Magic Q & A with Scott Skiles

By John Denton
Sept. 24, 2015

ORLANDO – Never one to live in the past or get overly sentimental about much, Scott Skiles was reminded several times this summer that his career has come full circle in many ways.

As a gritty, overachieving point guard, Skiles became a fan favorite and a record-setter during his playing days with the Magic from 1989-94. Even today, many diehard Magic supporters still consider him to be their favorite player to ever don blue and black pinstripes.

Now that Skiles is back in Orlando as the Magic’s head coach, many of those fans have jumped at the chance to welcome him when he’s been out and about in public since his May 28 hiring. The magnitude of Skiles’ return to a place where so many have loved him for years sometimes gets lost on him, but the reminders have been a pleasant surprise.
``The reaction has been really positive,’’ said Skiles, who kept a house in Central Florida the past two decades long after his playing career here was over. ``A lot of people have come up to me and said that they’re glad I’m back and they’ve wished me luck. It’s just simple things like that, but it’s been nice.’’

While Skiles’ return is seemingly the stuff out of a storybook, the 51-year-old head coach is back with the Magic because they feel he is just the man to get the most out of a young roster teeming with talent. Skiles has a long history of turning around teams, winning with the Suns, Bulls and Bucks when those squads had previously struggled to find success.

Now, there is great hope that he can recreate some magic in Orlando once again. Light a fire under the Magic and win and Skiles just might go down in franchise lore right next to co-founder Pat Williams as one of the most important people in the organization’s history.

Skiles the coach is much like Skiles the player – he’s no nonsense and no frills; his intensity burns white hot, but his humor can be gut-splitting; and he still prides himself on outworking and outthinking foes and being willing to take on any challenges. The 6-foot-1 point guard who was once brazen enough to take a swing at 7-foot-1 behemoth center Shaquille O’Neal is now confident that he can take a Magic franchise that has struggled for three straight seasons and make it a winner again.

With Media Day set for tomorrow and the start of training camp on Saturday morning, Skiles took time out of his preparation to conduct a question-and-answer session with OrlandoMagic.com staff writer John Denton.

Skiles has already had to try and stomach two setbacks for the Magic: Guard Evan Fournier sprained an ankle in the final game of the European championship and will miss time at the start of training camp. Also, Aaron Gordon – Orlando’s star of summer-league play with his vastly improved offensive game – won’t be cleared for full-contact work until mid-October after suffering a fractured jaw in July.

QUESTION: What are your first impressions of the players on the roster after spending a summer getting to know them on and off the court? Are you pleased with how the players have worked this offseason to prepare for training camp?

SKILES: ``Everybody has obviously had a good summer and they have worked really hard. Everybody is coming into camp in shape. We have a lot of high character guys, which is great. They appear to be really eager and I think that they want to kind of put what’s happened behind them. This time of year, everybody is looking forward to the season, but there’s some real excitement here because of the talent that we have and the quality of the guys here.’’

QUESTION: In the months since you were hired by the Magic to be the head coach have you studied video of the players on the roster to learn more about their strengths and weaknesses? And have you spent time talking with them about your expectations for them this season?

SKILES: ``That’s the good thing about having a lot of them around this summer. We had guys around for summer league (in July) even though they didn’t all play in summer league. We had a lot of our veterans hanging around and we were able to start forming relationships, talk about the season they just had and where they think they are as players. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from everybody and that’s been great.

``On the other hand, we have been able to sit and talk about what we’re going to expect of them and what kind of team that we think we can have. You don’t want to go into too much depth in the summer because you want these guys freeing their minds and working on their games. But when we have our first team meeting (Friday) that will be the kickoff to our season and we’ll start hitting it hard.’’

QUESTION: You have mentioned several times already that you want this team to play with an up-tempo pace in everything that it does and you will also expect a defense-first mentality. Do you feel like this roster is capable of utilizing its young legs and athleticism while also being able to make major strides defensively?

SKILES: ``We’re going to get better defensively and there is no option there. We’re going to be a much-improved defensive team. How good we are right now, I don’t know that, but I know we’re going to be much-improved on defense. And the guys here are willing.

``And on the (offensive) end, we want to play with much better pace and stay in attack mode. The thing that we want to focus on with the guys is pressure. We want to put pressure on the other team to try and take them out of what they want to do. And then on offense, we want to apply pressure with our pace and put teams back on their heels. So that’s how we want use our youth and athleticism.

``I think our athleticism is staring us in the face with the way that we have to play to have success. But at the same time we know that we’re going to make some mistakes playing that way, especially early on. But we’re going to live with it and move on to the next play.’’

QUESTION: Because you and your staff are new I’m sure there will be lots of installation in training camp and the preseason. What would a successful preseason look like to you?

SKILES: ``Staying injury free is the main thing. I think we’re at a point with our team that’s different that a veteran team. If a team is a 50-plus win team that is perennial home-court (in the playoffs) team, then it’s just about staying injury-free and get through camp. We’re not that type of team and we really have to get our habits in order. If we’re going into the last week of preseason and we’re closing in on Opening Night and we feel that we’ve had way more days where we made progress – not perfection, but progress – we’ll take that. That means that those good days will start adding up. If on Day 4 of camp we’re noticeably better than Day 1 and it keeps building, we’ll be a lot better as we go along.’’

QUESTION: Coaches all look at the totality of a team, but it seems like the power forward position is one where the most uncertainty lies. Have you started thinking of combinations and rotations that you want to use at that spot in hopes of shoring up some of the deficiencies that have troubled the Magic in the recent past?

SKILES: ``The thing is that there are a lot of different ways that we can go at that spot. Especially early on in camp, we’ll be mixing guys up on all different teams against one another. We’ve got to take a look at different things and see how it all looks together.

``Knowing the (up-tempo) style that we want to play, that’s why it stings a little bit that Evan (Fournier) and Aaron (Gordon) aren’t quite ready for camp. So making those final decisions will likely have to come further along in camp. But that’s OK. Our main focus in camp and the exhibition season will be making sure that everybody is embracing the way that we want to play. Then, we’ll worry about dividing up positions and stuff like that.’’

QUESTION: You are known as a no-nonsense coach who drives players hard in order to get the best out of them. Will you have to remind yourself at times that the roster is still full of incredibly young players, namely with rookie Mario Hezonja and 21-year-old point guard Elfrid Payton?

SKILES: ``I’ve done this before. I really think my first Chicago team is really similar to this one. You know that going in that they are young. I remember struggling as a young NBA player and I wasn’t nearly as good as these guys. I understand that it takes time.

``I really think one of the things that has happened to these guys is when you lose and you have a possession where you have done everything right and the other team scores, the shoulders would start to sag. We have to realize this is the NBA and guys are going to occasionally score. Hopefully not as much against us, but they are going to. And when they do, we have to take that ball out and go. We have to project that we expect to win. We’re going to play to win no matter what. And more than not, we’re going to play harder than the other guys.’’

QUESTION: OK, time for rapid fire. Let’s get your opinions on some of the core players back on the team.

SKILES on Nikola Vucevic: ``He’s a very, very talented player. He can post, he can shoot, he moves around the floor well and he’s a very good dribble hand-off guy. We just have to help him improve on the defensive end.’’

SKILES on Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton: ``I think we should be an upper-tier defensive backcourt with keeping guys in front of them, knowing our schemes and directing the other guys around to the right places. And offensively, I want those two playing with a lot of juice. I want them playing unselfishly, penetrating and kicking and running our team.’’

SKILES on Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon: ``The Tobias/Aaron thing is very interesting because of their versatility. Tobias has established himself now as a scorer in the league, he can rebound and he’s an all-around good offensive player. He’s still working on his defense, but he’s gotten better. Aaron is still trying to emerge into something. He’s really worked on his game this summer. You’d have to be blind to not see the improvement that he showed in the summer league games that he played.
``So that’s an interesting situation with those guys there. Do we play small more often than not? Do we play them together? Aaron has the ability to guard (small forwards) maybe better than Tobias, so we’ll see.

``Normally, that stuff will work itself out and it will show itself to you (in practices and preseason games). If it doesn’t and you have a difficult decision, so be it. But whatever decision you make on Opening Night, you’d like to keep it that way for a period of time. But if it doesn’t shake out and you arbitrarily have to make a decision, we’ll make it. But we’ll look at all of the lineups and look at all of the data and see which ones are really good together. You hope that it shakes out with their play.’’

On Mario Hezonja: ``(Learning to play under control) is something that all young players have to figure out, especially the really talented ones. It’s going to be a very interesting camp for Mario because he’s been playing (in the Euro Championships) and he’s just taken a few days off while getting back here. It was good that he was able to be here during the summer league so that he could get a brief overview of how we want to do things. But now, it will be about him suiting up in that first exhibition game, being out there with other NBA players and playing. It will be interesting how he reacts.

``There’s no question in my mind that over time, he’s going to be a high level NBA player. It’s just a matter of when. We just want to help him get there as quick as he can while also being mindful of the fact that we’re not rushing him and we’re letting him settle in. He’s living in a foreign country and there are a lot of cultural things going on for him. But fortunately he’s fluent and can speak and understand English. But still there’s a lot that he and his family are going through and we want to make it as easy as we can.’’

QUESTION: You have said publicly that, more than simply making the playoffs, you want this Magic team to have a winning record. After getting to know the players better and analyzing their skills do you see the pieces in place to have a winning season in your first year as the Magic’s head coach?

SKILES: ``Yes, I do. My full intention is that when this regular season is over we will have a winning record.’’