Briscoe Has Helped Make Magic Grittier, Tougher Team
Clifford, Briscoe's teammates marvel at his confidence and determination
INDIANAPOLIS – To fully understand the grit, swagger and disdain of doubt of Orlando Magic reserve Isaiah Briscoe, listen to what the brazen 22-year-old rookie had to say after battling superstar Steph Curry and repeatedly daring to tug on Superman’s cape.
Keep in mind that Briscoe played last season in, of all places, Estonia, and only recently established himself in the Magic’s regular rotation, while Curry is a two-time MVP, a three-time champion and universally regarded as the best shooter in the game.
``We’re both basketball players and we’re both in the NBA,’’ Briscoe said defiantly. ``I know what he can do, but at the end of the day, it’s basketball and we just go out there and play. I’m on the court with him, so that says something about me also.’’
It says something also about the Magic of late when the stocky and stubborn Briscoe has been out on the court. He was a driving force in Orlando’s stirring 103-96 defeat of Golden State on Thursday, helping to force Curry into a career-worst 21 missed shots (12 of 33). Also, as Briscoe was grabbing a career-best nine rebounds, scoring eight points and handing out two assists, he helped spark an Orlando run early in the fourth period that proved to be the foundation of the Magic’s seventh come-from-behind victory when trailing after three periods.
``Isaiah is a tough-minded kid, undrafted and went overseas to get to the league, so he has a chip on his shoulder, and he has that mindset,’’ marveled starting point guard D.J. Augustin, who watched the Magic shave 10 points off Golden State’s 11-point lead while Briscoe was on the floor the first 6:38 of the fourth period. ``He’s a big, physical body for a point guard and he uses it out there well.’’
While standouts such as Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier deserve plenty of credit for Orlando (29-34) surging back into playoff contention with nine wins over the past 12 games, Briscoe has been something of an unlikely participant in the Magic’s recent success.
Since he took over as Orlando’s backup point guard on Jan. 9, no Magic player has a better net rating than Briscoe (5.5 points) while on the court. More importantly, the Magic are 12-5 games that Briscoe has been fully available to play since Jan. 9 – discounting the four he missed with an ankle sprain (Jan. 23-29) and the two he’s was out recently because of a concussion.
``He’s physical, he had nine rebounds (on Thursday), he makes contact plays, he likes to compete and, to me, that’s contagious,’’ said head coach Steve Clifford, whose Magic start a three-game road trip in Indiana (41-22) on Saturday night.
The fact that Briscoe was on the court in the tense moments of Thursday’s game bumping and battling with Curry was shocking considering the unorthodox and unconventional route he’s taken to get to this point.
Once considered to be the top point guard in the country as a high school star in New Jersey, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Briscoe was a highly celebrated signee for the University of Kentucky in 2015. However, because the Wildcats also had Tyler Ulis and De’Aaron Fox as point guards, Briscoe was shifted to a wing shooter – far from being a strength of his. A forgettable college career resulted in him being undrafted in 2017.
``At Kentucky, you play with great players and you’re forced to do less,’’ Briscoe recalled. ``It made me a better player overall, so I thank Kentucky for that.’’
Convinced that he had plenty to offer a team if he could simply get back to playing point guard, Briscoe signed with a professional basketball team in Estonia, a small northern European country bordered by Finland, Sweden, Latvia and the Baltic Sea with 1.3 million people. Briscoe had one American teammate (former NC State forward Cedric Simmons), but most of his Estonian teammates spoke English as a second language.
Briscoe, who admits that he loved his stint in Estonia, passed his free time by watching Netflix, playing video games and walking around a local mall. But his primary focus was basketball – and it showed as he averaged 18.5 points, 4.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals a game while playing point guard again. In addition to winning the United League’s ``Young Player of the Year’’ award, he once scored 50 points in an Estonia/Latvia all-star game.
At times, Briscoe admitted, it dawns in him how far he’s come, going from Estonia to in the NBA and facing greats such as Curry from time to time.
``That year overseas got me back in rhythm again and it got me comfortable again playing with the ball in my hands again,’’ he said. ``Those nights when we get home late, at 3 (o’clock) in the morning, riding home I just think about last year where I was at and it makes me appreciate where I am now.’’
Looking for depth at the point guard position last summer, Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman remembered scouting Briscoe some four years earlier when the point guard was one of the best players at the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League and when he led his AAU squad to the championship at the Nike Peach Jam tournament in South Carolina.
Weltman watched video footage of Briscoe playing in Estonia and sent him an invite to a free-agent camp … for the Magic’s Summer League squad. The gritty point guard not only emerged from that camp, but he played well enough in the Vegas Summer League (8.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists in three games) and in the NBA preseason (4.3 points and 2.0 assists in three games) to make the Magic’s Opening Night roster.
He spent most of the season as the Magic’s third point guard behind Augustin and the struggling Jerian Grant, appearing in just three games in October, five in November and six in December.
Ultimately, Clifford turned to him on Jan. 9 in Utah as the team’s backup point guard. Though that night rendered a frustration-filled loss where Orlando squandered a big lead with a bad fourth quarter, the Magic’s often shaky bench stabilized soon after with Briscoe at the point. He was ready when his opportunity came along, he stressed, because of the daily work he put in with Magic assistant coaches Steve Hetzel and Bruce Kreutzer even when he wasn’t in the regular rotation.
``Coach (Clifford) always told me, `You never know with this game and you’ve got to stay ready because God-forbid something happen, and you are the next man up,’’’ remembered Briscoe, who has averaged 3.4 points, 2.2 assists and 2.0 rebounds over 13.8 minutes in 36 games thus far this season. ``When he said that to me, I thought about it and (realized) that it’s actually true. So, every day I was in here playing whether I was playing or not – first one in here, last one to leave – and working hard. When my number got called, I was ready and I’ve been playing pretty good since. I just want to keep it rolling, keep playing with the confidence that I’m playing with and keep getting the team wins.’’
The confidence was on display on Thursday even though Briscoe wasn’t officially cleared to play by the NBA until 90 minutes prior to tipoff. Last Friday, he suffered a concussion when he took a charge from Chicago’s Otto Porter Jr. and hit the back of his head on a teammate’s knee as he fell. He stayed in that game, giving the Magic 10 points and three assists over 21 minutes before the concussion symptoms hit later that night.
Briscoe missed the next two games – one of which Orlando’s bench was outscored 75-7 without him in a bad loss to the rebuilding New York Knicks.
He was back on Thursday, pushing the pace, fighting over screens and trying to give Curry fits all game long while Augustin rested. As it turns out, Briscoe had as many or more field goals in the fourth quarter (two) as Klay Thompson (two) or Curry (one), helping the Magic become the first team in 53 games to wipe out a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of a defeat of the Warriors.
Afterward, Briscoe vowed that he didn’t care who was in front of him – a superstar the ilk of Curry or a foe from his time spent in Estonia – because he was determined to do what he could to lift Orlando to a much-needed victory.
``I just tried to keep everybody (on the Magic) level-headed so we could get back into the game because the NBA is a game of runs,’’ Briscoe said. ``I was just trying to contest (Curry) as much as possible. We’re in the NBA, so everybody can play, obviously. I was just trying to make it tough on (Curry). My main thing, and Coach (Clifford’s) main thing was, `Just try to contest, late contest, rear-view contest,’ and that’s what I was doing. Luckily, he missed a few down the stretch.’’
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