ORLANDO – Early in the season, the Orlando Magic were off to an impressive 8-4 start and rookie forward Jonathan Isaac was playing a big role in the team being in the NBA’s top eight in defensive efficiency rating.
Not long after that high-water mark, Isaac and the Magic both went down – Isaac to an ankle injury and the Magic both in the standings and in defensive rating.
Isaac, who made his much-anticipated return to NBA action on Friday against the Detroit Pistons, said it was the memories of the good times early in the season that kept him encouraged throughout an ankle rehabilitation process that spanned over much of the past four months. He said being out so long after injuring his ankle on Nov. 11 made him feel, at times, as if he wasn’t even a part of the team even though he was in most practices and meetings and sitting along the bench during games.
``It’s like you’re there, but you’re not actually there because you can’t participate fully,’’ said Isaac, who played in just his 16th game of the season on Friday. ``For me especially, as the season has been going, it’s been tough because I’ve not really been in it with (his teammates). Whether we’re winning or losing, I want to be in there with them. So, the hardest part has been not being there.’’
From the season-opener to Nov. 10 – when the Magic were 8-4 – they had the NBA’s eighth-best defensive efficiency (101.4 points per 100 possessions). From Nov. 11 to Thursday – a stretch where Isaac played just parts of three games because of his nagging ankle issues – the Magic went just 10-39 and ranked last in the NBA in defensive efficiency (111.1 points per 100 possessions).
Isaac is hopeful that the Magic can use the memories of that strong start as motivation to craft a stellar finish to the season.
``I reminisce a little bit and I really think we can still create something like that in these last 20 games,’’ Isaac said, referring to the team’s strong start to the season. ``We need to try to do that and see where we end up and not just let go of the steering wheel and let the season end (badly).’’
COACH JAMEER? When veteran point guard Jameer Nelson was made available last month by the Chicago Bulls, Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy jumped at the chance to acquire the 14-year veteran in a trade. After all, Van Gundy and Nelson know each other quite well from their five seasons in Orlando, helping the Magic make the playoffs five straight years and reach the 2009 NBA Finals and the ’10 Eastern Conference Finals.
``Even though he’s only been back a while, he knows me better than anybody on our (Pistons’) team does,’’ Van Gundy said of Nelson. ``He’s already been talking to me about what he sees in our guys. He’s a smart guy, he’s totally team-oriented and he knows me.’’
Van Gundy has long thought – and still thinks – that Nelson has what it takes to be a successful basketball coach someday if he so chooses to go in that direction after his playing days are complete.
``He’s certainly capable and he’s certainly got all of the characteristics you would think of in a coach,’’ Van Gundy added. ``He’s very smart, he knows the game inside-out, he’s a hard worker and he’s one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around. He’s got a great sense of what everybody needs in a given time just in the way he processes a team. I think he’d be a great coach, but I just don’t know if that’s the way he wants to go.’’
ANOTHER LOOK AT VAUGHN: The Magic signed Rashad Vaughn to a second 10-day contract on Friday, allowing the team another look at the guard who has shown signs in practice of being an elite shooter, head coach Frank Vogel said.
Vaughn, a first-round draft pick by Milwaukee in 2015 when current Magic GM John Hammond worked for the Bucks, appeared in four games during his first 10-stretch with the Magic. He drilled a short baseline jumper in Oklahoma City on Monday and he connected on a 3-pointer against Toronto on Wednesday.
``He’s just got to get up to speed with all the habits we’re trying to build with all the rest of these guys,’’ Vogel said. ``It’s not about what you do as much as how quickly you can learn a lot of time with these 10-day contracts. But he certainly has an impressive offensive skill set and we’re going to see how well he can pick things up.’’
To ensure that they clear playing time for Vaughn, the Magic deactivated veteran guard/forward Arron Afflalo on Friday. At the completion of this second 10-day contract, the Magic will have to either sign Vaughn for the remainder of the season or release him.
UP NEXT: The Magic are in the midst of their only home-and-home back-to-back set of games of the season and will host the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night.
When the Magic went into their game in Memphis on Nov. 1 – a game they ultimately won on an Aaron Gordon 3-pointer in the final minute – Orlando was tied for first in the East, while Memphis was at the top of the Western Conference. Both teams have subsequently fallen on hard times since then. The Grizzlies, which have been without standout point guard Mike Conley most of the season, went into Friday night’s home game against Denver having lost 11 straight games.
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