Summer League Helped Clifford Build Strong Relationships With Players

Magic head coach excited about development of team's young players
by John Denton

LAS VEGAS – For a coaching lifer such as Steve Clifford, there really never is an off switch that he can slap and totally shut his brain down from basketball.

So, even though the Orlando’s new head coach was officially off duty from having to strategize Xs and Os and coax the most out of players over the past two weeks as the Magic were competing in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League, Clifford’s brain never strayed too far away from the sport that he has dedicated much of his life to.

More specifically, Clifford’s fixed focus was on envisioning scenarios of how prized prospects Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba – two rangy and springy players with nearly 15 feet of combined wingspan – can help out the Magic in the season ahead. And, after seeing Isaac display major strides in his game and Bamba thrive in his pro debut, the usually staid and serious Clifford is bubbling with excitement over what the two 20-year-olds can potentially add to the Magic mix next season.

``That’s what you do with all of them, obviously, but especially Jonathan and Mo,’’ said Clifford, referring to him constantly thinking of ways to incorporate the two blossoming big men next season. ``I think they have both been really good and they’re really going to help us going forward.’’

Clifford, who was hired by the Magic on May 30 to try and get the franchise back on track following six straight non-playoff seasons, was away from the bench during summer league play as assistant coach Pat Delany ran the squad in games. However, Clifford was very much in the fray during the team’s seven practices, game-planning and film sessions and he met regularly with Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond to discuss personnel evaluations. He used his time on the court to install his principles, build player/coach relationships and get a feel for some of the talent that should be on the roster going forward.

``The goal has to be that by the time that we start on Sept. 26 (for the opening of training camp) that the players don’t feel like it’s the first day that we’ve worked together,’’ said Clifford, head coach of the Charlotte Hornets in the five years prior to taking the Magic job. ``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.’’

If Isaac and Bamba learned anything from the past two-plus weeks in Las Vegas, it’s that Clifford possesses a dry wit about him off the basketball floor and a no-nonsense seriousness about him between the lines. Not long after Bamba was this year’s No. 6 pick in the NBA Draft, Clifford dined with his two young stars in Orlando and they joked around about a variety of topics. On the court in Las Vegas, however, the two got to see Clifford’s white-hot intensity – even during a July Summer League session – and just how detail-oriented and serious the coach is when it comes to comprehending and executing game plans. Clifford has big plans for Isaac and Bamba, and he’s wasted no time in delivering pointed promises to them.

``From the first time I met (Clifford) it was about establishing culture,’’ Bamba said. ``He’s talking about the playoffs already and it’s exciting seeing a coach who’s as invested into the game as you.’’

Isaac, who played just 27 games as a rookie because of various injuries, has spent most of his offseason in various gymnasiums working to better his body and grow his game. Noticeably more chiseled and sporting an improved confidence, Isaac sought out shots in his three Summer League games and wreaked havoc with his long-armed defense. He averaged 14.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 1.3 steals. His finest performance came last Sunday when he totally frustrated hotshot Memphis rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. with his smart and suffocating defense.

Because of Isaac’s injuries, Clifford saw the 6-foot-11, 222-pound forward play live just once last season. The veteran coach has already started the process of watching back many of last season’s Magic games and individual cut-up highlights. As it relates to Isaac, Clifford has seen a player who has made tremendous strides – and someone who just might have been the best all-around player in Las Vegas.

``Jonathan is playing in a way that you can see stand out and it will equate to playing really well in an NBA game right now. He’s really played well and I’m proud of him,’’ Clifford raved. ``I like Jonathan up high (in the offense) and he’s done a good job in high-post (isolations) and he’s been really good with pick-and-roll with the (centers), be it Mo or the other (centers).

``He’s playing more in a manner that will equate to NBA basketball,’’ Clifford added. ``He’s running into pick and rolls and he’s doing things for his teammates. So, I think he’s played really, really well.’’

For years Clifford has been seen as something of a defensive guru because of his teams’ success on that end of the floor – most notably the 2009 and ’10 Magic teams that reached the NBA Finals and East Finals, respectively, when he was an assistant coach. Naturally, he can’t wait to work with a shot-swatting center like Bamba, who possesses the most expansive wingspan in NBA history (7 feet, 10 inches). He played well in his professional debut while both patrolling the paint and stroking 3-point shots offensively.

Despite playing just 19.7 minutes a night, Bamba averaged 8.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots in three games. He struggled some against the muscle of top overall pick, DeAndre Ayton, but he acquitted himself well by swatting five shots and converting a nifty post-up shot over forward Josh Jackson that night against Phoenix.

Clifford feels that added strength and many more reps at the NBA level will help Bamba continue to improve in the months leading up to the start of training camp. He sees a player still learning to use his towering size and multi-dimensional skills, but someone who could have a big impact on the team right away because of his wealth of talent.

``With Mo, he’s learning the NBA game,’’ Clifford said. ``I think a big part of it for any guy his size is his offensive energy. His best sequences so far have been defensively around the basket and offensively running the floor and offensive rebounding. That’s a very good place for him to start.

``He’s really concentrating on the spacing aspects, which are a lot different for him and it’s new to him,’’ Clifford added. ``His offensive energy, which I thought was a lot better (last Monday), as far as running into screens so that he’ll be a more efficient screener and make his teammates better – those have been his two biggest positives.’’

Clifford knows the only thing better than a team possessing one highly skilled giant capable of playing on the perimeter or in the post is having two of them to potentially play together simultaneously. As the NBA is increasingly going to more ``small-ball’’ concepts and undersized players, the Magic have doubled down on two long-legged, long-armed players capable of doing multiple things well. Ultimately, both players should be able to make big impacts in the season ahead because of their combination of smarts, character and talent, Clifford stressed.

``I think there’s a parallel between the two of them in that they are really bright guys and they’re really good learners,’’ the coach marveled. ``And they’re not just bright guys off the floor; they’re also very good learners on the floor, which is critical when you are talking about two young players.’’

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