The Orlando Magic and the double-edged sword of player development

Mar 27, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) during their game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Magic 131-112. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 27, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) during their game against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors beat the Magic 131-112. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Player development has been a common criticism of the Orlando Magic’s rebuild attempts. There is no clear-cut solution, but finding one is now more important than ever.

For the last five years, the Orlando Magic undertook a massive rebuilding project. After trading away Dwight Howard, the team decided to tear the whole thing down. They focused on acquiring young players and building through multiple drafts to get back to competitiveness.

In order for this gambit to work the Magic would need a little bit of luck in the NBA Draft Lottery at the right time to get the star players to build around. But the team would also need to focus intently on developing their young players the right way, instilling in them the work ethic and growth to succeed for the team down the road.

The Magic struggled in this aspect. The team and the individual players the Magic built around never fully developed. And the rebuild floundered.

As Orlando moves into its next phase, how they develop a young player like recent draft pick Jonathan Isaac is coming under closer scrutiny.

Joshua Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel reported recently sources outside of the Orlando Magic organization said the team’s biggest issue with player development has been freely handing over important roles to unproven prospects rather than forcing them to earn their keep behind proven veterans.

There is something to that.

As Robbins recounts in his article, Elfrid Payton and Nikola Vucevic never had to earn their spots. There were not any veterans on the team to offer them serious competition or instruction. The Magic cut Jameer Nelson in a cost-saving measure before Elfrid Payton’s rookie year, when perhaps Payton could have used his guidance. Nikola Vucevic stepped in immediately next to Glen Davis after the Dwight Howard trade.

Implementing a meritocracy where all the team’s prospects had to fight their way into the rotation against established veterans may have served them better.

But the Magic have also been hurt by the other side of that coin.

Mario Hezonja never received steady minutes in the NBA. Maybe he was never good enough, maybe he did not show enough in practice. But it is hard to reach a decisive verdict on a player who never got the chance to benefit from the real-life experience getting in a rhythm playing against good players on other teams. Not to mention make some mistakes and learn from them in real time.

Current coach Frank Vogel said the only way for a player truly to learn is to play. Mario Hezonja has found it tough to crack the rotation under both coach Scott Skiles and Frank Vogel.

Hezonja is not alone.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The organization has been guilty of playing veterans over young players when it was not necessary. When Maurice Harkless was with the team, he found himself losing valuable playing time to Willie Green. It is difficult to argue that playing Green contributed to winning significantly more than Harkless would have. It certainly did not help anyone long-term.

Harkless now starts for the Playoff-bound Portland Trail Blazers as a solid role player.

The answer to player development is not always giving free reign to the team’s youngest players. Nor is it allowing them to languish on the bench while veterans who are only slightly better lose anyways.

The solution lies somewhere in between. That’s what president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman, general manager John Hammond and coach Frank Vogel have to navigate.

One of the biggest impediments to the Magic prospects’ growth in the past five years was coaching continuity. Aaron Gordon can certainly attest to that.

That is where the Philadelphia 76ers’ process has been different.

Coach Brett Brown was hired out of the lauded Gregg Popovich coaching tree (as was Jacque Vaughn at the beginning of this rebuild) with a four-year guaranteed contract. Of all the players on Philadelphia’s current roster, not one has played for a different head coach in a Sixers uniform.

The organization stuck with him through years of staggering futility, including a NBA-record 26-game losing streak in 2014. They extended his contract by two years in 2015.

It is easy to do that when a team is convinced it has the right coach and the incessant losing is only because the roster is expected, if not built, to lose. The Magic were clearly less sure of their hires than the 76ers were. Still, five coaches in four years will make it difficult for any young player to figure things out.

Not all of this was the Magic’s fault.

Vaughn struggled to keep moving the team forward at the pace the Magic wanted. There were clear issues with how he was reaching his players and pushing forward their development. The Sixers under Brown can be credited for unearthing promising young players like Robert Covington and Richaun Holmes. The Magic have had no such luck.

There was certainly a chance for the Magic to have continuity after hiring Skiles. But Skiles suddenly and surprisingly resigned a year after he took the job.

The jury is still out on Vogel, but he did have a solid track record before last season. He might not be the best coach in the league. But, like him or not, it is high time for Orlando to stick with someone.

At the end of the day, personnel is arguably the most important part of developing young players, from the head coach down to the trainers. The new front office needs to focus on making smart personnel decisions in that area and maintaining continuity. But that is not everything.

The new Lakeland Magic G-League team and the introduction of two-way contracts in the league’s new collective bargaining agreement allow for a new middle-ground solution to player development.

The two-way contracts will expand the league’s previous roster limit from 15 to 17. Like Minor League Baseball, players will be allowed to come and go from the G-League and make pro-rated NBA salaries for a set number of days. That will dissuade many from signing overseas contracts and permit teams to take chances on more prospects.

Having a G-League team in Lakeland, Fla. instead of Erie, Pa. will make it even easier for Magic prospects to move to and from the big team. They can get steady playing time, even if it is not against the most elite competition in Lakeland, while also getting NBA experience.

Even the Magic’s drafted players like Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu could see some time with the Lakeland Magic at points this year. Magic CEO Alex Martins when talking about the Lakeland Magic said fans in Lakeland should expect to see Magic roster players. That is how Weltman used Raptors 905 while he was with the Toronto Raptors.

Hypothetically, Hezonja could have benefited greatly from such an arrangement. He could have gotten steady playing time against a wide range of competition while also intermittently making a NBA salary. It also might be less of an ego bruise to move between the two leagues instead of simply being condemned to the G-League for several weeks. Certainly, these young players would get the benefit of practicing with the main squad.

If the Magic truly want to improve their player development infrastructure, they must make the most of these tools. They must make smart personnel decisions and emphasize continuity. As important as veteran presence is, they must ensure their best young players get steady playing time in the NBA.

The Magic have been hurt by both ends of the double-edged sword of player development: some prospects have undeservedly lost valuable experience to veterans, and others never had to make personal improvements to earn their roles.

Next: Locked On Magic: Immediate Draft Reaction

Now, they have a myriad of tools at their disposal to find that elusive middle ground. To be sure, this is the biggest task ahead for the Magic, especially in light of drafting a promising but raw prospect in Jonathan Isaac.