Magic in Position to Build Off Last Season’s Strong Finish After Re-Signing Vucevic, Ross and Adding Aminu
ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic’s top offseason priority of building off the surge of momentum created by last season’s stirring run to the playoffs received a major boost on Saturday when the franchise officially signed two of their cornerstone pieces and added some veteran depth.
Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross, key forces in the Magic’s NBA-best 17-win improvement and run to the postseason last spring with their respective career-year performances, agreed to multi-year contracts early in the free-agent courting process and made things official on July 6 – the first date players and teams are allowed by the NBA to consummate deals.
Also looking to improve upon the team that went 22-9 down the stretch and beat the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs, the Magic boldly added to their frontline by signing versatile forward Al-Farouq Aminu away from the Portland Trail Blazers. Pairing the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Aminu with the 6-foot-9 Aaron Gordon, 6-foot-11 Jonathan Isaac and 7-foot centers Mo Bamba and Vucevic should give the Magic a chance to clog the paint with size and become one of the NBA’s most smothering defenses. Like Gordon, Isaac and rookie Chuma Okeke – the No. 16 pick in the June NBA Draft who likely won’t play until the spring because of a knee injury suffered in the NCAA Tournament – Aminu can play either forward slot and is as adept guarding players on the wing as he is in the post.
Retaining Vucevic, a seven-year Magic veteran, was seen a major priority for Orlando because of what he gives the team in terms of scoring, playmaking, defensive size and leadership. Ross, who like Vucevic is 28 years old, was also viewed as a key piece on the roster because of his ability to pile up points in bunches and create his own shot late in games and late in expiring shot clock situations. As much as the Magic expressed a wish to have Vucevic and Ross back heading into free agency, the two players also said repeatedly that their first wish was to remain in Orlando and help the Magic continue to build off their success of last season.
Orlando had the NBA’s fifth-best record after Jan. 31, going 22-9 in February, March and April to push its way into the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Now, the Magic’s internal hope is that they can build off the continuity of having both head coach Steve Clifford and much of the same roster together again.
Acquired in the four-team, 12-player trade centered around Dwight Howard in 2012, Vucevic is easily the longest-tenured player on the Magic’s roster and someone who greatly pined for success after suffering through six seasons of rebuilding prior to the team breaking through this past season.
The 7-foot native of Montenegro did his best to make that happen, averaging career highs in scoring (20.8), rebounding (12.0), assists (3.8), blocks (1.1) and 3-point shooting (36.4 percent). In addition to joining Shaquille O’Neal and Howard as the only Magic players ever to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds a game in a season, Vucevic ranked eighth in the NBA in Real Plus-Minus (on-court impact measured in point differential per 100 possessions) – a spot behind superstar forward Anthony Davis and one spot ahead of four-time MVP LeBron James.
Vucevic struggled in the playoffs after running up against Toronto’s Marc Gasol. In five games, Vucevic shot just 36.2 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from the 3-point line and mustered only 11.2 points and 8.0 rebounds a game. Still, those struggles did not dissuade the Magic from working feverishly to keep Vucevic among their core this offseason.
Just as Vucevic took full advantage of playing in a Clifford system that trusted him to score and make plays with his passing, Ross thrived off the Magic’s bench as a go-to scorer and often a first-option threat late in games. A wildly erratic player much of the first six seasons of his NBA career, Ross’ green light to shoot and make plays in pick-and-roll sets – often with Vucevic – allowed him to display more consistency and production last season than ever before.
In his six seasons prior with Toronto and Orlando, Ross scored at least 20 points 29 times - but just once consecutively (Nov. 30-Dec. 2, 2014 with the Raptors). This past season with the Magic, he had 20 games with at least 20 points. He had two instances early in season where he scored 20 points consecutively (22 on Nov. 11 in New York and 21 on Nov. 12 in Washington; and 26 on Feb. 5 in Oklahoma City and 32 on Feb. 7 vs. Minnesota). Then, he closed the regular season with the best basketball of his career to help Orlando qualify for a playoff slot. Over the final four games of the regular season, Ross went off for 23 points (vs. New York), 25 points (vs. Atlanta), 26 points (vs. Boston) and 35 points (vs. Charlotte).
For the season, the 6-foot-7, 210-pound guard posted career-bests in scoring (15.1), rebounds (3.5) and assists (1.7). Additionally, Ross became the first player in NBA history to make at least 200 3-pointers (217) without starting a game.
Another factor that made Ross a unique and especially dynamic weapon for the Magic was his ability to raise the level of his game in fourth quarters. In the regular season and playoffs, Orlando notched 11 victories after entering the fourth quarter trailing – second in the NBA only to Detroit’s 12 fourth-quarter rallies. Ross had a big hand in those heroics, averaging a team-best 5.3 points over the fourth quarters of games. Many of his biggest performances of the season – he had four 30-point nights, 20 20-point performances and 16 instances where he led the team in scoring – came following big fourth-quarter performances. In addition to helping the Magic rally late against Philadelphia, Houston and Boston, Ross especially tormented the Indiana Pacers with three stirring performances in the fourth quarter to lift Orlando to wins each time.
Aminu, who will turn 29 in September, has made it to the playoffs in each of his past five NBA seasons and he was a driving force on Portland’s postseason squads the past four years. This past season, he played 81 of 82 regular-season games, averaging 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds a game while shooting 43.3 percent from the floor and 34.3 percent from 3-point range.
Over his nine-year NBA career, Aminu has averaged 7.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.0 blocks while shooting 42.3 percent from the floor and 33.7 percent from 3-point range.
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