provided plenty of answers through the first 26 games of the season.

Vucevic, 22, was an acquisition that flew mostly under the radar when the Magic dealt Howard in a four-team, 12-player blockbuster. But the second-year pro from Montenegro not only grabbed the starting center spot early in training camp, but he has also blossomed into one of the Magic’s most productive players.

Entering Sunday’s game against Utah, Vucevic ranked 15th in the NBA in rebounding at 9.6 boards a game and tied for 15th in double-doubles with 15. And he’s been even better in the first 11 games of December by averaging 11.2 points and 11.9 rebounds while shooting 53.2 percent from the field.

Finishing around the rim has been a major emphasis for Vucevic, who tends to use a finesse style from time-to-time, but has learned to play tougher in the paint. His growth – both at finishing layups and rebounding the ball - has been pleasant surprises for the Magic, coach Jacque Vaughn said.

``Like the rest of his game, he’s been working on (finishing with dunks). And a lot of time, with that, comes good results,’’ Vaughn said. ``He’s more confident finishing at the rim and he’s had some success.

``He’s (rebounded) all year,’’ Vaughn continued. ``I remember talking early in the year about him rebounding outside of his area and he continues to do that for us. He’s been a double-double guy for us. And for me that’s been key to us being successful.

Whether he gets the credit or not, us as a coaching staff know that he’s been a vital part of what we’ve done. He had a rough patch during the course of the year, but otherwise he’s been a double-double guy for us all year.’’

CENTER OF ATTENTION: Afforded more playing time because of an injury to Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis and finally fully healthy, Orlando’s other center – Gustavo Ayon – is getting a chance to show where he can contribute to the Orlando Magic.

Ayon, who is only the third Mexican-born player to make it to the NBA, had his best game of the season on Friday in Toronto with 12 points and 13 rebounds. He made all four of his shots and his points, rebounds and minutes (28) were all season highs. Ayon showed off his versatility by moving from his natural position of center and playing power forward to offset the loss of Davis. He is one of the Magic’s best passing big men and the team often uses him in high-post sets so that he can find guards cutting to the rim.

The increased playing time isn’t the only reason for Ayon’s improvement of late. He is finally healthy after spraining the thumb on his left hand late in training camp. That injury kept him out of the opener and he has played the rest of the season while wearing a brace over his thumb. At last, he is healthy enough to make a major difference for the Magic.

``In training camp Goose was playing really well and had great pop and energy and when he had to take some time off he lost some rhythm,’’ Vaughn said. ``Then he had to work himself back in with conditioning and just being able to catch the basketball. He’s a great passer and I’d say he was never 100 percent when he came back. But he’s the type who wanted back on the floor. I definitely think the injury threw off some of his rhythm early in the year.’’

SEASON OF GIVING: As part of the 2012 NBA Cares Season of Giving, the Magic, Chase and Operation Homefront surprised a veteran and his family during Sunday’s game.

Army Sergeant First Class Paul Hiltibidal, his wife, Lindsey, and their four children were invited to Sunday’s game against the Utah Jazz. But that was just the start of things for the Hiltibidal family. During a special celebration, Operation Homefront presented the Hiltibidal family with keys to their new mortgage-free home provided by Chase, which they visited earlier this week.

The Magic then surprised the family with a $2,500 check to help them furnish their new home and provide holiday gifts for the children. In addition, Papa John’s announced that they will provide the Hiltibidal family with pizza for an entire year and Disney surprised them with 1-Day Magic Your Way Tickets with Park Hopper® option.

``It’s a privilege be part of this special celebration honoring Paul and his family,’’ Magic CEO Alex Martins said in a release. ``The holidays are a time for family and giving back and the Magic is thrilled to recognize one local family for our fifth consecutive ``Big Give.’’

ETC: Several minutes after games, J.J. Redick can often be seen looking pale with his teeth chattering and lips quivering. It has nothing to do with the cooler temperatures in the air in Central Florida. After all home games and most practices, Redick submerges his legs in the team’s cold plunge because of the regeneration effects it has. Redick said he can tell a difference between when he goes into the cold plunge and when he doesn’t. Said Redick: ``I don’t get to do it as much on the road, but I can definitely tell when I don’t do it. It’s definitely revitalizing, for sure, and that’s why I like doing it.’’ … Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo usually leaves practice with a large icepack strapped to his right knee and after games he had another wrap across his left shoulder. The knee was injured when he banged it last Saturday night against Charlotte, while the shoulder is still sore from a hard fall on Wednesday against Washington. Afflalo said the injuries won’t cause him to miss games. ``Once the game starts, I feel fine,’’ he said with a chuckle. … The Magic will practice on Monday morning and then have Christmas Eve night and all of Christmas Day off. They host the New Orleans Hornets and former Orlando power forward Ryan Anderson on Wednesday night. Anderson won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season while playing for the Magic.

ORLANDOMAGIC.COM FEATURES: Magic Must Adjust Without Davis | Davis Out 4-6 Weeks | Vaughn Attentive to Young Player's Needs | Nicholson Growing

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