Magic's Summer League Opener Will Feature Several Big Storylines
Magic take on Nets on Friday at 5 p.m. ET on NBA TV
LAS VEGAS – Some of the storylines heading into the Orlando Magic’s first game of the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League on Friday are crystal clear what with rookie center Mo Bamba making his debut, Jonathan Isaac showing off his growing game and new head coach Steve Clifford putting his first imprints on the franchise.
Some of the other storylines, such as the golden opportunity available for unheralded point guard Isaiah Briscoe, might not be so obvious. If you don’t exactly know Briscoe’s name or story, don’t worry because he’s had to churn his way through basketball’s back waters to get to this point.
With D.J. Augustin being the only the Magic’s only point guard on the roster and the threshold for free-agent signings not set to drop until noon on Friday, Orlando could be looking to its Summer League roster as a means of providing depth at the lead guard position. Enter Briscoe, a 22-year-old, defensive-minded player who was once considered to be the top high school point guard in the nation, but someone who also had to claw his way to NBA consideration by playing in Estonia.
``I think I’ve got a good shot,’’ said Briscoe, referring to his chances of playing well enough this week to land an invite to the Magic’s training camp in September. `Starting out on Friday, playing as hard as I can, hopefully I will play well and find me a spot on the team.’’
While Briscoe will be one to watch on Friday when the Magic face the Brooklyn Nets at 5 p.m. ET (ESPN 2), the spotlight will undoubtedly focus on the professional debut of Bamba, the 7-footer who was the No. 6 pick of last month’s NBA Draft. Bamba possesses the longest wingspan ever recorded in NBA history and he’s worked diligently over the last three months to grow his game and add in a reliable 3-point shot.
The 20-year-old 7-footer will get a test right off the bat as he will go against Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen, a standout last season as an NBA rookie when he averaged 8.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.22 blocks over 72 games and 31 starts. Then, on Sunday and Monday, Bamba could be slated to face two players who were taken before him in the NBA Draft – Memphis’ No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. and Phoenix’s No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton. Bamba, who is bubbling with confidence despite nursing a minor knee bruise, is eager to show off what he can do.
``They just want me to be aggressive in everything. That’s kind of the theme that I have gotten from every one of the coaches – they want me to be aggressive, they want to throw the ball inside and they want me to score,’’ Bamba said this week following a Magic practice in Las Vegas. ``Just sharpen up the edges and adjust to the pros as quick as possible.’’
Isaac, Orlando’s No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, will also be looking to make an impression after spending the early portion of this offseason working to add muscle to his frame and grow his game. Much of his rookie season was marred by injuries – he missed twice as many games (55) as he played in (27) – and he’s hoping his aggressive approach to the offseason will allow him to better play through contact.
Clifford, who was hired on May 30 by the Magic, is excited about the Orlando job ahead because of the dynamic young talent that the team has assembled. It’s his job to get those young players up to speed as quickly as possible, and that’s one reason the veteran head coach was extremely hands on during Tuesday’s first practice sessions in Las Vegas. After all, Clifford said, it’s never too soon to start building a winning culture.
``The goal has to be that by the time that we start on Sept. 26 (for training camp) that the players don’t feel like it’s the first day that we’ve worked together,’’ said Clifford, who will allow assistant coach Pat Delany to coach the Magic during the summer league action. ``That’s why having so many of these (roster) guys here is a big advantage. … Just having a chance to be out there and see who learns quickly and start to develop a player/coach relationship is important.’’
Whether or not Clifford will be working in training camp with a point guard like the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Briscoe remains to be seen. Orlando has liked what it has seen so far from Briscoe in an Orlando mini-camp and the four practices on Tuesday and Wednesday in Las Vegas. He came to camp ready and in rhythm after winning a league title in Estonia and capturing MVP honors in the Estonia/Latvia All-Star Game back in February with a 50-point night.
``That was a great experience and a fun game,’’ Briscoe recalled. ``I just had it rolling. Our coach (from his BC Kalev team) was the head coach, so I actually had an advantage there. He let me play how I play and I ended up scoring 50.’’
Briscoe, a native of Newark, N.J., once seemed to be a can’t-miss target for the NBA after being named to the Parade and McDonald’s All-American teams. That led him to the University of Kentucky where he hoped to follow in the footsteps of John Wall, Derrick Rose, Eric Bledsoe, De’Aaron Fox and Tyler Ulis, who all reached the NBA after playing for head coach John Calipari.
However, things didn’t go quite as planned at Kentucky, where he was often forced to play off the ball because of a glut of talented Wildcat point guards. He shot just 14 percent from beyond the 3-point line as a freshman, but rallying to average 12.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists as a sophomore at Kentucky.
That wasn’t enough to get him drafted, and stints with Philadelphia (in the Summer League) and Portland (in the preseason) failed. That led him to Estonia where Briscoe ultimately won the Russian league’s Young Player of the Year award after averaging 18.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.6 assists. In 16 games of a Russian league that is widely respected among basketball talent evaluators, he averaged an impressive 22 points and 4.0 assists while shooting 37 percent from 3-point range and 71.7 percent from the free throw line – areas where he struggled in college.
He didn’t pick up much of the language while in Estonia, falling back on that country’s use of English as a second language. The language he listened to most was the one of talent evaluators who told him he had to become more of a leader and playmaker for teams.
``I always take criticism the right way and try to use it to help my game as much as possible,’’ Briscoe said. ``That was what I heard for the most part – work on my point guard skills. That’s what I did, and I had a year away from all the distractions – away from a lot of people – for me to actually focus, learn more about myself, work on my game and just polish myself up.’’
The toughness that he plays and the leadership that he shows in organizing his teammates has caught the eye of the Magic coaching staff so far. They are eager to see if he can continue it in Summer League games starting on Friday.
``Toughness, competitiveness – that’s stuff that as coaches we can’t even teach,’’ Delany said. ``It’s in his DNA and you can see that in him.
``It is perfect all the time? No, but he’s a willing listener,’’ Delany added. ``He’s willing to get better. And that type of (work ethic) just accentuates itself to everybody else on the team. He’s been a leader and a tough guy. His game has continued to grow even in the short time that we’ve had him.’’
If that continues to happen, Briscoe knows that he could find himself playing in the NBA – instead of Estonia – next season. Nothing against Estonia, a place that he speaks incredibly highly of, but Briscoe wants to accomplish the dream of playing in the NBA. That’s where he thought he’d be after becoming one of the nation’s top prospects. He might just get there after last season’s detour, but he isn’t about to stress about it now.
``Now that I’m back over here (in America), I’m like, `This is what you’ve been working for; this is it and go out there and play how you know how to play,’’ said Briscoe, who added that he is comfortable at playing point guard or shooting guard. ``There’s no pressure on me. Once I start thinking that there’s no pressure, life’s easy, the game’s easy for me. I’ll just go out there and play how I know how to play.’’
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