D.J. Augustin Most Universally Respected Player in Magic's Locker Room

MEMPHIS – It usually takes quite a lot to agitate the always-affable, mostly mild-mannered Nikola Vucevic. One way to do so, however, is to be critical of his close friend and Orlando Magic teammate, point guard D.J. Augustin.

The usually easy-going Vucevic said he recently became more and more incensed when he read through a question-and-answer piece in The Athleticwhere readers repeatedly questioned the skill and the will of the 6-foot, 183-pound Augustin.

What those readers apparently failed to recognize, Vucevic said with a stern look on his face and a raised voice, is that the 12-year NBA veteran is the most universally respected player in the Magic’s locker room because of his professionalism, toughness and willingness to sacrifice for the squad. Also, it irked Vucevic that so many were quick to bail on Augustin – one of the heroes of Orlando’s 42-win season in 2018-19 – during a mildly difficult stretch following a month-long absence because of a knee injury.

``I saw that (The Athletic) did a Q-and-A with fans and they were all going at D.J. and saying all this stupid stuff,’’ Vucevic said after Augustin poured in 24 points in Orlando’s demolition of the Rockets on Sunday in Houston. ``They have no idea, saying all of this stupid stuff that makes no sense, calling him the worst player and this and that.

``As a pure Magic fan, you don’t say things like that and, honestly it pissed me off because I know how much D.J. cares, how much of a pro he is and how much he’s given up,’’ Vucevic continued. ``To accept a lesser role when he had a great year (while) starting last year, it says a lot about him. I saw that and it was really disappointing to see fans write things like that about somebody who is a true pro and somebody who has been in this league for so long and knowing he just came back from an injury. You know that he tried, but things weren’t working for him and it happens. Everybody goes through a little stretch like that.’’

Augustin, 32 and a player who has outlasted several other high-profile stars from his 2008 draft class, has shown tremendous signs of regaining his rhythm of late. Two nights after scoring 18 points in Orlando’s rout of Minnesota on Friday, Augustin torched Houston for four 3-pointers and the 24 points – one shy of his season high – on Sunday. His stellar play throughout allowed Orlando to dominate the star-studded Rockets from wire-to-wire and eventually win 126-106.

For Augustin, those two high-level performances were highly welcomed considering what he’s been through in recent weeks. He missed 15 games from Jan. 15-Feb. 21 and then he struggled to get back into his normal flow in his first seven games back following the injury. During that stretch where the Magic went 3-4, Augustin averaged just 5.1 points and 3.9 assists while hitting only 12 of 42 shots (28.5 percent) and six of 25 3-pointers (24 percent) – numbers that belie the steadiness of his lengthy NBA career.

``Guys are playing without you and they’ve got to move on and keep going, so you have to integrate yourself back into the rhythm and flow of the guys,’’ said Augustin, whose suddenly surging Magic (29-35) face standout rookie guard Ja Morant and the Grizzlies (32-32) in Memphis on Tuesday. ``You don’t want to come back in and mess things up; you just kind of want to smoothly flow back in and that’s what I’ve been trying to do over these last (nine) games.’’

Augustin’s revival has come at a time when the Magic have evolved into one of the most lethal weapons in the NBA of late. Over the last 11 games, the Magic have the NBA’s best offensive rating (118.2 points per 100 possessions) – a somewhat remarkable feat for an Orlando squad that has been in the league’s bottom five most of the season in most major statistical categories. There are several reasons behind that surge, Magic coach Steve Clifford said on Monday in Memphis.

``Well, D.J. being back is a big part of it, I think James Ennis’ presence has helped us a lot at both ends of the floor is a part of it, and then from a team standpoint if you look at guys’ numbers, we’re shooting the ball a lot better,’’ Clifford said. ``We’re also much more inside-out, so the ball is hitting the paint. So, we’re getting more spot-up threes that are better quality shots.’’

Spot-up 3-pointers and shots of great quality are two areas where Augustin has always thrived. Against the Timberwolves and Rockets – teams that the Magic throttled from start to finish in two of their most complete victories of the season – Augustin not only made 11 of 17 shots and five of nine threes, he was aggressive in probing the defense and seeking out shots – both for himself and others. That led to him not only racking up 11 assists, but also getting to the free throw line 17 times and making 15 of those freebies.

Those gaudy numbers are a credit to the resiliency of Augustin, who thinks of himself as an NBA survivor because of the way he’s had to fight to stay in the league despite his lack of size and how often he’s had to bounce from team to team.

After authoring three games with 20-or-more points and leading the squad in assists 21 times early in the season, Augustin’s grit was put to the test with the sore left knee that forced him out of action. Someone who despises sitting out of games, Augustin pushed his way back into the regular rotation immediately after the break for the NBA All-Star Game, Augustin was reminded that rhythm, flow and touch don’t always return just because you are back out on the court again.

``Everything – your wind, legs, rhythm, all of it,’’ Augustin said of what led to his struggles in his first few games back following the knee injury. ``I knew it was going to take time, but it was just a matter of playing hard.’’

For the season, Augustin has averaged 10 points, 4.6 assists and 2.2 rebounds and has shot 39.2 percent from the floor and 34.1 percent from 3-point range in 48 games (six starts). Of course, those numbers are off a bit from last season (11.7 points, 5.3 assists and 2.5 rebounds and shot 47 percent from the floor and 42.1 percent from 3-point range) when he was Orlando’s starter at point guard and helped guide the Magic to the postseason for the first time since 2012. In the playoffs, Augustin hit one of the biggest shots of his career by drilling a go-ahead 3-pointer in the closing seconds at the Magic toppled the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the postseason.

This season, Augustin gracefully shifted into a back-up role following the early-season emergence of dynamic, 21-year-old guard Markelle Fultz (58 starts, 12 points, 5.2 assists and 3.3 rebounds and has shot 47.6 percent overall and 25 percent from 3-point range). Together, Fultz, Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams have given the Magic some three-pronged weaponry at the point guard position that usually gives foes fits.

For Augustin to sacrifice the way that he has and also show more resiliency in battling back from injury reminded Vucevic about the professionalism and pride of the Magic point guard. Make no mistake about it, Vucevic said, Augustin is a key cog in the Magic’s push to a second straight potential playoff appearance.

``D.J. is a huge part of what we do,’’ the center said of his friend and teammate. ``Last year, he had an amazing season and then this year it was a little tough for him after he had to go back to the bench. Playing with the second unit is a different look for him and he had the injury. Before he even had the injury, he wasn’t playing (to his standards) because he just never got in the rhythm. (Sunday night in Houston) was a great showing of what he can do.’’

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