The Orlando Magic’s once-celebrated 2014 draft class is still seeking inconsistency. Their play lately — and specifically Monday — is showing their impact.
Aaron Gordon was in that flow, the nebulous space of presence and fire that basketball players get when anything they throw up is going into the basket. It is the mastery of repetition and confidence.
The baskets do not light on fire as they seem to in video games. Nor do they actually grow into the size of peach baskets, seemingly easy to throw in. But the confidence is real. Stats be damned when it comes to the hot hand theory, players know when they have it going.
And so there was Aaron Gordon, the fourth pick of the 2014 draft and this bundle of unrealized potential, staring down his defender one more time. Looking right at him and understanding where the basket was, the time remaining and just what it would take to get his shot off.
Then he unleashed a wicked crossover, making his man stumble — whoever it was, it did not matter — and create a space that was enough for Gordon to rise up and shoot. Even with his rudimentary, but improving jumper, Gordon’s shot looked pure. With the way he was making shots, there was no doubt.
It was going in.
It was part of Gordon’s 15-point third quarter, on his way to 12 straight points in the third quarter to keep the Magic in a 25-point lead over the Memphis Grizzlies in a 112-102 romp at the Amway Center on Monday and his second 30-point night of the season.
Gordon came into his own once again and dominated the Grizzlies, using primarily his jumper to topple them. His supposed weakness became a strength as he flashed that tantalizing potential again.
“I was just playing a game, taking what the defense was giving me,” Gordon said. “The ball was moving. My teammates did a great job of finding me. They realized I had the hot hand and they kept coming to me. I was just being present and playing the game. Just playing basketball.”
Gordon and his fellow 2014 Draft classmate Elfrid Payton have had their ups and downs in their three-year careers. Both, though, are beginning to find their place just as the Magic begin to settle into their identity this season.
Gordon is averaging a relatively meager 10.8 points per game and shooting a career-worse 43.5 percent from the floor and 4.2 rebounds per game. A lot of that is because he has floated more to the perimeter as a small forward, despite attempts from Frank Vogel to use his small forwards in the post a bit more, a small adjustment from earlier in the season.
His adjustment to a new position has bee fairly slow to take. And his play has been fairly inconsistent.
There are moments like Monday night where Gordon seems to put it all together in a flash and find his rhythm attacking and shooting off the dribble. In the last two weeks, Gordon has recorded two 30-point games.
Gordon’s role at the moment is to be available on weak side rotations to shoot 3s and to work his way into the post against smaller 3s. He is not quite at the point to take players off the dribble consistently.
Additionally, with his athleticism, he is strong cutting to the basket in half-court sets and getting out in the open floor in transition. Generally, he does all these things. Monday was a taste of what he can do when it all comes together — if it all comes together.
That has often been said about Elfrid Payton too.
The point guard has had his moments with triple doubles and experienced much more success on the court than his draftmate Gordon. But Payton too has faced his struggles. His poor shooting has seemingly hampered his ability to make a big leap. His place looked in danger.
Payton, though, is beginning to flourish in his new bench role. He is quickly becoming a more consistent scorer and distributor and turning in strong performances.
After scoring 25 points and dishing out nine assists Friday, Payton was again aggressive in scoring 16 points and dishing out seven assists. He got himself going downhill toward the basket and found himself in the paint and at the rim often.
The Magic are a significantly better team when Payton is playing at his aggressive best. And that is what the Magic are increasingly getting in the last eight games. Payton has scored at least 10 points in seven of those eight games and has shot better than 50 percent in five of those eight games. All while adding 7.1 assists per game.
The Magic’s two draft picks from 2014 put together a stellar game together Monday. And both appear to be carving out their roles more firmly.
“They’re growing,” Nikola Vucevic said. “This is their third year in the league, they are improving a lot. Aaron had a great game tonight. He has been patient with his game and letting the game come to him. I think it has been helping a lot. He isn’t forcing things. And Elfrid has been really good as well, being aggressive and knocking the mid-range a lot. They need to continue to improve.”
The Magic invested a lot in these two players. They have struggled to get off the ground completely. Their roles have not always been fully defined.
Both faced major questions in this third year. Both were expected to take a bit of a leap too. And neither have made a clean improvement in their third years. Not exactly what the team needed.
Monday saw the Magic’s two picks from that 2014 Draft play strong together. And the results spoke for themselves.
It bodes well for the team’s future.
“It’s exciting and encouraging,” Vogel said. “I am taking great pride in watching those guys grow and develop. They are the two young guys we kept in the rotation — Mario [Hezonja] will have his time — they are the two developing guys around the veterans we made moves to get this offseason. We knew they were going to be a little up and down as young players. Hopefully, they have a lot of their growing pains behind them and are ready to come into their own. Either one or the other is having a career night of late.”
Slowly but surely the Magic’s two key draft picks are finding their form. Neither may be the star the Magic need, but they are slowly putting together consistency within their roles.
At long last, these players are growing and finding a way to improve.