By John Denton Dec. 16, 2017
DETROIT – When the Orlando Magic strategically moved their G League affiliate from Erie, Pa., to nearby Lakeland this past summer, they envisioned a week like this one unfolding and ultimately greatly benefiting the NBA parent club.
With the Magic beset by a rash of injuries and down five of their top players, they turned to the Lakeland Magic of the G League to provide reinforcements – not only for Wednesday night’s home game against the Los Angeles Clippers, but also for the practices as players prepped for the game. With the Magic still shorthanded later in the week, those players practiced with the team again on Thursday and fortified the bench on Friday against Portland.
Little of this would have been possible without the Magic deciding to relocate their G League franchise a short drive away so that needed players could be shuttled back and forth in a matter of hours. Jeff Weltman, the Magic’s President of Basketball Operations, said the franchise has a system in place now that should benefit all involved for years to come.
``It’s a huge advantage to have the G League team in our backyard,’’ said Weltman, who was hired in late May to run the basketball side of the Magic. ``The most important thing, which we experienced this week, is the transition between the two teams is seamless. If we have an injury, we can have a G League guy with us that night and he knows what we’re running, he’s familiar with all the sets and the coaching staff. That just wouldn’t be possible if they were a thousand miles away.’’
Debilitating injuries to key players Evan Fournier (sprained ankle), Aaron Gordon (a concussion and now a right calf strain), Jonathan Isaac (ankle sprain), Terrence Ross (knee sprain) and Arron Afflalo (back spasms) prompted the Magic (11-19) to utilize the new system between Orlando and Lakeland this week for the first time. With Gordon suffering a strained right calf muscle on Friday, Orlando might be forced to rely on its G League fill-ins on Sunday when it faces the Pistons in snowy Detroit. Tipoff is at 4 p.m.
The Magic summoned forwards Jamel Artis and Adriean Payne to Orlando on Monday night so that they could be at the Amway Center for Tuesday morning’s practice. The only catch was that G League Magic had a game Tuesday night back in Lakeland.
That minor hitch ultimately didn’t matter at all as both players practiced with the NBA team on Tuesday morning, napped in their Orlando hotel for a couple of hours and then were driven back to Lakeland for that night’s game. Payne had 26 points and eight rebounds, while Artis not only contributed 22 points and three 3-pointers, but he also delivered the assist on the game-winning shot that allowed Lakeland to defeat the Windy City Bulls 117-116. Khem Birch, who was also brought to Orlando for Wednesday’s NBA game, contributed 17 points, nine rebounds, six assists and five blocks a night earlier for Lakeland.
``(Tuesday) was pretty long after we practiced, got a little nap in and then headed back to Lakeland for a game that went down to the wire and my legs are a little fatigued, but I want to play on this (NBA) stage right here,’’ said Artis, a University of Pittsburgh product who briefly got into Wednesday’s game for his NBA debut. ``Even before getting to Orlando, I’ve known I would have to work hard and I’ve always known that I belong here. It’s just a matter of time for me and timing is everything. I’m blessed to have this opportunity.’’
PROXIMITY A KEY
For years, the proximity between the Magic’s G League affiliate and Orlando kept the franchise from getting the maximum usage from its development team.
With the Magic previously linked to the Erie (Pa.) Bayhawks, players sent to the G League would have to fly from Orlando to Buffalo and then take a car to Erie – often a treacherous trip because of the propensity for snow and ice during the winter months. Recalling players on short notice simply wasn’t possible because of the logistics involved in getting them to and from Erie.
As a result, the Magic utilized the Erie team just six times in 2014-15 (all with Devyn Marble), seven times in 2015-16 (Dewayne Dedmon, Keith Appling and Marble) and eight times in 2016-17 (Stephen Zimmerman and C.J. Wilcox).
Just a third of the way into this season, the Magic have already made 17 moves involving the G League affiliate in Lakeland.
Birch, who made the Magic’s Opening Night roster with his strong play in training camp, has been shipped to Lakeland five times to keep his skills sharp. Payne and Artis, who carry the designation as ``two-way players’’ meaning they can be more freely called up, will be with the Magic a third straight game on Sunday in Detroit.
Iwundu, Orlando’s second-round pick in the June NBA Draft, has benefitted the most from his three trips to the G League and his eight games with Lakeland. He scored 31 points in his G League debut on Nov. 10 and had another 23 points in a game with Lakeland on Nov. 19 – performances that kept his skills sharp when Magic head coach Frank Vogel tabbed him to make his first NBA start on Wednesday against the Clippers. He had six points, three rebounds and two assists – numbers that likely wouldn’t have been possible without the game reps he got at the D League level.
``It’s been an unbelievable opportunity to be up here, playing at the highest level and it’s not something that I take for granted,’’ said Iwundu, who averaged 16.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 steals in eight D League games. ``I’ve come here to work hard and try and make the team better. For sure, Lakeland helped me because it’s real convenient, right down the road and it’s been good for me to go down there and stay in shape and work on my craft.’’
Added Weltman: ``Even from the standpoint of just getting reps, having the G League team just down the road is so important. Having a young guy who we think maybe won’t get in an Orlando game that night can practice or play with the G League team and get real reps. It’s a way for when young guys aren’t getting reps they can stay sharp and when they get called upon, they’re ready. So, when Wes Iwundu is in the starting lineup, it’s because he was in the G League refining his skills and working on his shot and he’s ready to play. Typically, that guy might have had real rust issues after being on the bench for a third of the season. Now, with Lakeland there as an option, that’s not the case.’’
A SEAMLESS TRANSITION
The Magic have worked to make sure the relationship between the parent club and the G League franchise is a symbiotic one.
Former Magic player and long-time scout Anthony Parker serves as the GM of a Lakeland franchise that entered Saturday 10-5 and atop the Southeast Division standings, while fellow Magic employee Adetunji Adedipe is the assistant GM.
Lakeland head coach Stan Heath, who attended Wednesday’s game in Orlando, spent training camp with the Magic to learn the style of offense and defense that Vogel would be running so the he could implement much of the same system in the G League. Having the same systems in place makes it easier for players who are called up to the parent club to be ready to play in a moment’s notice.
Having the G League franchise closer and being strategically tied to the parent club has already paid dividends for the Magic. Weltman believes that having the two franchises working hand in hand will ultimately pay major dividends for both the Orlando and Lakeland Magic.
``With Anthony Parker and Tunji Adedipe being hands on with the G League stuff, it’s another way that everything translates seamlessly because they are part of the Orlando Magic,’’ he said. ``Even from a management standpoint and having (Lakeland head coach) Stan (Heath) spend time with our coaches, it’s all kind of meshed as one. That’s the beauty of having it so close and we’re seeing so many great benefits already.’’
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