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Magic’s Young Core is Growing Together
Posted By Alex Kennedy On September 7, 2013 @ 5:01 pm In Main Page,NBA | No Comments
Magic forward Maurice Harkless talks about his off-season, what he's been working on and how much he has grown as a player this summer.Watch More Video Here
Several years ago, when the Oklahoma City Thunder were still trying to make the transition from lottery squad to perennial contender, the team’s young core was inseparable. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor among others spent almost all of their time together. On the court, they trained and played pick-up games. Off the court, they went out to eat and hung out at each other’s houses. The Thunder became one of the most tight-knit teams in the league, which allowed them to develop excellent chemistry and a family atmosphere around the organization.
This obviously worked out well for Oklahoma City, as evidenced by the fact that they’ve won more than 67 percent of their games in each of the past three seasons and solidified themselves as one of the NBA’s elite teams.
The Orlando Magic – a team that was modeled after the Thunder by general manager Rob Hennigan, who spent four years in Oklahoma City’s front office – have become similarly close. The Magic’s young core has spent the majority of the offseason together in Orlando. Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O’Quinn, Doron Lamb and company only took a few weeks off when the season ended and then got back to work. They’ve been meeting at the Magic’s facility to work out, lift weights and play five-on-five. Afterward, the group moves to one of their homes to eat and relax. While some of the players have had to leave for stretches due to offseason obligations (Vucevic and Nicholson, for example, are competing in international tournaments), the core has been together for much of the summer.
“I think it’s really important,” Harkless said. “We pretty much spend all of our time together, whether it’s in the gym or just hanging out at a guy’s house playing video games, watching TV or playing Spades. We just spend a lot of time together. I think it’s really good. It’s going to help us build chemistry, on the court and off of the court.”
“We’ve been going non-stop ever since the season ended,” O’Quinn said. “We took a couple weeks off and then I remember watching the Finals in the weight room. We were getting ready for Summer League, and then in Summer League we had a good showing. After that, they gave us a few weeks off and then asked us to come right back. We’ve been getting at it this offseason.
“It means a lot to me because I’m a team guy. Just to have all of the guys in there grinding every day, pushing each other, making sure everybody’s on time, it just makes the bond that much closer. When we get on the court and play five-on-five, you can just tell that the chemistry is so much better than the end of the year when we were playing against actual NBA teams and it was the first time we played together. We were just trying to feel out each other’s game. Now, I think the chemistry is very strong.”
The group is so close that when Harkless recently returned to the IMG Basketball Academy, where he did his pre-draft training last summer, he dragged O’Quinn along with him for the week-long session.
The Magic have assembled one of the best up-and-coming teams in the NBA. Hennigan has made it a priority to stockpile young talent and draft picks as he rebuilds the roster in the post-Dwight Howard era. Last year, the team won just 20 games, but they were extremely entertaining and showed glimpses of brilliance on most nights. Individually, many of the players exceeded expectations.
Nikola Vucevic emerged as one of the game’s best young centers, averaging 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds. Tobias Harris burst onto the scene in the second half of the season, averaging 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds after being traded to Orlando from the Milwaukee Bucks. Harkless made his presence felt on both ends of the floor and averaged 13.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals after the All-Star break. Nicholson didn’t play as much as his peers, but the rookie averaged 7.8 points and 3.4 rebounds off of the bench. O’Quinn emerged as a significant contributor despite being a late second-round pick, averaging 5.3 points and 5.6 rebounds in the second half of the season (including 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in four starts). Everyone in Orlando is optimistic about the team’s young nucleus going forward.
“I think we’re going to be pretty good,” Harkless said. “We’ve all spent a lot of time together and we’re just trying to grow together. We’re going to take our lumps together and I feel like that’s going to [make us] better in the long run.”
“I think everybody is stepping up to the challenge of making themselves better individually for the team’s sake,” O’Quinn said. “Everybody is on board and it’s a good thing moving forward. … You could just slack off so much during the summer time and summer time is relaxation time in some guys’ eyes, but with us the weight room was an everyday thing.”
The newest addition to Orlando’s core is Oladipo, who was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. Oladipo was impressive in his four Summer League games, averaging 19 points, five assists, 4.3 rebounds and three steals. While he must cut back on his turnovers and improve his point guard abilities if he plans to play the one, he showed why so many executives fell in love with him during the pre-draft process. In recent weeks, the former Indiana star has been participating in the offseason workouts in Orlando and his new teammates rave about him.
“I think he’s going to be really good,” Harkless said. “He works really hard. That’s what I love about him. Off the court, he’s a great guy to hang around. Me and him, we have a lot in common. I think he’s going to be really good. He’s a gym rat and I think he fits in. He’s an up-tempo guard, who likes to run and push the pace. With our young team, I think that’s what we’re going to do a lot this year.”
“Victor, I like him a lot,” O’Quinn said. “He’s just totally on board. The first day in the locker room, he asked, ‘What do you guys need me to do?’ Out there during Summer League, it wasn’t about him. He had a great Summer League, but it was all about the team. That’s why I think everybody progressed and we had such a great Summer League showing.”
Harkless has made the biggest strides out of everyone, according to O’Quinn. It’s easy to forget that Harkless just turned 20 years old in May. Few players in the league have Harkless’ upside and his teammates are excited to see what he’ll do in his sophomore season.
“I would say Moe [has improved the most],” O’Quinn said. “Moe was thrown into the fire last year and he was just on the court at one point. Now, he feels himself, he knows what he can do, he knows what he wants to do, he goes up with confidence when he goes through the lane and he’s shooting the three at a high clip right now. It’s impressive because it’s like, man, this kid played the five in college? Now, he’s going to be a great perimeter player in the NBA.”
One of the most frequently asked questions from Magic fans is if Harkless will play some shooting guard this season, so that he can play alongside Harris on the perimeter. Harkless said that the coaching staff has told him that he will spend some time at two-guard this year, which is one reason why he has worked hard to expand his game.
“For the first half of the summer, I was working on my body, ballhandling, keeping my dribble through contact and stuff like that; now, I’ve been spending a little bit more time focused on my shot,” Harkless said. “It’s just repetition. I think confidence comes from doing something over and over, and that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve spent a lot of hours in the gym and my jump shot has been improving. … I’m just trying to make constant improvement. I have a few personal goals that I’m looking forward to trying to achieve. Hopefully it’s a big year for me.”
After losing so many games last season, expectations aren’t very high for the Magic. In fact, most people believe the team would rather lose games because it would increase their odds of winning the draft lottery. With such an attractive incoming draft class led by potential superstar Andrew Wiggins, there are quite a few teams that would rather accumulate ping pong balls than wins in the upcoming season. However, talking to the players, it’s clear that they’re determined to win games. They’re also hearing all of the people who say that the Magic won’t be competitive this year, and they’re using that as motivation.
“Me being a competitor, obviously I want to win and pretty much everyone else in the locker room feels the same way,” Harkless said. “It’s pretty much up to us. I think if everyone stays healthy, we have a good chance to win a few games this year.”
“I think our main thing moving forward is getting better,” O’Quinn said. “Better than last year. Of course we don’t want to win just 20 games. We want to show progression. We want to take a step forward in our growth. Winning an NBA championship next year? That’s going to be pretty tough on our end. But at the same time, with the people counting us out, I think we’ll use it as fuel. We want to go out and show that we’ve been working all summer.”
While showing gradual improvement is important, the long-term goal is to develop into a contender. That’s obviously several years away when this group reaches it’s collective prime, but they’re doing all of the right things to get to that point. This group of young, talented gym rats has been working very hard and it’s only a matter of time until they start to see results.
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