Magic Impressed With Practice Court Setup at Disney

Team went through first practice at Disney on Thursday
by John Denton

ORLANDO - Someone who considers himself to be a well-read, deep-thinker who regularly meditates, journals and contemplates the meaning of almost everything he encounters, Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon racked his brain on Thursday for the right words to describe the feeling of being back at his team’s first full practice in nearly four months.

``The biggest challenge has been the mentality of shifting from whether or not we were even going to finish the season to now here we are and there was a lot of apprehension,’’ Gordon said from the Disney Coronado ballroom where the Magic practiced on Thursday. ``It was kind of like putting your foot on the brake and the gas at the same time (during the time off from basketball). And, now, it’s time to do all gas.’’

The Magic hit the gas and went full throttle into their first practice since March 9 on Thursday at nearby Disney World. After arriving onto Disney’s sequestered, campus-style environment on Tuesday, quarantining and testing for the coronavirus for 48 hours, the Magic were the first NBA team to go through a full team work out. One touch that might have made the Magic feel at home – even though they were scrimmaging roughly 15 miles away from the Amway Center – was getting to practice on the orange-and-anthracite-trimmed ``City Edition’’ court that they played on several times previously this season.

``It’s actually a very nice setup, I think the NBA did a great job with the practice courts and it was actually our court, so that was great to see,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who revealed on Thursday that he and his wife are expecting their second child in November. ``I know at the (Disney) convention center, the ceiling is a little lower than what you are used to (as an NBA player), but once you get in here and get going you don’t really feel anything different as much. They set up the weight room really nice and the courts feel like NBA courts, so that’s the most important thing. I think the NBA did a good job and you can see that they put a lot of work in to make sure that everything was fine for us.’’

The Magic were still without standout point guard Markelle Fultz (personal matter) and an unnamed player who recently tested positive for COVID-19 in Thursday’s first practice session. Upon their arrivals at Disney, those players will need to be quarantined for 48 hours and repeatedly tested for the virus before they are allowed to rejoin the Magic for practice.

The Magic, 30-35 and seeded eighth in the East at the time of the NBA stoppage in early March, will practice almost daily for the next two weeks prior to playing three scrimmage games (July 22 vs. Clippers; July 25 vs. Lakers; and July 27 vs. Nuggets). Orlando will begin the restart of regular-season play on July 31 (vs. Nets) and the playoffs will start on Aug. 17 following the eight ``seeding games.’’

Fans won’t be allowed into any of those games as the NBA and Disney hope to sequester the players and keep them safe from a pandemic that has seen infection rates spike dramatically in Florida in recent weeks. Fox Sports Florida announced on Thursday that it will be televising all eight of the Magic’s ``seeding games’’ from Disney in the coming weeks.

Magic coach Steve Clifford, whose squad won three games in a row and eight of 12 prior to the stoppage in play in early March, is pressed with trying to get his team back in shape and ready to play, while also attempting to keep players free from injury. That’s a unique challenge, Clifford said, considering the four-month layoff that players have had. He’s already leaned heavily on the advice of High Performance Director David Tenney and he’s solicited opinions from former NBA coaches Stan and Jeff Van Gundy and Tom Thibodeau, two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash and NFL coaches Ron Rivera and Steve Wilks.

Clifford had players do drill work and run through offense and defensive sets on Thursday – without any contact – as a way to ease them back into the first practice. On Friday morning, Clifford hopes his team can do some three-on-three scrimmaging with contact as a way to slowly ramp up to some full five-on-five work in the coming days.

``The majority of our guys have been in Orlando working out and we’ve been able to do – not contact, but quite a bit of conditioning,’’ Clifford said. ``So, we’ll see about (game shape) as we go forward, but we feel like we have a good plan. We want to help them get their games in rhythm, get as organized as we can and do it injury-free. Those are our three goals.’’

Gordon was quite candid when asked what his emotions were on Thursday while practicing fully with his teammates for the first time in months. Just before the stoppage in play, Gordon had started to play some of the most consistently solid all-around basketball of his six-year NBA career. In the nine games that Orlando played after the break for the NBA All-Star Game – an event where Gordon suffered yet another controversial runner-up finish in the dunk contest – the 6-foot-9 forward averaged 15.4 points, 9.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists a game while making 47.7 percent of his shots. In that run, Gordon had a monster second-half performance and a game-saving blocked shot in a victory over Brooklyn and the first triple-double of his career in a win against Minnesota.

Being back on the basketball court on Thursday, Gordon said, felt both trivial and like a safe haven for him. Gordon, 24, said the loss of life caused by the coronavirus and the racial tensions in the U.S. have weighted heavily on him for months and occupied most of his thoughts during his longest stretch ever being away from basketball. His mixed emotions pulled at him greatly following Thursday’s practice session.

``I’m going to be honest with you guys – it was extremely hard to get motivated, extremely hard with all the circumstances going on in America,’’ said Gordon, who noted that he slept, wrote in his journal and meditated to pass the time during the Magic’s first 48 hours at Disney. ``All the injustice (racially), the pandemic, the health crisis.

``There were a lot of things preventing me from being motivated to get back on the court, but I’m here to tell you guys that I’m not here to do this for myself,’’ he continued. ``My only motivation is that I’m not here to do this for myself. I’m here to do it for my team, my teammates, I’m here to win a championship and to help the guys who haven’t signed a contract and my brothers in the NBA. I’m here for my family and friends and all the other players who have done it before me. Kobe (Bryant) and all the guys who have left this league in such a great place, that’s the motivation that I have now.’’

Vucevic, Orlando’s leading scorer (19.5 ppg.) and rebounder (11.0 rpg.) for a second straight season, said the spirits were extremely high among his teammates during Thursday’s first practice session. He said other than being away from his young son and his expecting wife, he has no reservations about returning to basketball at Disney and trying to help the Magic make some noise in the playoffs.

Vucevic compared being sequestered as Disney World for a minimum of 5 ½ weeks and a stay that could extend to several months in length to playing for his National Team in Montenegro. This time, however, Vucevic is playing for the Magic, and he said there’s no place he’d rather be right now than competing with his teammates.

``Guys are definitely excited to be around each other and right now guys are shooting after practice and it will be some competitive stuff with guys having fun,’’ said Vucevic, who added that he plans to adorn the back of his Magic jersey with the phrase ``UNITY’’ in place of his usual nameplate. ``Being here together, guys are excited. You have to take into consideration, also, that for 36-to-48 hours guys didn’t see anybody (while quarantined) and we missed talking to anybody else but ourselves in the mirror.

``But our guys are happy to be back around each other and it’s great to be back (on the court) after four months off,’’ the 7-foot center added. ``Day-by-day, we’ll take it as it goes and enjoy being around one another. Then, once we start playing (games) it’ll be even more fun.’’

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.

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