Fournier's Renewed Rhythm Leading to Orlando's Offensive Improvement
ORLANDO – Nikola Vucevic first saw it late in the summer when his country’s national team, Montenegro, faced France in an exhibition game. Then, Vucevic got further confirmation of his initial inkling during FIBA World Cup play in China.
What Vucevic knew, maybe before anyone else in the NBA or even anyone affiliated with the Orlando Magic did, was that the confident, efficient Evan Fournier was back. Whatever it was that was troubling the 6-foot-7 shooting guard last season – and leading to some uncharacteristically poor shooting – had disappeared and a swaggering Fournier was poised for a big 2019-20 season in Orlando.
``I think that the World Cup helped him a lot and it gave him back his groove,’’ Vucevic said of his closest friend on the Magic.
Magic fans at the Amway Center on Friday got to see Fournier fully in his groove as he poured in a season-best 26 points, drilled five of six 3-pointers and sank the go-ahead shot in Orlando’s 111-109 defeat of San Antonio. Not only did Fournier’s stellar shooting allow the Magic (5-7) to rally in the fourth quarter for a second straight win, but it capped a stretch that has been Fournier’s finest in some time. In his past four games, Fournier has averaged 20 points a night while shooting 54.9 percent from the floor (28 of 51) and a scorching-hot 60.8 percent from 3-point range (14 of 23).
``I have confidence in my work,’’ said Fournier, a regular on the Magic’s practice court for some intensive shooting work after Orlando’s team sessions are completed. ``It’s still early, but I have a better idea of where my shots are going to come from and it’s easier to just work on those shots. I’m understanding the offense better, and it’s helping me.’’
The Magic will need the help of Fournier on Sunday against all-star shooting guard Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards (3-7). Already 3-1 on the longest home stand of the season, Orlando is hopeful of beating Washington and notching its first three-game winning streak of the season prior to hitting the road for nine nights and four games. Tip time on Sunday is just after 6 p.m.
Like the Magic’s rapidly improving offense, Fournier has found his rhythm of late and once again looks like the player Orlando can lean on late in games for clutch shooting. Through 12 games, he’s averaging 16.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists while hitting 48.3 percent of his shots and 42.6 percent of his 3-point tries. His 3-point accuracy is tied for 30thin the NBA, while his 2.2 3-point makes a night are tied for 41st.
Fournier’s production this season is much more in line with his career numbers in the NBA (13.5 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting and 37.2 percent accuracy from 3-point range). Of course, they differ greatly from last season when his efficiency curiously plunged because of wayward shooting and what he dubbed as ``personal reasons.’’ (More on that later). For whatever reason, Fournier made just 43.8 percent of his field goals and only 34 percent of his 3-point shots last season – numbers he hadn’t seen since his second NBA season in Denver when he struggled in then-coach Brian Shaw’s system.
Making matters even worse last season was Fournier’s woeful shooting in the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors. Rock bottom came in a crushing Game 3 loss – one-of-12 shooting with seven misses from 3-point range – and Fournier was well aware that if he had simply connected on one or two more of his open looks the Magic likely would have been able to grab a 2-1 lead in the series against the eventual World Champions.
Vucevic, a close confidant and teammate of Fournier’s for six seasons now in Orlando, hurt for his friend as he struggled. But he loves the resiliency that Fournier showed in bouncing back in a big way – first, at the FIBA World Cup and now for the Magic.
``It wasn’t an easy year for him last year, and it’s never easy when you go through offensive struggles, but he still did many good things for us,’’ Vucevic said of Fournier, who averaged a career-best 3.6 assists a game last season and was arguably Orlando’s most improved defender. ``I’m just happy that he’s back comfortable, confident and shooting the ball well because we need him to do that. But I really think the World Cup helped because he played great for his country, and that helped him a lot.’’
Fournier was one of the unquestioned best players in China while leading his native France to a third-place finish – its best International showing in an event of that magnitude. After scoring 26 points against Germany and 24 versus Lithuania, Fournier erupted for 31 points against Australia. That set the stage him being the driving force behind France’s stunning quarterfinal upset of Team USA when he had 22 points, four assists, four 3-pointers and three rebounds against a squad full of fellow NBA players.
Like Vucevic, Magic guard Terrence Ross noticed a difference in Fournier’s shooting swagger when he returned from torching some of the world’s best players while playing for France.
``It’s all about confidence and he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,’’ said Ross, who had 20 points on Friday and teamed with Fournier in Orlando’s second straight fourth-quarter rally. ``He’s bringing so much energy to us right now. I think the experience from this summer was great for him and we see it kind of rolling over into our season.’’
Has it ever rolled over into this season? Already, Fournier has led the team in scoring four times, in assists three times and he’s passed Darrell Armstrong (654) and Rashard Lewis (658) for fifth on the Magic’s all-time list for 3-pointers made in franchise history.
No 3-pointer made this season was more important than the one he drilled on Friday with the score tied at 104. After San Antonio denied Vucevic the ball in the post, Fournier used a screen from the center and calmly sank a deep 3-pointer from the right wing as the shot clock was expiring. The Magic would not trail again, and they went on to notch arguably their most significant win of the season.
``Evan’s been good since he’s been here at the end of games with big shots and that one was a big one,’’ said Vucevic, referring to Fournier’s three instances last season where he hit winning or go-ahead shots in the final seconds of games. ``That was a big, big shot, for sure.’’
Fournier said he finally feels free of the struggles that bothered him throughout last season. He’s vague as to the ``personal reasons’’ that troubled him last season, but he did have to miss a game in Dallas last December when there was a brief health scare involving his wife, Laura, and what became the couple’s first child – son, Elias, was born healthy and happy this summer. Fournier also battled an intolerance to gluten all throughout last season, something that made keeping weight on difficult and often made him feel fatigued.
But whatever confidence he might have been lacking last season returned over the summer in the World Cup and Fournier is once again playing with a swagger for the Magic. Their hope, of course, is that it continues, and Fournier keeps being the efficient, sweet-shooting offensive weapon that he’s been of late.
``Like I’ve said, there were a lot of reasons why I had the year that I had (last season). There were personal reasons,’’ Fournier said. ``But just playing for my country (in the World Cup), thinking about something else and just kind of flushing last season down the toilet, it helped me regain my confidence and energy. Yeah, (his World Cup success) was definitely great for me.’’
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