By John Denton and Dan Savage Jan. 8, 2018
ORLANDO – Wes Iwundu had been through an extremely taxing 36-hour stretch, enduring a couple of Orlando Magic practices, a couple of harrowing trips down I-4 and a G League assignment, when the moment he’d dreamed about for years came this past Saturday night.
On the parquet floor at the Amway Center and given the unenviable task of guarding four-time MVP LeBron James, Iwundu – a level-headed, mature rookie for the Magic – made sure to look around and at the sellout crowd of 18,997 and soak in the moment. Then, he pulled off a feat that would case many to tremble in their high tops.
``I dreamed of guarding LeBron and I finally did it today,’’ Iwundu said. ``I actually got a stop on him.’’
Not only did Iwundu register a defensive stop against arguably the best basketball player in the world, but he had the best all-around game of his young NBA career on Saturday. In addition to tying his career high with 12 points – two of which came when he drove hard to his left and converted a floater over James – Iwundu chipped in five rebounds, three assists and two steals in a game they ultimately lost 131-127 to James and the Cavs. He also played a starring role in one of the most exciting plays of the night when he stepped in front of an Isaiah Thomas pass, wrapped a dribble behind his back to avoid the Cleveland guard and then lofted a perfect alley-oop pass that Aaron Gordon finished with a left-handed dunk.
It proved to be the perfect capper on a grueling stretch that might have done in players not as hungry as Iwundu to turn this NBA dream into a reality. In a two-day stretch last week, Iwundu practiced with the Magic on Friday morning, navigated I-4’s midday traffic so he could play for the Lakeland Magic of the G League that night and then drove back to Orlando. On Saturday, he again went through the Magic’s morning workout and later that night guarded James, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver and Jae Crowder that night in NBA action. All you need to know about Iwundu’s will and hunger was what he told Magic head coach Frank Vogel when asked about his rather hectic schedule.
``I asked him how he felt about it and he said, `Absolutely. I want to play,’’’ Vogel recalled. ``The kid wants to get better.’’
Iwundu and the Magic play again in Dallas against the Mavericks on Tuesday night.
Iwundu, a second-round selection by the Magic last June, talked to OrlandoMagic.com about his two-day trek from Orlando to Lakeland and back to Orlando for two games and documented his journey. What follows are Iwundu’s memories of practicing with the Magic, playing for the G League Magic, traversing I-4 twice and facing off against James and the Cavs, as told to OrlandoMagic.com’s John Denton and Dan Savage:
FRIDAY MORNING, JAN. 5
IWUNDU’S PRACTICE WITH THE MAGIC: A lot of people think that if practice is at 11 you show up at 10:45 and you’re good to go. That’s certainly not the case in the NBA, especially with rookies.
I’m here by 8:45 or 9 o’clock at the latest for a 11 o’clock practice. I get some extra shots up, I get my vitamins in me and then weights before practice. Then, after going through the usual practice, I’ll usually stay after and get some more shots in. Then, it’s ALL about recovery and rest.
My alarm went off at 8:15 a.m. that morning and I was out the door a few minutes later. I live downtown so it’s a short ride to the Amway Center.
For the ride in, I usually put my playlist on shuffle and listen to whatever is on there at the time. These days I’m listening to Lil Uzi – I’m a big fan of his – and I’ll throw some Drake in there or some FAXXX. Anybody who comes up, really man, that’s what I’m listening to.
I come here to the gym and get here early and eat breakfast with our chef. It’s really good stuff. This morning I had some hash browns, an omelet and some bacon – some good fuel for a long day.
I’m noticing a lot of guys on the team getting in here early to get up extra shots. One guy who had been here a lot lately has been A.G. (Aaron Gordon). As I’m coming in, I see him already on the court getting up extra shots and extra work. Guys haven’t lost the will at all and we want to win. Nobody likes losing and guys are still trying to get better every day.
The one thing emphasized today in practice by Coach Vogel was competing and guys made it a point to come in and really get after one another and try to get everybody better. We’re trying to approach this with a clear mindset, just lose ourselves to the team and do what we can to help us win.
FRIDAY NIGHT, JAN. 5
IWUNDU NAVIGATES I-4, PLAYS WITH THE LAKELAND MAGIC: Since I have to be back and forth to Lakeland a few times already this season, I just drive over there. And then after the game, I drive right back to get back home so I can sleep in my own bed.
Going to Lakeland to play in the G League, some guys might be upset or offended by it. Not me, my mindset is to play and compete and help that team get a win. I’m looking to better myself as a player because I’ll be in different situations that I won’t necessarily be in with the Magic. It’s all about getting my reps in and get myself ready for Saturday’s game against LeBron and the Cavaliers.
You don’t want to go down to the G League with a bad mindset and hurt yourself, play badly in the game and then have people questioning you. For me, it’s just about going down there and play my game, sharpen my skills and just be consistent with what I do. Never any bad effort from me and I want to be looked at as someone who will always compete whether that’s practice, a G League game or a NBA game. That’s what I want to be known for – competing.
As for the drive over to Lakeland, I got on the road early, trying to beat that traffic on I-4. After having been in Orlando now since last July, I’m figuring out there’s really no way of getting around the I-4 traffic, especially with all the construction that is going on.
There was so much traffic, but I was able to get to the arena in Lakeland by 5 p.m. I didn’t even have time to stop anywhere to get anything to eat, but I did get to eat a couple of protein bars at the gym.
On the drive over, I could feel that fatigue hitting me a little so I had to turn on some hype music to get myself ready for the game. I had some Lil Uzi and Drake on, and had some Lil Wayne to get myself hyped up.
It was a very quick turnaround once I got into the building. I sat around for about 15 minutes and then after getting my uniform on, I went straight in my pregame ritual for the game.
The game didn’t go like we wanted to and we shot just 39 percent for the night. Santa Cruz, who has former Houston Rockets forward Terrence Williams, was hot and we couldn’t get the stops that we needed and we lost, 104-93.
Fortunately, a lot of the plays and sets that Orlando and Lakeland run are very similar, but at the same time there are different players and you have to learn their different styles and tendencies. It’s just a matter of trying to mesh with a different team and doing what I can to succeed for myself and the team. It’s an experience, man, but I just look at it like this: The more reps that I can get, the better it will be for me. I can’t complain about anything because basketball is always fun for me.
During the game, I did find myself a little more exhausted earlier than normal. Getting a practice in early in the day with the Magic and then playing with Lakeland, it felt pretty normal to me. I’m just learning to fight through the fatigue. Now, if there’s another experience like this, I need to learn from this day and be better prepared next time.
After the game in Lakeland, I got the chance to sign some autographs for the fans and that was pretty fun. Driving back home, I slow it down and tone it down with the music. I turned on some ``Party Next Door,’’ some more Drake and R & B stuff. That R & B music on the drive home kind of settles my mind down and after I get ready for bed, then I’m out right away.
We stopped at Chipotle on the way back to get something to eat. I got the black beans and chicken boat with some corn. We rolled back into the house about 11:15 p.m. and that was pretty much it for me for the night because I was so tired. I wasn’t even on my phone much – I went straight home and went to bed because I was so tired.
SATURDAY MORNING, JAN. 6
IWUNDU IS AT MAGIC’S MORNING SHOOT-AROUND SESSION: Nobody cares that I played in a G League game last night and I’ve got to be ready to go because it’s GAME DAY for the Magic! I woke up early again this morning and I’m starting my routine all over again. I’m back at the Amway Center early to get my breakfast and up some extra shots.
It’s unreal being here in the NBA. We played Chris Paul and the Rockets the other day and I found myself guarding CP3 and I was like, `Wow! I’m actually guarding Chris Paul – somebody I actually grew up idolizing!’ So, it’s almost like a dream come true for me.
Every day I’m happy and I’m happy to come to work because playing in the league has always been the dream. I love being around my teammates, working to get better and doing what I love. I still think about it every day – I’m here in the NBA, but I want to stay here a long time and do what I love.
On the Magic, there are a handful of guys who have been there to support me and give me tips any time that I have questions. Big Mo (Speights), Elfrid (Payton), Shelvin Mack and (Aaron Gordon) have been there to help along the way on this journey. And, also, I keep my family pretty close. We talk every day, so I have really good support. My brother, Chris More, and my best friend, Greg Montague, those two they watch every game and we talk basketball lots.
My best friend, Greg, he’s here at every game – whether it’s in the NBA with the Magic or in the G League with Lakeland – and he’s always telling me what’s real.
Greg, who I’ve known since childhood when we were growing up together, came here to live with me. He goes with me to Lakeland and that support is always there from him. Growing up together in Houston, we went from Thompson Elementary to Carden Middle School to Westfield High School together. In college, he moved to Miami and I went to K-State and luckily, I was drafted by Orlando, so he could come up here. He helps me in so many ways and it’s good to have somebody here with me that I’ve known forever and I can count on.
After shoot-around, I was able to get some good food in me from our chef at the Amway Center. Then, I headed home to get in my ``NBA nap’’ so I can be ready to face LeBron and the Cavs later on.
SATURDAY NIGHT, JAN. 6
IWUNDU PLAYS FOR MAGIC VS. CAVS: Knowing that I was going to be in the rotation and one of the players guarding LeBron, I had some of those big-game nerves. I got to the arena early as I always do to get in my shooting and stretching.
I got into the game midway through the first quarter and got my first basket of the night a minute later when I was able to drive down the lane and convert a floater over LeBron. Later, when Cleveland’s Jeff Green was sagging off on defense, I cut along the baseline and Elfrid Payton found me for a reverse layup. It was a good start to the night and we were within four by halftime.
The start of the second half didn’t go as we wanted and Cleveland got free for too many 3-pointers in the third quarter. We were able to rally in the fourth quarter and the steal and lob to AG was a big moment in the game. We didn’t win, but we definitely showed the fight and guys got after it. We were a different team, we competed and the vibe was good. Some things didn’t go our way, but at the end of the day we wanted that one bad and we showed it.
I’m still finding myself as a player and finding things that can keep me on the floor and can make the game easier for me. If it’s cutting on offense, getting big stops on the defensive end and being an all-around player, those are the things that I can bring to a team. The coaches have told me that it’s all about staying within myself, being a guy who brings energy to the team and affecting the game in as many ways as possible and that’s what I try to do.
I’m learning every day – whether it’s in the NBA with the Magic or in the G League with Lakeland. I’ve been able to show that I’m willing to put in the work and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better already. In time, I’m going to keep getting better because I will work on my craft. After all, playing basketball in the NBA is all I have ever wanted. I’m living the dream and I’ll do whatever it takes to hold onto this dream.
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