Frank Vogel Encouraged by Improvement He's Seen in Recent Games

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

By John Denton Jan. 31, 2018

ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic don’t necessarily have the wins to show for it, but they have been infinitely more solid in the seven games prior to Wednesday while playing some of their best basketball since a promising 6-2 start to the season.

It’s those kinds of minor victories when head coach Frank Vogel is reminded that his team is still on the right track – even if it doesn’t always show up in the NBA standings. The Magic recently notched impressive victories against Boston and Minnesota, while pushing playoff-bound foes Houston, Cleveland, Washington and Indiana to the brink before suffering narrow losses. Also, Vogel said the major steps that young players such as Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja have made this season are further signs of progress that keep him encouraged.

``It’s not hard to stay positive; it’s hard to handle the losses,’’ said Vogel, whose Magic came into Wednesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers having dropped 11 of the past 14 games. ``You work so hard and you care so much for your guys, for your efforts and for our fans, and then it’s hard to handle the losses.

``But I believe in this franchise, in the guys that we have in uniform and in the direction that we’re going to go,’’ Vogel added. ``Better days are ahead of us, so from that standpoint it’s not hard to remain positive at all.’’

Like Vogel, Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said that going through an arduous rebuilding process tests the will and patience of a franchise. Remarkably, Walton was able to get the Lakers out of a midseason swoon when they dropped nine straight games at one point in December. After that, L.A. won eight of 11 games prior to Wednesday.

``It’s hard and you have to be patient, but when you look at what we’re trying to do, it’s a lot of fun. We’re trying to get a young team and an organization that I love back on top,’’ Walton said. ``You’ve got to take your lumps to do it, and if you want to do it right, you’ve got to go through it and feel what it’s like to be on the bottom. Then, you have to see how much work it takes pushing through to get out of the cellar. We’re in that right now, but it’s all going to be worth it one day.’’

A.G.’S PLAN: As expected, Orlando’s Gordon missed his second straight game on Wednesday because of a strained left hip flexor. But just because he’s sidelined for the time being, that doesn’t mean Gordon has stopped thinking about ways he can improve over the final 32 games of this season.

Already this season, Gordon has enjoyed a career year, averaging highs in scoring (18.4 ppg.), rebounding (8.3 rpg.), assists (2.2 apg.) steals (0.9 spg.) and 3-point accuracy (34.6 percent). Still, Gordon expects more out of himself and he said he hopes to use the final 2 ½ months of the season to improve as someone who makes others around him better.

``Court vision – being able to see the court,’’ Gordon said when asked what he wants to improve upon going forward. ``I see the court well when I’m on the right side of it and I have the ball in my right hand. But I don’t see the court well when I’m on the left side and I have the ball in my left hand, so I want to do a better job of seeing my teammates and making everyone better around me.’’

Gordon said the remedy is simply putting in hundreds, if not thousands of repetitions passing the pass with his left hand. He hopes that will fix one of the flaws in his game and make him a better player.

``I think it’s passing ability,’’ he said. ``My ability to pass with my right hand across my body is better than my ability to pass with my left hand across my body. I’ve got to improve on cross-court passes with my left. I think that will make me a better player and I think it will make my team better too. It’s just repping it.’’

KUZMA’S SURPRISE: The Magic clearly were intrigued by forward Kyle Kuzma in the weeks leading up to last June’s NBA Draft, bringing him into Orlando three different times for workouts and interviews. At that time, the Magic owned the Nos. 6, 25, 33 and 35 picks and Kuzma was expected to either be picked late in the first round or early in the second round.

After snagging Jonathan Isaac with the No. 6 pick, Orlando’s front office ultimately decided to trade away their No. 25 pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. Two picks later, the Lakers used a pick acquired from the Brooklyn Nets to snag Kuzma – an intriguing prospect from the University of Utah.

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Kuzma turned into an instant hit for the Lakers, leading their Summer League team in scoring (21.9 ppg.) and winning MVP honors in the championship game. He’s carried that over to his first NBA season where he ranks third in scoring (16.3 ppg.), fifth in rebounding (5.9 rpg.) and sixth in 3-point percentage (37.4 percent) among all NBA rookies. In December, he became the first Lakers’ rookie to have three straight 25-point scoring nights since Jerry West in the 1960-61 season.

His play has been a big surprise to most in the NBA, especially considering that he often struggled to make perimeter shots while in college. Include Walton into that mix of people shocked at how well Kuzma has played as a rookie.

``We obviously liked what we saw in studying him and going to the pre-draft camp in Chicago and having him work out for us in L.A., but – only speaking for myself – I assumed it would have taken him a lot longer to be able to play at a high level in this league,’’ Walton said. ``It just does most of the time. He’s a very hard worker, he wants to be great and he has ultimate confidence in himself. That’s a good combination to have in this league.’’

DEBUTING NEW UNIFORMS: The Magic debuted their ``City Edition’’ uniforms on Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Lakers – their fourth and final uniform design of the season in partnership with Nike.

The predominantly black uniforms feature a space-themed design and breaks away from the traditional pinstriped design that the franchise has sported for many of its 29 seasons.

According to a release, the uniform design ``celebrates the magic that exists in our solar system and beyond’’ by featuring ``a shimmery, cosmic look and feel.’’

The Magic will wear the ``City Edition’’ uniforms at various times throughout the 2017-18 season. Rules have been relaxed this season on teams wearing white or dark uniforms specifically at home games. The Magic will mix the ``City Edition’’ uniforms in with their ``Association,’’ ``Icon’’ and ``Statement’’ looks.

UP NEXT: After ending a five-day road trip in Houston on Tuesday and playing the Lakers in Orlando on Wednesday, the Magic will get a much-needed day off on Thursday. The team will return to the practice floor on Friday to prepare for Saturday’s home game against the Washington Wizards.

Orlando has already lost twice this season to the Wizards – both of them in Washington, D.C. and both of them with point guard John Wall in a starring role. Wall underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee on Tuesday and is expected to miss six-to-eight weeks. Tomas Santoransky started in place of Wall in Washington’s 102-96 defeat of Oklahoma City and missed all four of his field goal attempts.

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