ORLANDO - Facing a scenario where ``no one in the NBA has ever been through anything like this,’’ Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said he is banking on the collective character, toughness and togetherness of his team in the imminent restart to the NBA season.
Weltman, Magic players, coaches and staffers were among the first NBA teams to arrive at Disney World on Tuesday where they will be sequestered from the outside world for a minimum of 5 ½ weeks and quite possibly for several months. Following a two-day period of quarantine, the Magic will begin a training-camp style set of practices on Thursday designed to get players back into shape and into rhythm following a layoff since the league was shuttered on March 11.
Dealing with the isolation of being away from family for an extended period, getting back in shape following such a long layoff and avoiding both the COVID-19 illness and injuries are some of the potential impediments that could affect teams while trying to restart the regular season and ramp up for the playoffs. Weltman believes that the strong collective character of the Magic’s roster will help the squad battle through any potential adversity that could come in the days, weeks and months ahead.
``We’re always talking about it a lot and I always say it – we’re not just betting on the player; we’re betting on the person and I believe in our guys,’’ Weltman said via a Zoom call from the Disney campus on Tuesday afternoon. ``I believe that we have high-character group of players and that spreads down to all of our coaches, our performance staff and all of our support staff. (The players) have worked hard, they’ve stayed together, they’ve communicated, and they’ve remained optimistic at points where there was more uncertainty. As the plans have come into clearer focus, they’ve united, and there’s a feeling of togetherness and comradery.
``They’ve all been supporting one another and I’m proud of them,’’ Weltman added. ``This is something that none of us know what to expect and this has never been done before. All of you can do is prepare yourself as best as possible, given the very restrictive modes of operation that have been placed upon us. Our guys have done that and now it’s time to come together (for a team practice) for the first time in a long time. We’ll hunker down here a couple of days in quarantine and then get in the gym for the first time in a great while.’’
The Magic encountered a bit of adversity on Tuesday when three players did not travel with the squad to the Disney campus for various reasons. Standout point guard Markelle Fultz is not with the team as he is dealing with a personal matter, and Weltman said he expects the 22-year-old player to soon rejoin the squad following his ``excused absence’’. Weltman said a Magic player who he is not at liberty to disclose recently tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and that player is hopeful of rejoining his teammates at Disney at some point in the coming days. Veteran forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who hasn’t played since Nov. 29 following surgery on his right knee, was also left behind so that he can focus on his rehabilitation process at the Magic’s headquarters at the Amway Center.
Weltman said he has no concerns about the status of Fultz, who has evolved into one of the true feel-good stories of the season with his triumphant return from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome this season. In 64 games with the Magic (59 starts), Fultz has averaged 12.1 points, 5.2 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 47.3 percent from the floor.
Said Weltman: ``I don’t have a timeline (on Fultz’s return), but as I said Markelle just has some personal matters that he is handling. He’s on top of everything and hopefully he’ll be out here (at Disney) shortly. He’s looking very much forward to joining up with his team once he handles his business.’’
As Weltman has said for months, forward Jonathan Isaac is unlikely to return to action from the injury that he suffered to his left knee on Jan. 1 in a defeat of the Washington Wizards. At the time of his injury, the nearly 7-foot Isaac was one of just two players in the NBA ranking in the top 15 in both blocked shots per game (2.4) and steals a night (1.6). Isaac has steadily ramped up his workouts in recent weeks, running on weight-assisted machines and participating in some non-contact drills on the court.
However, Weltman said that the 22-year-old Isaac – a third-year pro who is considered to be a cornerstone piece of the franchise moving forward – is unlikely to be ready to play by the time the Magic restart regular-season games (July 31, vs. Brooklyn).
``I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we’re planning on life without Jonathan,’’ Weltman said. ``Jonathan is with the team because it benefits him to be with the team and he wants to be with the team. The same could be said with (Aminu), but Jonathan is at a different stage of his rehab and most of the work that he needs to get done it would benefit him to be around our performance staff. Obviously, he’s at the stage where he can do a little light court stuff. Beyond that, we want to keep him attached to the team and he wants to support his teammates, but I wouldn’t read anything into that.’’
Weltman, Magic coaches and players all wore black T-shirts that read, ``GET OFF THE BENCH, GET INTO THE GAME, VOTE’’ into the Disney World campus environment on Tuesday. The team recently took part in an interactive Zoom call with voting rights activist Desmond Meade – Executive Director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition – and felt collectively that one of the ways that they could enact social change would be by pushing others to get out and vote in the coming months. Meade led the successful effort to pass a 2018 state initiative that restored voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions. In 2019, Time magazine named Meade as one of the ``100 most influential people in the world,’’ and Magic players were obviously moved by his push to get more people voting in local, state and national elections that could potentially bring about change in terms of social injustices.
``Desmond spoke to our team and he really resonated with our group, and a lot of our players followed up and expressed a lot of interest in what he had to say,’’ Weltman recalled. ``He’s an amazing guy and his organization, F.R.R.C., is an amazing group. Through the interest that the players responded with, we came up with these shirts and a lot of our players have expressed an interest in forwarding that cause.
``The NBA has told us at every turn – including today at orientation – how important it is to use this forum as a platform to address social injustice and racism,’’ Weltman added. ``That can take on a lot of forms, and we all know that. But Desmond really resonated with our guys. That’s the impetus for the shirts.’’
Weltman said he and his staff have done their best to plan for any adversity that could come the way of the Magic in the days and weeks ahead. He knows that pitfalls will come – be it a result of the long layoff from basketball, the time spent away from family members while sequestered at Disney or potential injuries or illnesses – but Weltman feels his group is poised to handle the issues even in this most uncertain of times in the NBA. How a team, such as the 30-35 and eighth-seeded Magic, handles the problems that arise while being sequestered could ultimately decide the amount of success or failure that comes.
``I think it kind of gets back to – and I’m going to sound like a broken record saying this – with the mental toughness part and the togetherness part, they come back to character. And that’s where I have faith in our group,’’ Weltman said. ``What that will mean, I don’t know. Who knows what will be thrown at us or any other team, but I do believe that we have a strong-minded, team-first orientation with our group.’’
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