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.
By John DentonOct. 28, 2014
NEW ORLEANS – When they were anxiously passing the time together a night before their NBA regular-season debuts, Aaron Gordon – a sage of 19 years on this Earth – had some extremely mature advice for fellow Orlando Magic rookie Elfrid Payton.
Payton, 20, had extra reason to be nervous in the hours leading up to the NBA season-opener what with his first NBA game coming just a handful of miles from his hometown of Gretna, La. Swamped with well-wishers, ticket requests and family demands, Payton easily could have been swallowed up by the magnitude of the moment Tuesday night.
Instead, Gordon – the teammate he’s known for two years and his closest friend on the Magic – was there to be a calming influence.
``This night is big big-time for him. It’s his home hometown and not 30 or 45 minutes away – this is his actual town. I was talking a little bit with him (Monday) night and I reminded him that it’s still basketball and you go out and operate like you know you can. I know that he knows because his IQ is so high he’ll know what to do.’’
The pep talk seemed to do wonders for both Payton and Gordon on Tuesday night as both rookies played without anxiousness and showed flashes of promises in the Orlando’s 101-84 season-opening loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Gordon, the No. 4 overall pick last June, shot the ball well and scored 11 points with a corner 3-pointer in almost 29 minutes. Payton, whom the Magic traded for on draft night last June, got the start at point guard in his hometown and chipped in four points, seven assists and five rebounds in almost 31 minutes.
``There were no nerves and I was just able to get out there and play,’’ said Payton, who made just two of eight shots and had three of his tries swatted at the rim. ``It was kind of surprising, but once the ball went up I was comfortable out there. I felt like I got the shots that I wanted, but I just have to convert them and help these guys on the boards as much as possible. I’m big enough and I should be able to get in there and get a few (rebounds).’’
An Orlando team playing without standout point guard Victor Oladipo and power forward Channing Frye lost on Tuesday when it yielded 32 second-chance points and 26 offensive rebounds. Those numbers didn’t sit well with Gordon, a high energy player who prides himself on doing the dirty work for the Magic.
``That (rebounding) and a couple of other points are why we lost the game. That (lack of rebounding) is why we lost the game, so we know we have areas to improve,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s not like we played our best game and still lost. We didn’t play all that great down the stretch and we know where we need to get better. … We’ve got to clean up the offensive rebounds and not break down on defense. We have to keep grinding and when we get punched, we have to punch back.’’
Payton and Gordon lived out some of their life-long dreams when they played in their first official NBA games. Payton was cheered throughout the game by a contingent of fans supporting the hometown hero who grew up approximately five miles from the Pelicans’ home arena. Gordon admitted that it was a downright surreal moment to hear his name called for a NBA starting lineup – and then to have that accompanied with the soundtrack of cheering family and friends in the background.
``It was cool to hear my name and have a lot of people screaming,’’ Payton said. ``It just would have been a lot better if we would have won.’’
Payton’s parents, Elfrid Sr. and Danielle, rented out a suite at the Smoothie King Center and had approximately 15 friends and family members on hand to cheer on their son. Danielle, who has blue-and-black painted fingernails (six inches long) that she’s been growing for 12 years, said she was filled with pride knowing that her son was doing what he had always hoped to do.
``It is a lifelong dream for me to see him out on the court,’’ said Danielle, who was dressed in a blue No. 4 jersey. ``We were at the preseason game last Wednesday, so I’ve seen him on the Magic court. But for him to be here for first game in his hometown in front of his family, it will just be so exciting for all of us. … We thought of this as a blessing for him to just get into the NBA. But for his first game to be in front of his friends and family, it’s just beautiful.’’
As he did in college, Payton got in the lane time and again, but things were different this time around with defensive ace Anthony Davis patrolling the rim. Payton made just two of eight shots and had three of his tries swatted away. He said a first lesson was that nothing comes easy in the NBA.
``The biggest thing I learned is that I’ve got to finish and finish at a high level,’’ Payton said. ``And I have to get in there and help out our bigs on the boards.’’
As for Gordon, he said before the game that he would likely be so locked into competing that he might forget to savor his first official game in the NBA. He checked into the game for the first time with 5:17 left in the first period and he certainly looked dialed in his first few minutes on the floor. Gordon aggressively spun in the lane for a hook shot and he confidently stroked a 3-pointer from the corner minutes later to give the Magic an early lead.
Gordon promised that he would go back and study his play on Tuesday and hopefully be better by Thursday. Highly intelligent and an extremely hard worker, Gordon vowed to keeping learning from every game and improve as the season progresses.
``I was just trying to get a feel for it and I think I did,’’ said Gordon, who made five of eight shots. ``It’s never going to be a linear line up because we’re human. But hopefully it’s going to be (gradual progress). But I just want to make as steady a climb as possible.’’