Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford has a reputation as a bit of a hard coach who doesn’t trust young players. This year, his rookies are getting the chance.
The hard-charging, sometimes curmudgeonly coach is long on defense, big on accountability and winning (even on small levels) and short on patience for using players who will not help him win.
Zach Lowe of ESPN often said during the 2020 season that Steve Clifford surely wanted to be playing the more certain Khem Birch over the young Mohamed Bamba but the higher-ups were likely pushing him to play the second-year player. He would say — and it might well be true — that Bamba’s injury in the 2019 season was a blessing to get the consistency Birch provided defensively rather than the mistake-filled play from Bamba.
Reputations are made in this league somehow. They are spread through the webs of social media and they are always difficult to change once they get set in stone.
That is not always how things play out. And that was proven true in the Magic’s first game. Clifford promised he would let both of his rookies play in their first game and planned to leave them in the playing group.
He relied on them perhaps a bit heavier than he expected for the first go-round. And while their score lines were muted, they clearly did some positive things for the team.
Steve Clifford has made it clear and his rotation choices in the opener also made it clear, he is going to play his young players. These are not minutes that will be gifted to them nor could it be permanent.
But the one part that is true about Clifford’s reputation is that these young players would not be out there if Clifford did not feel they could succeed and give the team a chance to win.
"“Coaches talk about it all the time, when you bring young players in and they just get to play and whether they play poorly and they get to keep playing, so many of those guys never recover from that,” Clifford said during training camp. “This league is about performing for all of us. The younger players understand that, the better they have of growing or learning to work or compete in a way that gives them the best chance to reach their potential.”"
Clifford said his belief is young players should not be gifted playing time. And that is done on purpose to create habits and competitiveness in their expectations for the league.
Clifford said he believes young players’ experience in their first 2-3 years builds the foundation for what they think the league is about. Talent and skill will ultimately win out over coaching. But coaches still have to put their young players in positions where they can succeed and help the team.
By all accounts, the team has been pleased with their play and development considering all the circumstances — no Summer League or preseason mini-camp.
Chuma Okeke ended up being the first player off the bench Wednesday — Steve Clifford perhaps hoping to hide some of his nerviness in with the starting group. But Okeke did not do the typical fifth-scoring option stand in the corner role. Okeke was very much involved in the offense and moving around.
He did not have any plays run for him. But he hit an open jumper when he got one and drew a foul on a drive off a closeout. He kept the ball moving but was never “out of the way.”
Defensively, he recognized rotations but was still clearly processing information. The game looked fast for him and even he admitted he was a bit overeager for his first game.
Okeke got a bit more than even he probably expected. With Aaron Gordon picking up two quick fouls in the third quarter, Chuma Okeke stepped in early in the second half. He ended up playing 22 minutes in the game, trailing only Terrence Ross for minutes off the bench.
Okeke was the only player in Wednesday’s game with a negative plus/minus, but Clifford credited that to Okeke playing during the two worst periods in the game for the Magic. He was not upset at all with how Okeke play.
King James Gospel
Neither was he upset with Cole Anthony and his play.
Anthony was certainly still feeling his way around. And Goran Dragic went after him in Cole Anthony’s first stint in the second quarter. That is expected for a rookie.
So too were the turnovers as Anthony adjusted to the overall intensity of the game. He had three in the game.
But after Anthony hit his first shot in the second quarter, he seemed to calm down significantly. He moved the ball effectively, dishing out a team-high six assists. And he never really played outside of himself. He was not hunting for his shots outside of the flow of the offense.
Anthony fit in really well and gave the Magic some very positive minutes.
To say the least, both Okeke and Anthony got the chance to make a positive impact on the game with clearly defined roles. And they stepped up to the plate — with still mistakes to clean up.
The next task is to do it all over again.
"“Coach has thrown a lot at him,” Markelle Fultz said of Cole Anthony during training camp. “I have been there before so I know how it is. He’s open to learning and trying to get better every day. That’s what excites me so much about him is he is willing to learn and get better. I think he is going to shock a lot of people.”"
The thought for both Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony has been one preaching patience. But there is a simmering excitement under the surface about both players too. They know how good both can be if they can continue to evolve and develop.
They are confident both players will attack any adjustments they have to make. And they are both encouraged to do so.
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"“He doesn’t back down from anything,” Terrence Ross said of Cole Anthony during training camp. “He’s going to take it to you every time he has it. Especially for a lot of younger guys, that mentality is harder to teach especially when they get into the NBA and they see the older guys and guys they have been watching. He has the mentality of just going at you. That’s valuable in this league.”"
Ross has had a lot to say about Anthony especially. He has encouraged Anthony to shoot and not to be afraid to shoot. Nikola Vucevic has also had a lot to say to both rookies, encouraging them and helping them adjust to the way the Magic play and situations they might see.
With the shortened training camp and lack of prep time, even the ever-prepared Clifford admitted there are things he has not been able to go over with his team. And his rookies saw some of those things in play during Wednesday’s game.
That does not mean their roles are set for the rest of the season, even if they play well. Inevitably, Clifford will tighten his rotation to nine players, as he usually prefers. And even promising young players have fallen some to the wayside.
Mohamed Bamba has had his struggles cracking the rotation. It is merely proof that young players are not gifted minutes.
But Clifford has said nothing publicly but glowing reviews of Bamba and his eagerness to get him back on the floor and how he attacks his development and weight training. But Clifford certainly also limited his minutes last year, even when it seemed like he was improving.
There will be new challenges to come for them all. It is one game, after all. This league is about consistency and being able to play at a high level each night. And they will be tested every night.
Just do not let the reputation confuse you. Clifford will give them their chance to learn.