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Never has there been so much interest in the preseason as there was this season. With so many new faces and so many question marks surrounding the team, an 8-0 showing seemed nearly impossible. And while an undefeated preseason is nothing to boast to your friends about, it does have merit. There is a correlation between preseason success and regular-season success. It’s not the wins that are so impressive, but rather how the Magic looked to the eye. They looked — to put it simply — dominant. Their depth and versatility is unmatched by any team in the NBA.
I like this team so much that I’m starting to genuinely feel like a cheerleader (er, Magic Dancer, sorry). That said, here are some preseason awards. OK, they’re not really awards. It’s more like the awards they make up for Little League teams so every player gets one — best hustler, best seed-spitter, best backup third baseman, best home-run trot, etc. You get the point. Everybody gets one. Here they are:
Biggest relief: Jameer Nelson Nelson’s health was in the back of everyone’s mind coming into training camp, somewhere between the concern for Dwight Howard’s free throws, Vince Carter’s hops and Matt Barnes’ last bit of un-inked skin. There’s no need to worry about Nelson’s shoulder — it’s 100 percent, just like he said. The biggest concern with Nelson is if he can match his unworldly shooting percentage from last season.
Most reminiscent: Jason Williams At Jason Williams’ introductory press conference, Stan Van Gundy said he was “still Jason Williams.” Van Gundy was right. It didn’t take long for Williams to shake off the rust and show flashes of the former Kings and Heat star, running the floor and showing off superior court vision in transition. He’s going to bring a lot of energy off the bench and has the potential to be a real game-changer in a reserve role.
Most disappointing: Anthony Johnson Most expected Williams to win the backup job, but few expected Johnson to lay down and offer no resistance. Johnson appeared to have little confidence throughout the preseason, reacting instead of acting and not really pushing the tempo. He’s a solid third point guard, though.
Best newcomer: Vince Carter An eight-time all-star shouldn’t take the preseason too seriously, and it’s clear that Carter was saving his body a little bit during these eight games. He still showed us the dominant offensive force he can be — particularly in an electrifying dunk on Friday against Atlanta, to me — and finished the preseason as the team’s leading scorer (18.6 ppg, 47.2 FG%)
Most puzzling: JJ Redick Oh, JJ, where did your jump shot go? I believe the sample size is large enough to call his shooting woes a trend. Redick shot 33 percent from the 3-point line in the preseason, and he’s shooting 37 percent over last year’s playoffs and this year’s preseason. I still like the player he’s become, especially compared to what he was 3 years ago. Kudos to Redick for strengthening his body and becoming a player that can play serviceable minutes in an NBA rotation. He’ll be rewarded with steady playing time to start the year.
Most energetic: Mickael Pietrus I never know what to say about Pietrus. He’s erratic, often out of control, but the guy’s a great defender and a deadly shooter when he’s feeling it. He’s certainly earned the trust of the Magic, and I feel confident with him starting or coming off the bench.
Best fit: Matt Barnes Barnes was born to play with the Orlando Magic. His ability to defend big forwards, snatch a rebound in traffic, dribble the ball up the floor on the break and find an open man represents a skill set that few NBA players have. Barnes’ choice this summer came down to Cleveland and Orlando — if he were in Cleveland, his rangy set of talents wouldn’t be utilized like they are here in Central Florida.
Biggest surprise: Ryan Anderson Without a doubt, Anderson was the Magic’s breakout performer this offseason. His shooting percentages were off the charts — he, of course, won’t shoot 56.1 percent from behind the arc — but what was most impressive was his ability to defend down low and rebound adequately. He has work to do, but it’s clear that Anderson can be a valuable contributor in this league and that’s the reason he will start in tomorrow night’s season opener.
Most boring: Rashard Lewis Yep, he’s Rashard Lewis. There is nothing to write about. Of anyone on the team, Lewis had the least to prove. Jameer had to prove he was healthy. Dwight wanted to show his free throws had improved. Vince Carter had to prove he still had somewhat young legs. With Lewis, there’s nothing. And how many stories did you read about Lewis’ $118 million dollar contract? For the first time since he’s been here, that wasn’t a common topic of conversation.
Most mysterious: Linton Johnson III What happens behind closed doors? Orlando Magic practices are closed, obviously, and that’s the best chance to see Johnson play. He played sparingly in the preseason and became the beneficiary of Adonal Foyle’s knee surgery when the Magic surprisingly signed him to the opening-night roster.
Best approval rating: Brandon Bass There isn’t a Magic fan in the world who doesn’t love the Brandon Bass signing right now. Bass turned out to be everything Magic fans hoped this preseason, playing strong down low and showing off his silky smooth mid-range jumper. This guy coming off the bench will be a huge asset for Orlando.
Most dependable: Dwight Howard Howard’s free throws weren’t any better this month — 53 percent, actually well below his career average — but it was a very small sample size. And Howard contributes in so many other ways, it’s hard to notice his free-throw shooting this time of year. He nearly averaged a double-double playing 24 minutes per game, and every time out he reminds Magic fans that they have one of the best players in the NBA.
Most scary: Marcin Gortat He’s big, physical and has cuts and bruises all over – Gortat is a scary man. He nearly matched Howard’s numbers on a per-minute basis in blocks and rebounds, and his offensive game continues to improve. Gortat is going to be a really good player. There’s no getting around that. He’s in a great situation in Orlando, and right now the Magic can’t afford to get rid of him. For now, he’s the best backup center in the league and the Magic are happy to have him.