Vucevic and Gordon Set to Return Thursday vs. Knicks

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Finally healthy and cleared for full-contact work, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon returned to practice among their Orlando Magic teammates on Tuesday. What they saw was a Magic team that looked dramatically different than the one they were apart of weeks ago before their injuries knocked them out of action.

When Vucevic went down on Dec. 23 with a fractured bone in his left hand and Gordon suffered a hip flexor injury on Jan. 27, the Magic were forced into a sink-or-swim mode and they dramatically altered the way that they were playing.

Instead of relying on the shot-making and rebounding of Vucevic or the awe-inspiring athleticism of Gordon, head coach Frank Vogel had the team invest fully in a system that revolves around ball and player movement. Without a dominant player – and minus the team’s first and third-leading scorers – the Magic would need to rely on one another to stay afloat until Vucevic and Gordon could return.

That style of play allowed Orlando (18-39) to pull off stirring defeats of Boston, Cleveland, Miami, Minnesota, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Lakers and it gave players such as Mario Hezonja, D.J. Augustin, Shelvin Mack and Khem Birch opportunities to shine. It’s a style that Vogel wants the Magic to keep around in games even as Vucevic and Gordon are incorporated back into the fold starting Thursday night when the Magic host the New York Knicks (23-36).

``People step up and Mario is playing great and hopefully he can keep that up,’’ said Gordon, who missed the last nine games before the break for the NBA All-Star Game. ``D.J. has played awesome, people have stepped up big and the ball’s been moving. We’ve just got to close games out. We’ve been in games, but we just (gave them away) and let them slip through our hands. So, we’ll do a better job of closing games.’’

Vogel liked what he saw from Vucevic and Gordon enough on Tuesday – the first practice after the All-Star break – to pronounce them as ready to go for Thursday against the Knicks.

The Magic also saw the complete return of prized rookie Jonathan Isaac, who has played only sparingly since injuring his right ankle on Nov. 11. Orlando’s plan for now is to withhold Isaac – the No. 6 pick from last June’s NBA Draft – from Thursday’s NBA game and then have him play with the Lakeland Magic of the G League Friday and/or Saturday. His return to NBA action could come as soon as next week, and Vogel is eagerly anticipating that already because of some of the things he saw in Tuesday’s practice.

``I’ll tell you what – we look like a different team with him out there,’’ Vogel said of the 6-foot-10, 222-pound power forward. ``Just the size, length, athleticism. Defensively, in particular, what he’s able to do without even trying. Instinctually, he’s really going to help us. He’s making plays out there that nobody on our team can make.’’

Vucevic fractured the second metacarpal on his left hand on Dec. 23 when it got tangled up with Washington center Ian Mahinimi. Orlando was 11-23 at the time of the injury and Vucevic was having to carry much of the load as Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Gordon were already injured before he went down.

Vucevic, the franchise’s longest-tenured player, has the Magic’s highest Player Efficiency Rating, according to ESPN. He’s leading the team in rebounding (9.3 rpg.) – something he’s done each of the previous five seasons – while also averaging 17.4 points, a career-best 3.3 assists, 1.12 blocks and 1.03 steals a game. He’s shooting 49.1 percent from the floor despite far and away the most 3-point shots of his career. He’s made 48 of 140 3-pointers (34.3 percent) with 18 more makes than in the previous six years of his NBA career combined.

Rather than taking a vacation over the NBA All-Star break – as he’s done for years – Vucevic stayed in Orlando and worked out throughout the past weekend. Able to run and do drills for weeks, he is hopeful that his conditioning is plenty strong, and he will be able to help the Magic over the final 25 games.

``I stayed here the whole time because I feel like I missed so much time and there was no point, really, in taking a vacation,’’ Vucevic said. ``I felt like it was much easier for me to stay here and get the work done in our gym with everything available. I did some work every day but (Monday), which was my day off. It was good for me to do some conditioning and shooting, so I’m in better shape and I’ll use (the two practices) and then be back Thursday to play.’’

The same should be the case for Gordon, who never imagined that his hip injury would keep him out three weeks and prohibit him from appearing in the Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Game. Coincidentally, his replacement, Utah standout Donovan Mitchell, ended up winning with Gordon watching from a courtside seat.

Gordon’s focus now is on finishing what he has started this season. Not only does he lead the Magic in scoring, but it’s been a career year for him in terms of averaging career bests in scoring (18.4 ppg.), rebounding (8.3 rpg.), assists (2.2 apg.) and steals (0.9 spg.). He’s shooting just 44.7 percent from the floor, but his 3-point accuracy (34.6 percent) is much-improved over his career average of 30.8 percent.

The Magic were 4-5 in the nine games that Gordon missed, but narrow losses to Houston, Milwaukee and Chicago could have made that record even more impressive. The 22-year-old forward knows that when he returns on Thursday night that he will have to adopt the same pass-first mentality that the Magic have played with while he’s been out nursing his hip injury.

``It comes with seeing the game better and I’ve got to be able to see the game, read it and make the right reads,’’ Gordon said of improving his passing, screening and defense to make others around him better. ``Do it time and time and time again until it becomes second nature or completely natural. Once that happens, then the whole organization lives. Everyone is capable of doing it and we’ve just got to look to the right things.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.