Iwundu Made Impressive Strides in His Second NBA Season
ORLANDO – A bit player on the Orlando Magic’s 2017-18 team that won just 25 games, forward Wes Iwundu recently had it dawn upon him just how far both he and the team came in a year’s time.
Now a key rotational player on a Magic squad that made the NBA’s biggest improvement (17 more wins) and one that reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012, Iwundu beamed with pride following a season of enormous growth. These days, he can’t help but wonder where more incremental growth from a young core of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz and himself will take the Magic going forward.
``It’s crazy a year’s difference,’’ said Iwundu, who averaged 5.0 points and 2.7 rebounds this past season after averaging just 3.7 points and 2.2 boards as a rookie. ``A lot of things have changed and much credit to Coach (Steve Clifford). He made guys believe that we had something special. Nobody believed in us, but from Day 1 when Coach (Clifford) walked in, he told us we could be a story and get some things done. We believed and I think it showed in our play.’’
Did it ever? The Magic went 22-9 in March and April to help the franchise end a six-year playoff drought. It all happened, largely, because of the influence of the hard-driving Clifford and the major improvements made by players such as Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Gordon, Isaac and Iwundu.
Though widely heralded for his abilities as an elite-level defender (more on that later), Iwundu’s biggest growth this season came on the offensive end. A shaky shooter who would often shy away from even attempting open 3-point looks as a rookie, Iwundu grew so much this season that he made 3-pointers in three of the Magic’s five playoff games against the Toronto Raptors. With a big assist from Magic assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer, Iwundu went from 19.6 percent to 36.7 percent success rate from 3-point range in Year 2 of his NBA career.
``He’s very behind the scenes, but much of the credit goes to Bruce because he’s the only shooting coach that we have and he’s helped all 15 guys,’’ Iwundu said of Kreutzer, who he regularly worked with hours before practice on a daily basis. ``For him to be tuned with each and every guy and know what we need to work on to get better, much credit to him. He does so much behind the scenes, but it gets us better. My shooting percentages rose this year, and that’s just from working with Bruce and I’m exciting going forward. The consistent work that we put in, he got me to this point and it’s something to keep building off of.’’
Iwundu, 24, is something of a self-made player, making the Magic’s roster with no contractual guarantees after being a second-round pick in 2017. Iwundu got to the NBA with his defense, and his ability to stick long term will depend largely on his offensive growth. This past season, he scored in double figures nine times and tallied a career-best 16 points on April 1 in Toronto by making all seven of his shots and both of his 3-point tries.
As for his defense, Iwundu quickly became a favorite of Clifford’s because of his willingness to dig in defensively against some of the best wing players in the NBA. A rangy, 6-foot-7 forward with exceptional lateral quickness, Iwundu often gave foes fits with his ability to cut off drives and contest jump shots. He had at least one steal in 22 games and two steals five times. Also, he blocked at least one shot 17 times and registered at least two swats five times.
Iwundu’s effectiveness on the defensive end of the floor was quite apparent when coaches analyzed the raw data from Magic games. The numbers were downright impressive, especially considering that Iwundu spent time during the season checking stars such as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum and others.
Among players to contest at least 400 shots during the regular season, Iwundu ranked first on the Magic and fifth overall in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed at 40.5 percent. That put him in the same company as Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo (40.1 percent allowed), Denver’s Torrey Craig (39.8 percent allowed), Toronto’s Pascal Siakam (39.7 percent allowed) and Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. (39.1 percent allowed).
``That was a big accomplishment for me on the defensive end and my confidence on that end is high,’’ Iwundu said. ``I always want to try and get in there and shake things up. It’s just a special part of my game and it’s something I want to build off.’’
Iwundu has a team option on his contract for next season, and the Magic are almost certain to exercise that option considering the way his game is trending. As for team leaders Vucevic and Ross, both are unrestricted free agents and are threats to leave Orlando because of their likely high value to other teams around the NBA.
While the Magic are extremely hopeful that they will be able to retain Vucevic and Ross, undoubtedly their long-term future lies in their young core. Fultz was the No. 1 pick in 2017, while Isaac (No. 6 in 2017) and Bamba (No. 6 in 2018) were also high draft picks. Isaac made enormous strides between his first and second season, and the Magic are hopeful that similar climbs are in store for Fultz and Bamba – both of whom are battling back from injuries.
Iwundu (No. 33 pick in 2017) is the outlier of the group, but he knows that the growth of Orlando’s young players will likely dictate the franchise’s future. More growth – like Iwundu and the Magic experienced this past season – is very much needed going forward for Orlando to become a perennial playoff power for years to come.
``As a team, we took a step in the right direction of learning to fight through challenges and obstacles during the season,’’ Iwundu said. ``Mainly, that’s a sign of maturity.
``With the number of young guys that we have on the team, it’s important to come in and establish a culture and an attitude going forward,’’ he added. ``With us making the playoffs this year, it was big for us. We got some experience even though it didn’t go the way that we wanted. We came out of (Game 1) with a win. We kind of showed ourselves what we’re capable of if our minds are right. Going forward, I think this season will help us to get better and know what to expect.’’
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