Nicholson Emerging as Key Reserve for Magic

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By John Denton

Dec. 2, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY – The shot clock dying and his Orlando Magic in need of a basket on Tuesday night in Minnesota, Andrew Nicholson caught the ball on the left block of the lane and proceeded in his own measured and deliberate way.

``Go to work,’’ Magic point guard Shabazz Napier barked at Nicholson as he cut through the lane after dropping off the ball to the big man.

Nicholson peered over his left shoulder into the chest of Minnesota center Gorgui Dieng and purposefully gave a shimmy-shake toward the center of the lane. Seemingly oblivious to the shot clock being down to its final clicks, Nicholson spun back baseline and showed the ball again, making Dieng think that he was about to get an easy blocked shot. Calmly and confidently, Nicholson pulled the ball back in, waited for Dieng to fly past with a helpless shriek on his face. Then, Nicholson almost casually stepped through and finished off the virtuoso play with a one-handed dunk.

The move was both simplistic and artistic – like something you might see on grainy Kevin McHale footage from the 1980s. The ballet-like footwork used on the play made Dieng look foolish and it had Orlando’s reserves up off the bench celebrating and chuckling. But, as for Nicholson, he just stared blankly ahead in his usual ho-hum manner.

``They know what I can do,’’ Nicholson said on Wednesday, still somewhat incredulous to his pat move still working against overeager foes, ``but I still just do it.’’

Maybe more surprising than the Magic’s four-game winning streak – the first of its kind by the franchise since Dec. 14-19 of 2012 – has been the shocking reemergence of Nicholson. Following a promising rookie season in 2012-13, Nicholson was pulled out of the post, used on the perimeter and seemingly all of the confidence in his game vanished. Things were so bad that the rarely even got on the floor for Magic teams that won just 23 and 25 games the past two seasons.

This season seemed to be heading the same way for Nicholson before a recent string of stellar play that came because he was ready when his opportunity finally came back around. He’ll likely get another opportunity to play big minutes on Thursday night when the Magic (10-8) face the Utah Jazz (8-8).

Though his career was seemingly once given up for dead, Nicholson was in the middle of the action on Tuesday night carrying the Magic’s offense for long stretches in the guts of the game and on the floor down the stretch. Ultimately, his two free throws with 3.1 seconds remaining helped the Magic defeat Minnesota 96-93 and win for a fourth straight time.

Nicholson graduated with a degree in physics from St. Bonaventure and Magic coach Scott Skiles has raved about his smarts, but just don’t expect him to ever go into great depth explaining how he’s stayed prepared for this moment for Orlando. He said that working – early sessions in the weight room and post-practice rounds of shooting – had him poised to play well when the Magic finally looked his way. It’s not sexy, but it’s the formula that Nicholson has used to become an unlikely hero in this Magic resurgence this season.

``Working is the only thing that I know, really. When things aren’t going your way, you just keep working and you’ll eventually be rewarded,’’ said Nicholson, who is averaging 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds on the season. ``I just continued to work. Once you put in the extra work – you reap what you sew, right? – so I just kept working so that I’d be ready when the opportunity came.’’

Nicholson, who will turn 26 next Tuesday, has become somewhat emblematic of a Magic roster where Skiles isn’t afraid to use any player at any time to help Orlando win a game. In fact, the whole four-game winning streak came after Skiles moved standout guard Victor Oladipo into a reserve role, started Channing Frye at power forward and elevated Nicholson to a top reserve spot. The 6-foot-9, 250-pounder in his fourth NBA season has given Orlando big sparks of late, averaging 11.4 points and 6.2 rebounds over the last five games by mixing his low-post artistry with his often overlooked skill as a 3-point shooter.

And Nicholson has been able to stay on the floor for longer stretches this season because he – like Frye – has been a competent defender. Nicholson’s career has been reborn because of growth like this on the defensive end of the floor: His individual defensive rating this season is 93.9 (points allowed per 100 possessions). The previous three seasons: 103.2 in 2012-13, 102.3 in 2013-14 and 104.2 in 2014-15.

``People said (Nicholson didn’t play) because of his defense, but we won 25 and 23 games (the last two seasons), so who was really playing defense on those teams?’’ Frye joked. ``You see us playing team defense now and we’re all a lot better. For him, he just needed some structure and this has proven to be the right opportunity for him and he’s taking advantage of it now.’’

Nicholson has been quick to credit Frye for helping him stay sharp while he wasn’t playing. The two of them would often lift weights together and play one-on-one pick-up games before practice. Frye said that outside of Charlotte center Al Jefferson, Nicholson might have the NBA’s best pump-fake move in the post – a play that has ``barbequed’’ him several times in those pre-practice one-on-one games.

``I’ve always been down for making sure that guys like ‘Drew understand that I’ve been in every situation possible – starting, not getting minutes to having to work my way off the DNPs (Did Not Play) to even this year starting again, so I just told him to stay ready,’’ Frye said. ``I just told him to have his routine right so that when you do play you have that confidence in what you do.’’

The 19th pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, Nicholson averaged 7.8 points and 3.4 rebounds as a rookie. Because he showed an ability to shoot the mid-range jumper, the decision was made by the previous coaching staff to try and use him as a 3-point shooter. That decision backfired horribly each of the past two seasons – he shot 31.5 percent and 31.7 percent from the 3-point line – and all of those misses even zapped his confidence around the basket. Looking back on it now with the benefit of some perspective, Nicholson knows that he is best suited playing primarily on the low block and occasionally stepping outside – and not vice versa. He credits his play with the Canadian National Team over the summer and Skiles’ belief in him for the turnaround.

``They did stick me in the corner a bunch of times. I guess I did sort of trail away from the rim, but I’ve gotten both parts of my game back together now,’’ Nicholson said. ``I knew what I did my rookie year, but I didn’t get much of an opportunity after that. I’m getting one now and I’m ready for it.’’

Even though Nicholson hadn’t played much the past two seasons, Skiles was quite familiar with him from his college days at St. Bonaventure. The coach for the Milwaukee Bucks three seasons ago, Skiles scouted Nicholson as a college player and loved his impeccable footwork around the basket.

Skiles lauded both Nicholson and Frye for keeping themselves ready early in the season despite getting little playing time while Orlando gave most of the power forward minutes to Tobias Harris. Skiles first turned to Nicholson on Nov. 18 in Orlando’s first meeting with Minnesota, and he provided a second-half spark in a victory. And last week in Cleveland, when the Magic once again struggled early in the game, Skiles turned to Nicholson and he delivered with a dazzling second-quarter shooting display and 18 points and eight rebounds.

The Magic’s head coach had just one request for the shy, unassuming power forward with the rare blend of post-up skills and outside shooting. Show more fire and play with more passion so that it rubs off on teammates, Skiles told Nicholson, who was recently seen pumping his fists following a thunderous dunk off a nifty pump fake against the Boston Celtics.

``I don’t want anybody to be anybody that they’re not or be fake or anything, but we talked and I spoke to him about being more (fired up) in the day-to-day,’’ Skiles said of Nicholson. ``Not that he was a below-energy guy – like I have said about a bunch of our guys, we don’t have any below-energy guys – but we guys like Andrew who we believe can get their games to another whole level. We want them to get it there and keep it there. He took it to heart, he’s a bright guy and he’s been the same every day since.’’
Nicholson said if there’s one lesson to learn from his resurgence it’s this: Stay ready so that you don’t have to get ready.

``Regardless if I’m playing or not, I just keep my routine and I get my extra work in before and after practices and games,’’ he said. ``I still put in the work and the time to stay sharp. And when I go out there, they trust me.’’