By John Denton Dec. 27, 2017
ORLANDO – As one of the most veteran players on the Orlando Magic, 30-year-old center Marreese Speights has had hundreds of conversations with the team’s younger players and there’s usually a common thread to the advice that he doles out.
``You never know when this game is going to get taken away from you, and that happens to a lot of people, so you have to cherish it every time you get to play,’’ Speights said of his message as a Magic mentor. ``You have to understand this is bigger than what you think it is. I never take it for granted putting that (NBA) jersey on.’’
Speights’ Magic are going through another rough stretch, having dropped a ninth straight game on Tuesday night in Miami, but the 10-year NBA veteran is doing his best to try and keep his teammates’ spirits up with his encouraging words of advice. His role on the Magic isn’t the biggest by any stretch, but his importance just might be because of what he contributes in term of culture, chemistry and camaraderie. Speights said he’s had the good fortune of being around good leaders his whole career, and his job now is to pass on his knowledge to the Magic’s young players.
``My rookie year I was around guys like Donyell Marshall and Theo Ratliff (in Philadelphia) and then I went to Memphis and I was around (Zach Randolph) and Tony Allen,’’ Speights recalled. ``And being around those Golden State guys and Coach (Steve) Kerr, he would always preach having fun, sacrificing and playing for each other.
``Like I said the other day, we’re around each other more than our families, so when we step on this court we have to give it all for each other,’’ he added.
One of Speights’ most eager pupils, Aaron Gordon, could be close to making a return on Thursday night when the Magic (11-24) host the Detroit Pistons (19-14). Gordon, who has missed the past four games with a right calf strain, not only practiced fully on Wednesday, but he stuck around the Amway Center long after his teammates to get in extra sprint, shooting and lifting work. If Gordon’s calf is strong and absent of the lingering pain he’s felt much of the past week, he’ll most likely slide right back into the starting lineup on Thursday for a Magic team that has been beset by injuries most of December.
``It felt OK and I’m slowly progressing my way back, but we’ll see how I feel (on Thursday) and how my body responds,’’ said Gordon, Orlando’s leading scorer at 18.3 points per game. ``Overall, I feel good and it’s good to be back out there.’’
Gordon, 22, said he’s benefitted greatly from having Arron Afflalo and Speights as teammates this season and he usually goes to one of both of them daily for advice on various topics. Afflalo and Gordon sit next to one another on the Magic plane, while Gordon’s dressing stall at the Amway Center is separated from Speights’ locker only by a storage area. Their combined 21 years of NBA experience have helped Gordon learn patience as he’s dealt with concussion and calf injuries of late.
``(Speights) and Arron Afflalo, they have probably been the best veterans that I have ever had since I’ve been in Orlando,’’ Gordon gushed. ``Those are two guys who have been around the league a long time, and Mo has won (a championship) and Arron has been around winning teams. They’re really smart, they really understand the game and they see me for who I really am. That’s the biggest thing and they have a really good understanding for how winning teams operate.’’
Speights, who is averaging 6.8 points and 2.2 rebounds while shooting 35.7 percent from 3-point range in his first season with the Magic, learned lots about winning during his three seasons with the Warriors from 2013-16. He was a top reserve on the Golden State team that won the title in 2014-15 and he was again a key piece on the Warriors’ squad that won 73 regular-season games and lost in Game 7 of the 2015-16 NBA Finals.
Magic coach Frank Vogel said it is vital that teams have older players on the roster who have experienced winning at a high level because of the advice that they can offer up to younger players. Vogel has been extremely impressed with Speights’ knowledge of the game and his willingness to play any role for the Magic.
``One, he’s very intelligent and he’s got a great basketball IQ on the floor,’’ Vogel said of Speights, who has eight double-digit scoring games this season and 13 nights with multiple made 3-pointers. ``He also has a good feel for culture, how to lead young guys and how positive chemistry is achieved. He’s definitely been a positive force for us this year.’’
With Nikola Vucevic likely out a couple of months after needing surgery to repair a fractured bone in his left hand, Speights figures to be in more of a primary role for the Magic going forward. Bismack Biyombo got the start on Tuesday in Miami, but it was Speights who kept the Magic within striking range of the Heat with his ability to pile up points quickly. In just 17 minutes of action, Speights had 12 points, six rebounds, two 3-pointers and a steal. He showed signs of his abilities as a rapid-fire scorer earlier in the season when he scored 18 points and hit six 3-pointers in New Orleans on Nov. 30 and tallied 19 points in 18 minutes in Denver on Nov. 11.
Speights’ final 3-pointer on Tuesday came early in the fourth quarter and it got Orlando within 72-71, but that’s as close as the Magic would get in what dissolved into a disappointing 107-89 loss to the rival Heat. Still, he thought there was plenty from that game that Orlando could build upon in the days and games ahead. The Magic got Evan Fournier and Jonathan Isaac back from injuries on Tuesday and now Gordon could be close to coming back as well. The Magic led the Heat by as much as 11 points in Tuesday’s first half and by 10 points midway through the third quarter before too many turnovers ruined the night. Speights saw signs of the Magic getting close to breaking out of a slump that has soured their season.
``Even in shootaround (on Tuesday morning), there was a good focus and energy,’’ Speights said. ``The way we played was a good start. We lost, but we’ll bounce back. We’re going to get out of this slump. Everybody is excited again.’’
Speights’ positivity stems, in part, from the fact that he is living out a dream this season by playing for the Magic. A native of St. Petersburg, Speights grew up a fan of the Magic and his favorite players were Shaquille O’Neal, Nick Anderson and later Tracy McGrady. A first-round pick in 2008, Speights had dreams of someday donning the Magic pinstripes, but he instead bounced around the NBA while playing for the 76ers, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Warriors and Clippers. When the chance arose last summer to return to Central Florida, Speights jumped at the chance.
Being close to Florida’s Bay Area, Speights usually has a contingent of family and friends at every game and he often returns to his home area to visit with those still close to him. He also sponsors a local AAU team and he’s had the players from his team at several games thus far.
``Family comes to most of the games and I get to go home all the time, so it’s been good,’’ said Speights, who said he averages having about 10 family and friends at every weekend home game. ``We haven’t really been winning, that’s the only bad thing. But it’s a dream and we’ve got to enjoy this journey and get through it. One we’ll look back and say, `Man, how did we ever lose nine in a row or 10 in a row?’’’
Speights knows that his words carry weight in the Magic’s locker room because he owns a championship ring. But others around him also listen because he’s had a career with longevity – quite an accomplishment for a player who’s had to play off the bench most of his career. The fact that he’s made it to his 10th season in the NBA is a strong source of pride and it makes him cherish this stage of his career even more. Someday he might even go into coaching, but for now he wants to stick around as a player as long as possible.
``Where I’m from, I wasn’t supposed to be in the NBA and to be here after going through all of the ups and downs and (times) when I was almost out of the league, to still wake up and be a NBA player, I don’t take that for granted,’’ Speights said. ``I’ve played 10 years in the league and I plan on playing more, but 10 years is a great accomplishment.’’
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