By John DentonJuly 3, 2014
ORLANDO -- Looking around at the Orlando Magic logos across their chests and on the floor, peering up at the walls and seeing the two Eastern Conference championship banners and noticing all of the talent assembled around them, the enormity of the moment hit rookies Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton.
Maybe even more so than in last week’s NBA Draft, this – the first professional practices of their NBA careers – is truly the start of what they hope will be long, successful careers with the Magic. It’s a special moment in the life of any rookie, and it certainly didn’t get lost upon Gordon and Payton.
``I’ve been (looking around) all week, but I’ve just got to stay present,’’ Gordon said with wide eyes and a toothy grin. ``I have to understand that I deserve to be here, I’m here for a reason and they picked me for a reason and I just have to give it my all.’’
Added Payton, a 20-year-old point guard: ``I had a lot of adrenaline going because I’m just excited to get out here and play with these guys who are going to me my teammates. Looking around here, competing against all these guys and knowing it’s my first practice, it’s special.’’
Life has mostly been a whirlwind for Gordon, Payton and second-round selection Devyn Marble since they were picked fourth, 10th and 56th respectively in last week’s NBA Draft. The trio started two-a-day practices with the Magic’s Summer League team on Wednesday and they are excited to show off what they can do in the Orlando Pro Summer League, which begins on Saturday at the Amway Center.
As is true to his style of play, Gordon said he’s been trying to focus on playing defense, rebounding and delivering all-out energy to quell whatever nerves he might have. Gordon, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward capable of playing both forward slots, is an off-the-charts athlete with a 39-inch vertical leap and a 7-foot wingspan. He hopes to use the week of Summer League to show Magic GM Rob Hennigan, head coach Jacque Vaughn and Summer League coach Wes Unseld Jr. that they were right in taking him much higher in the draft than most experts had him projected to be picked.
``The floor is more spread (at the NBA level) and you turn the corner and there isn’t another defender there, so they have to be honest and it opens things up and you can attack the lane,’’ said Gordon, who is the youngest player in the NBA at 18 years old. ``Defensively, you have to be more disciplined with where you are on the floor. I’ve been able to show my athleticism on the defensive end.’’
Payton, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, dramatically raised his draft stock with his abilities as a defender and a point guard who can create by getting into the paint and to the free throw lane. He’s been tested quite a bit already this week by having to defend incumbent guard Victor Oladipo, but Payton has no shortage of confidence when it comes to his ability to thrive at the professional level.
``I am confident that I can get into the paint,’’ said Payton, who averaged 19.2 points, 6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals a game while starring for Louisiana-Lafayette. ``I don’t know about getting fouled because I might not get (calls) at this level, especially being a rookie, but I definitely can get into the paint and make some plays for guys.’’
Oladipo, who is expected to play two-to-three of the Magic’s five Summer League games, was one of the first Orlando veteran players to greet Gordon, Payton and Marble when they arrived in Orlando last Friday for their introductory press conference. Oladipo said he is using this week to try and familiarize himself with the younger players and to serve as a mentor for them when they have many of the same questions he encountered a year ago.
``I’ve been knowing Devyn for a while from playing him back in the day (in Big 10 action). It was hard not seeing Aaron and Elfrid a lot, but the times I have seen them now they are phenomenal,’’ said Oladipo, who finished second in the voting for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year this past season. ``I’m looking forward to see how much better they get.
``(Gordon) is really athletic. He’s one of those freakishly athletic people that you don’t know how or why he’s able to do things that he does, but that’s what he does. I’ve been watching Aaron since he was in high school on Hoops mix tapes and it was hard to miss him. I’ve got to work on my lob passes (with Gordon and Payton),’’ Oladipo continued. ``(Payton) is really good laterally. He can slide his feet and he has good hands as well. It’s tough to really lock somebody up in the NBA, but he’s going to slow them down. It’s going to be fun to play with somebody like that who is in the image of you on the defensive end as far as getting after people.’’
Marble, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound shooting guard, has impressed so far with his ability to navigate through screens to get open and his willingness to bury open 3-pointers. Marble, whose father Roy was Iowa’s all-time scoring leader and played in the NBA for two seasons, knows that he is in a fight to make the roster as there are no contractual guarantees for a second-round draft pick.
``I’ve been like that my whole life, having to always show what I can do,’’ Marble said. ``It’s especially like that now. Even if I was guaranteed something I’d still work my butt off. That’s just the position that I am and the way that the business is. I’m just working and trying to prove to them that I’m worthy of being on the team.’’
The trading of Arron Afflalo and the release of Jameer Nelson will make the Magic one of the youngest teams in the NBA next season. Andrew Nicholson, a 2012 draft pick and a two-year veteran is technically the longest-tenured player on the roster now. Vaughn hopes that the Magic can use their youth, athleticism and defensive acumen to play at a much faster pace this season. That certainly suits Gordon and Payton, players who thrive in the open court.
Gordon said he wants to use this week to better familiarize himself with the NBA’s style of play and make the adjustment to facing bigger, stronger players. In time, he’s confident that it will be an adjustment that he will make with no problems because of his basketball IQ and his willingness to work to improve.
``There’s a little bit of a transition, but you just have to be smarter at this level. That’s what it comes down to,’’ said Gordon, who averaged 12.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists as an All-American at the University of Arizona. ``A lot of people in college are athletic and long, but you’ve got to be smarter with your moves, more precise and crisp. There’s just less room for error.’’