ORLANDO – With Aaron Gordon headed toward the uncertainty of restricted free agency, the talented 22-year-old forward could have been playing his final game with the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night – a potential proposition that he not only doubted, but also refused to entertain.
``Not even in the least bit,’’ Gordon said. ``It’s a short time between the (June 21) draft and when free agents are available (July 1), but at the same time it’s a long time if that makes sense. There’s a lot that can happen within two-to-three months. But (Wednesday), I’m just looking to have fun.’’
When the Magic and Gordon couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract extension back in October, it meant that the 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward would become a restricted free agent on July 1. That’s when he will be able to sign a contractual offer sheet with another team and the Magic will have the right to match that deal in able to retain Gordon, a fourth-year pro who was the No. 4 pick of the 2014 NBA Draft.
Gordon came into Wednesday with seemingly quite the resume with which to head into free agency, averaging career highs this season in points (17.7), rebounds (8.0), assists (2.4), steals (1.0), blocks (0.8), minutes (33.3) and 3-point percentage (33.2).
However, Gordon’s start to the season and his finish have been dramatically different for a variety of reasons. In 28 games over October, November and December, Gordon averaged 18.8 points on 49.8 percent shooting and 41.2 percent accuracy from 3-point range.
He ended 2017 with a 39-point, seven-rebound and five-3-pointer effort against the Miami Heat. However, things quickly turned for Gordon after the calendar turned to 2018.
In 29 games in January, February, March and April prior to Wednesday’s finale, Gordon’s scoring average has dipped (16.6 ppg.) while his shooting from the floor (38.2 percent) and 3-point range (26.3 percent) have drastically plummeted.
Gordon said that the Feb. 8 trading of point guard Elfrid Payton, a hip injury in February and a second concussion of the season in March were to blame for his second-half drop off.
``It was a little bit of everything,’’ Gordon said. ``I played with (Payton) for three straight years, so losing him was a little bit of a change. Also, the concussions slowed me down a little bit with my body mechanics. You’re not able to work when you have a concussion, so that slowed me down a little bit.
``I’ve just got to speed back up,’’ he added. ``I think the speed of my game slowed down and I think that contributed to me being out of rhythm.’’
VUCEVIC, FOURNIER CONTEMPLATE FUTURE: During a recent conversation it dawned on Magic teammates and close friends Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier that they just might have played their final games together in Orlando because of the changes that could come to the team in the offseason.
Vucevic and Fournier are both under contract with Orlando for next season, but they are also very realistic with where the Magic stand after another season of struggles. They also are well aware that as professional athletes their futures are never guaranteed, and they could be traded at any time.
The partnership and friendship, built in part because of their abilities to speak the French language and their mutual love of the Star Wars series of movies, has lasted over four seasons in Orlando, and they’ve often assisted one another in leading the Magic. Vucevic has led the Magic in rebounding six straight years, while Fournier went into Wednesday as the team’s leading scorer for a second straight season.
Fournier’s season ended prematurely when he sprained his left knee, while Vucevic missed 25 games in December, January and February because of a fractured left hand. With the Orlando playing its regular-season finale on Wednesday, the two close friends and Magic leaders have been forced to contemplate potentially playing without one another in the uncertain future.
``When the season ends the way ours is going to end, a lot of these questions come up,’’ said Vucevic, the Magic’s longest-tenured player at six seasons. ``It’s something that’s out of our control and you can’t do anything about it. I try not to think about it, but – what’s our record now … 24-57 – if we were 57-24 we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We’d be talking about whether we could add another great player to come and join us.
``So, it comes with the territory,’’ Vucevic continued. ``When a team struggles, the front office is going to look at what’s been working and what hasn’t or what can be done for the team to be improved. There are a lot of possibilities, but I try not to think about it too much. It’s not my job to focus on personnel.’’
Added Fournier, who missed his 17thconsecutive game on Wednesday with the knee injury that is almost fully healed: ``It’s the nature of the business, so you don’t really think about it, to be honest. You just control what you can control. Obviously, we’re going to make moves this summer. It will be interesting to see what happens and we’ll live with it.’’
VOGEL HAPPY WITH TEAM CHEMISTRY, DEVELOPMENT: Statistically speaking, the Magic lost more player games to the core of the team because of injuries than any team in the NBA this season. Still, Magic coach Frank Vogel said he refuses to play the ``what if’’ game because the team simply wasn’t able to avoid the injury bug all season.
What Vogel said he was proud of was how the Magic stayed together despite their season-long struggles with little-to-no infighting. Chemistry, Vogel vowed, was never an issue for the Magic.
``I’ve enjoyed working with these guys this year and the player/coach relationships and this particular group has been strong and enjoyable,’’ Vogel said. ``They’re not always good. Sometimes you have a handful of guys that you really don’t click with, but we have a group that has been coachable, have enjoyed one another and fun to be around.’’
Vogel also thinks the Magic made strides in terms of developing their cluster of young players. Vogel pointed the improvements of Mario Hezonja, Jonathon Simmons, Jonathan Isaac, Khem Birch and Gordon as some of the highlights to the season.
``Definitely, I feel good and very rewarded with the individual growth of pretty much of everybody on our team,’’ Vogel said. ``It falls back on those relationships and you’re here to help these guys improve as basketball players, tie them together and have it contribute to winning. It hasn’t contributed to winning at the level that we want, but these guys have definitely improved and learned a lot. I’ve enjoyed the process of working with all of them.’’
T-ROSS BACK FOR THE FINALE: Magic guard Terrence Ross, who missed 4½ months with a sprained knee ligament and a tibial fracture, was scheduled to play his second game since returning on Wednesday night. Ross played 10 minutes in Sunday’s loss in Toronto, scoring three points and handing out two assists.
Vogel, who coached previously with the Indiana Pacers prior to taking over in Orlando, felt that Paul George’s return from a gruesome compound fracture of his leg at the end of the 2014-15 season set him on a course for success going forward. Getting in six games at the end of that season, Vogel said, helped George realize where he was in his recovery. He has always felt it was important for Ross to play this season so he has a baseline for where he stands going forward.
``Terrence will be back in there and get another game to get his comfort level back,’’ Vogel said. ``It’s just about getting comfortable, get hit a few times and shoot the ball with confidence, fight through some screens and run the floor. It’s just about being a basketball player. With as much time as he was out, it’s just another chance to give himself some confidence.’’
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