By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16 2012 2:05PM
Orlando Magic fans should be excused for not recognizing Dwight Howard's replacements at first glance.
Nikola Vucevic and Gustavo Ayon aren't exactly household names --even among NBA junkies.
But they are the men who will be called upon to fill the void in Orlando, where the Magic embark on the post-Dwight era with the sting of yet another rebuke by the best big man in the game. (Not everyone is yet over Shaquille O'Neal's departure for Los Angeles and the Lakers, and that was more than 16 years ago).
If there is reason for excitement at all in Orlando, it could very well come from a somewhat surprising and totally unsuspecting duo that didn't exactly plan on becoming the two-part answer to a trivia question.
"I'm not here to replace Dwight," Vucevic told the Orlando Sentinel. "Dwight's specific in his way. I'm totally different. I'm more of a skilled player with a high basketball IQ. I can shoot the ball and pass the ball. I think I do a lot of things fans won't see."
Vucevic is right on at least one count. He is a totally different player than the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
While Vucevic, 21 and a native of Montenegro, was busy honing his skills at Southern California, Howard was leading the Magic to The Finals and establishing himself as the most dominant low-post force in basketball.
The 16th pick in the 2011 Draft, the 6-foot-11 Vucevic has the unenviable task of doing exactly what he claims he's not in Orlando to do, and that's replace Howard. Still, at least he doesn't have to deal with the unending charade that followed Howard's request to be traded last season.
With Vucevic assuming the role of starter and the rugged and more physical Ayon, 6-foot-10, serving as a reliever in the middle, new Magic coach Jacque Vaughn will be forced to make a little Magic of his own in trying to replace the production Orlando saw from its center position.
That's fine by Vucevic, whose confidence is refreshing for a player who will be under intense scrutiny for the first time in his brief NBA career.
"I didn't expect to be traded, not at all," Vucevic told the Sentinel. "But I'm happy I'm here."
As ridiculous as it sounds, the Magic's frontcourt rotation might be deeper (though certainly not better) without Howard and Ryan Anderson, another casualty of the franchise's wild and crazy summer. Anderson was traded to New Orleans in the offseason. With veteran forward Al Harrington filling Anderson's stretch four role and rookies Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn filling out the rotation, Orlando won't be short on bodies up front.
The other glaring question about this Magic team is what Vaughn will bring as a first-year coach. He came to Orlando with the San Antonio Spurs' seal of approval, seemingly a prerequisite for aspiring general managers and coaches these days.
Vaughn is dealing with a roster that was pieced together on the fly by general manager Rob Hennigan. The roster restart includes Howard-era holdovers Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Glen Davis and J.J. Redick in addition to newcomers like Harrington, Vucevic, Ayon, Nicholson and O'Quinn as well as Arron Afflalo, Christian Eyenga and Maurice Harkless.
They'll hit the floor this season without the weight of expectations and Vaughn will have the freedom to craft a team in his image -- or at least the image he sees fit.
Of all the guys on the roster, none has a better idea of how this dynamic works than Afflalo, who went from a role player to a leader in Denver after Carmelo Anthony departed the premises for the New York Knicks.
"After 'Melo got traded [out of Denver] there was an opportunity there for a lot of guys to create an identity for themselves and we did a great job of it by basing everything on team play and staying unselfish," Afflalo told reporters during training camp. "We've got a good starting point toward doing something like that here in Orlando and I'm looking forward to this season. It's going to be fun."
Fun is not a word normally associated with a rebuilding effort the size and scope of what the Magic have ahead of them. Then again, if they're able to defy the odds and craft a playoff contender out of this motley crew of journeymen, role players and youngsters, there will be plenty of partying in Orlando.
1. There is a blueprint for life after a superstar. The Magic need to send off to Cleveland for a copy. It includes quality draft picks and the assembling of a core group that can be molded around the future of the franchise. That, and a ton of patience. It's unclear just how much Hennigan has in place right now. But he has time and the resources to start it off right. Nelson, Redick, Turkoglu and Davis could all be trade bait if this season goes off the rails early.
2. There was a leadership void on this team last year when the chasm between Howard and Stan Van Gundy widened to the point that it could not be repaired. Most of those same players who stood by and watched the mess unfold are still in place, making it hard to figure out exactly whose team this is. By virtue of his length of service, Nelson should have first shot at the job with Turkoglu right behind him. It's an issue that needs to be cleaned up immediately or else ...
3. This latest twist could turn out to be a star turn for Afflalo, who has made significant improvements to his game in each of his first five seasons in the league. The Nuggets moved him when they got a chance to get an All-Star in Andre Iguodala, but the Magic might have actually made out with the player with more upside. Afflalo is solid on both ends of the floor and could very well be the catalyst for this team.
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LAST YEAR: 37-29, 3rd in Southeast
FINISH: Lost in first round of playoffs
2011-12 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2011-12 Stats|
JAMEER NELSON, POINT GUARD
11.9 PPG | 3.2 RPG | 5.7 APG
New coach Jacque Vaughn will lean on him for leadership after Dwight Howard's departure. Nelson should see his role increase mightily on and off the court.
ARRON AFFLALO, SHOOTING GUARD
15.2 PPG | 3.2 RPG | 2.4 APG
An underrated scorer, Afflalo has always been a steady defender. Orlando needs someone as its No. 1 option, a role Afflalo has been working for since he came into the league.
HEDO TURKOGLU, SMALL FORWARD
10.9 PPG | 3.8 RPG | 4.4 APG
Another holdover from the Howard-Stan Van Gundy era, Turkoglu can reinvent himself this season. He's not the player he once was, but he can still be a factor for the Magic.
GLEN DAVIS, POWER FORWARD
9.3 PPG | 5.4 RPG | 0.8 APG
Stepped into the void when Howard's season ended and served as the Magic's low-post presence. Davis has matured in recent seasons and is staring at a huge opportunity.
NIKOLA VUCEVIC, CENTER
5.5 PPG | 4.8 RPG | 0.6 APG
Has the thankless job of trying to fill Howard's spot. A reserve in Philadelphia last season, Vucevic is a rugged big man with more skill than you might expect.
|J.J. Redick||6-4||190||G||Redick's working to become more than a great shooter. It shows.|
|Al Harrington||6-9||250||F||Veteran can score with the best, could be a starter.|
|Andrew Nicholson||6-10||235||F||Prized rookie needs time.|
ADDED: F Andrew Nicholson, C Kyle O'Quinn, G Arron Afflalo, F/C Gustavo Ayon, F Christian Eyenga, F Maurice Harkless, F Al Harrington, F Josh McRoberts, F Nikola Vucevic
LOST: F Ryan Anderson, F Earl Clark, G Chris Duhon, C Dwight Howard, G Jason Richardson, F Von Wafer
ARRON AFFLALO, SHOOTING GUARD
One player that the Magic acquired in the massive Dwight Howard trade who can have an immediate impact on both ends of the floor is Afflalo. He scored a career-best 15.2 points last season and has built a rep as a solid perimeter defender.
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