Playing In His Home City of Houston Always Special for Iwundu

HOUSTON – In the glow of a joyful and victorious Orlando Magic locker room on Friday night, small forward Wes Iwundu took some time to himself and pondered how fate and his unwavering persistence were about to smile upon him again in the coming days.

Iwundu and the Magic (28-35) left Minnesota on Saturday morning bound for Houston – the third-year pro’s hometown – where they will face the star-studded Rockets (39-22) on Sunday. The fact that Iwundu was going back to his native Texas as a starter in the NBA – a level where many doubted that he would ever reach, much less start games – spoke volumes about the work and dedication that he has poured into his craft.

His somewhat unlikely NBA career is, Iwundu admitted, a somewhat emotional subject for him because so many times early in life he heard what he’s called ``noise’’ about what he couldn’t do instead of what he could do. Told he’d never be much of a player at Westfield High School in suburban Houston, he ultimately had 15 colleges offer him basketball scholarships. Just a three-star recruit when he entered Kansas State, he finished as the school’s all-time leader in steals. A second-round pick in 2017 by Orlando with no contractual guarantees at the NBA level, he’s still an integral part of the Magic three seasons later.

On Friday in Minnesota, with Iwundu in the starting lineup as a replacement for the injured Evan Fournier, Orlando’s offense again functioned at a high level and the defense locked down star guard D’Angelo Russell in a 132-118 demolition of the Timberwolves. Iwundu, who had eight points, two rebounds, one assist and a blocked shot, played his part in the success with the Magic outscoring Minnesota by 21 points in his nearly 23 minutes on the floor.

Now, with the Magic back in his hometown of Houston, Iwundu, 25, has gotten something of a last laugh by returning as a key figure on an Orlando team determined to reach the playoffs a second straight season.
``It means a lot because, up to this point, everything that I have gotten, I’ve fought for it and nothing was ever given to me,’’ Iwundu said. ``The only thing that was given was a check (laughs).

``So, to be here now, and about to be starting at home in front of friends and family, it will be a big moment for me,’’ admitted Iwundu, who expects to have about 20 people in his personal cheering section on Sunday. ``It’s a special part of my career and I’m looking forward to it.’’

With Fournier out potentially a week or more with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, Iwundu could be in the Magic’s starting lineup for a significant stretch of time. That’s just fine with Magic head coach Steve Clifford, who considers Iwundu to be one of his favorites on the squad because of the guard/forward’s defensive toughness and his wiliness to play whatever role the team needs.

``One of the values of a guy like Wes, last year wherever I played him, we functioned well,’’ said Clifford, who was back with the team on Saturday and cleared by doctors to resume normal coaching duties after leaving the Magic bench following bouts with dizziness and dehydration. ``(Iwundu) has not been playing more as a product of us picking up James (Ennis III), who is older, a veteran player and someone who has won in the playoffs. … Wes hasn’t played, not because I don’t have confidence in him. You can’t play them all.’’

Bouncing in and out of the regular rotation this season has been anything but easy for Iwundu, who has averaged 5.1 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 0.6 steals in 18 minutes a night over 43 games. Range shooting is still his weak spot as he’s made just 38.6 percent of his shots overall and only 31.3 percent of his 3-pointers – numbers that have been adversely affected by his irregular playing time much of the season.

On an Orlando team ravaged all season by various injuries, Iwundu has been a starter 16 times. One of the best moments of his NBA career – the Magic’s 119-118 defeat of the LeBron James-led Lakers in Los Angeles on Jan. 15 – came with Iwundu serving as an emergency starter for Fournier, who was out that night with a quad injury. Iwundu determination to stay ready proved itself that night as he poured in a career-best 19 points, grabbed four rebounds, handed out two assists and swiped two steals.

In recent weeks, he’s played very little following the Magic’s trade-deadline acquisition of Ennis III from the Philadelphia 76ers. Having solid sounding boards such as 40-year-old brother, Chris Moore, and his childhood friend, Greg Montague, has helped – not only this season, but throughout his journey through basketball, he said.

``Those two have always kept it real with me, I’d say,’’ Iwundu said. ``No matter what the situation has been, having those two to talk to has been big, having somebody I could express myself to up to this point of my life and throughout my whole NBA career.

``With Greg, we’ve grown up together since elementary school and he’s always been close with my family,’’ he added. ``We’ve been close since I was growing up and he actually stays with me in Orlando. Having him along with me has been a big help as I’ve gone along.’’

Iwundu will go along as a starter for the time being, knowing full well that he will be tasked with trying to soften the blow of losing a player the caliber of Fournier, Orlando’s second-leading scorer at 18.8 points per game. On Friday, Iwundu teamed with D.J. Augustin (18 points), Michael Carter-Williams (17 points) and Terrence Ross (16 points) to provide support for a Magic starting lineup missing a key cog in Fournier.

``That’s what it’s going to take,’’ Iwundu said. ``With Evan, his scoring and all that he brought to the team, we’re going to be missing that, so as a team different guys like me, (Michael Carter-Williams), James (Ennis III) or whoever, we have to step up in some way to help carry the load and help us get wins. (Friday) was the first step and we’ve got to keep going.’’

They will try to keep it going against the high-scoring, high-octane Rockets, who hit 22 3-pointers on Dec. 13 in a 130-107 defeat of the Magic in Orlando. Iwundu played just four minutes that night and on Sunday he’ll undoubtedly get his shot at defending former NBA MVP James Harden, who battered the Magic for 54 points and 10 3-pointers in the first meeting.

``The main goal is to go in there and get a win against a really good team,’’ Iwundu said. ``That would be big for us and a big confidence-booster going into this part of the season. We need some big wins down the stretch to try and finish strong in this playoff race.’’

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