By John DentonAugust 16, 2012 ORLANDO – The first recruit signed by Ben Howland eight years ago at UCLA, Arron Afflalo was charged with being the centerpiece player who helped restore the glory at the college basketball powerhouse.
Now, fast forward to Afflalo’s flourishing NBA career and the talented shooting guard sees many of the same similarities with an Orlando Magic team that traded for him last week and expects him to drive their rebuilding efforts.
In college, Afflalo led UCLA to two Final Four appearances and improved his scoring average all three seasons. In the NBA, he thrived despite falling to the 27th pick in the 2007 draft. He evolved from being predominantly a defensive player to one who has steadily increased his scoring average all five years in the NBA. The 15.2 points a game he averaged last season were not only a career high, but 10.3 points more than three years earlier in his career.
Now a member of the Magic following the blockbuster four-team, 12-player transaction last Friday, Afflalo will be looked to as a leader for a team moving forward without superstar center Dwight Howard. Again, he likens it to the rebuilding project he undertook at UCLA almost a decade ago.
``It does feel much the same. It’s like things are working in a cycle for me,’’ said Afflalo, who took his physical with the Magic and met the Orlando media on Thursday. ``(At UCLA), I took pride in trying to restore the history that that school had. It’s similar to this situation with the Magic going from the Shaq era to Dwight and now another change in the eras. Good times quickly followed before and will again.’’
Afflalo, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound shooting guard, has seen firsthand how a team goes about recovering from having to trade away a star player. He played in Denver the past three years and was a big part of the Nuggets making the playoffs the past two years after Carmelo Anthony forced his way to the New York Knicks. Afflalo said the Magic still have the veteran pieces and strong leadership from GM Rob Hennigan, assistant GM Scott Perry and new head coach Jacque Vaughn to quickly pick up the pieces and move on from the Howard era.
``You move forward and work hard and deal with the situation. You can’t worry about it and harp on it,’’ said Afflalo, who was in Barcelona working at a NBA event last week and found out about the trade via the internet. ``You have to make the best of it. You have to get out on the court and deal with it. Once a player is gone, he’s gone. Time will pass and things will get better.’’
Afflalo knows a thing or two about getting better because of the way he’s become somewhat of a self-made player in the NBA. Perry, who is also the Magic’s Vice President, was a part of the Pistons management team that drafted Afflalo in 2007. Afflalo credited Perry on Thursday for ``putting in a good word for me’’ and bringing him to Orlando.
He was used mostly as a reserve his first two seasons in Detroit, but that situation allowed him to learn the game from veterans Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Tayshaun Prince. And his career flourished in Denver as he played in an up-tempo offense and alongside more veteran players.
``My fourth year (in the NBA) playing with Chauncey (Billups), Melo (Anthony), Nene and Kenyon (Martin), I developed some confidence and hit some big shots. And once Melo was traded, it was an opportunity there for me to continue to grow,’’ Afflalo said.
``It’s just been a process. For most players, building comes through hard work, perseverance and some ups and downs unless you are thrust in that position as a rookie and asked to do it. But for me, my journey has been different,’’ he continued. ``A lot of the skills that have come out throughout my career I’ve had for awhile, but it’s just opportunity and understanding my position on the team that I am currently on. For me, it’s nothing new and it’s just a matter of time. I just have to hone my skills and stay sharp.’’
Afflalo, 26, said that former Denver teammate Al Harrington is also excited about joining the Magic’s rebuilding efforts. The Magic acquired Afflalo and Harrington from Denver, Josh McRoberts and Christian Eyenga from the Los Angeles Lakers and Nikola Vucevic from the Philadelphia 76ers, while sending out Jason Richardson, Chris Duhon, Earl Clark and Howard.
Harrington, 32, has played in the NBA for 14 seasons, but still averaged 14.2 points while shooting 44.6 percent from the floor last season in Denver.
``He’s much later in his career, but he’s excited,’’ Afflalo said with a laugh. ``Everybody likes a new chance and an opportunity to show who they are. So he’s happy.’’
Afflalo knows that he and Harrington will be looked to as leaders in the locker room and on the floor and mentors for Magic youngsters such as rookies Andrew Nicholson, Mo Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn. Afflalo, who has talked only briefly by Vaughn about his role on the floor with the Magic, is usually the quiet and humble type and said he will use his actions to show the young players how to approach things in the NBA.
``The idea is to set the tone for what it means to have the right approach to the game,’’ he said. ``I take pride in my career mirroring that example and coming from the bottom to the top. More so than what I can do from a stats standpoint or from a wins and losses standpoint, it’s about helping to develop that culture. From that, it’s easier to build.’’
Afflalo said there should be no confusion about his mentality coming from a team that was in the playoffs last season to one now in Orlando that could be rebuilding and focused on stockpiling young players, draft pick and salary cap space. Afflalo said he’s excited about being a building block in Orlando and hopes to get the chance to grow his game here.
``It’s refreshing,’’ he said. ``It’s the opportunity that a lot of people don’t get when it comes to growing in this league. Your career is short, and to have this opportunity to continue to grow is great.’’
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