Orlando Magic making sure to balance the youth and the veterans

Steve Clifford is still working to balance his rotation and use his veterans to make sure young players are developing properly. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Steve Clifford is still working to balance his rotation and use his veterans to make sure young players are developing properly. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /

At 26 years old, Gary Harris is hardly an old man in the NBA. It feels a bit off to call him a veteran.

So long as Harris stays healthy, his best basketball is still probably ahead of him. But there are very few teams that Harris would be looked to as a leader on the team.

That is the unique situation the Orlando Magic find themselves in.

Gary Harris and his six years in the NBA put him behind only Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams and Otto Porter have more NBA experience under their belts. But it would be hard-pressed to call Harris a veteran on any other team but this one.

Then again, who else on the team has gone deep into the Playoffs? Who else has been with a team from the start of a rebuild to the pinnacle of one?

Harris is every bit the veteran the Magic have needed. Even though he himself is trying to fit in.

"“I feel like we all gel pretty good together,” Harris said before Friday’s game against the Indiana Pacers. “We’ve all been around a little bit. We’ve all experienced different things. We all see the talent that this team has. This could be a very special group. This is going to be a very fun team to watch.”"

The Magic are still trying to find their balance in the wake of their reformation at the trade deadline. The focus is clearly on the team’s young players and what their future brings.

But the trick that coach Steve Clifford is working on is figuring out how to help foster development from those young players and spraying in veterans who will help support and, in some cases, protect them.

The Orlando Magic are clearly focused on their young players for their future. But the challenge for Steve Clifford is finding a way to balance his lineup with veterans who can show them the way.

Clifford said Harris’ defense was noticeable in Friday’s game and the team’s overall organization was more to his liking with Harris in the game. That is the benefit a veteran player like Harris can give a team.

He was still getting his feet wet in a Magic uniform. In 17 minutes, Harris scored eight points on 2-for-10 shooting, missing his eight shots. But Harris was also playing his first game since Feb. 17 and his second game since Jan. 31.

Clifford is often careful bringing players back from injury — especially prolonged absences. Harris’ minutes are still going to be limited for a while longer. But it is easy to see his excitement to add Harris to the group.

Clifford has long been criticized for his penchant for relying on veterans at the expense of young players. Even on a team full of young players — including three rookies — Clifford has stuck to a reliance on some veterans to build his rotations.

He is weighing how best to distribute the minutes for his veterans. He does not believe throwing five young players on the floor together will help them much. They need players who have been around the league and can give the team a base level of organization. Especially in critical moments.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Veteran players like Michael Carter-Williams, Gary Harris, Terrence Ross, James Ennis and Dwayne Bacon are not going anywhere — even with the team opening some playing time in cutting Khem Birch. If anything, their roles remain vital for the Magic to foster the right kind of growth and development.

How Clifford chooses to deploy them is still a piece of the puzzle he is figuring out.

"“That’s really what I spent to be honest the majority of my time,” Clifford said before Friday’s game. “Trying to find ways that we can grow in the right manner and in the right way. So much of basketball, especially in this league, is who you are on the floor with that gives you a chance to play well. A lot of times, it’s almost your biggest responsibility — playing groups, what you run and trying to put guys in positions they can play well.”"

The Magic have played largely balanced lineups with few players topping 30 minutes since Cole Anthony returned Wednesday. There will be plenty of minutes to go around as Clifford tries to settle on a rotation and playing groups. There will surely be experimenting still to come.

Best ways to develop

The way Steve Clifford has approached young player development has been to try to focus on putting those players in areas they can succeed. He wants them to fill specific roles and slowly expand from there.

He was hesitant to play Chuma Okeke at small forward, hoping to keep him matched up with some of the bigger, slower forward on the floor and limit his creation responsibility. It was about playing Okeke where he has practiced so his preparation and repetitions would get reinforced and drilled into him.

He has tried to avoid playing R.J. Hampton at point guard, hoping to keep his on-ball decisions to simple reads and reactions. Especially while Clifford still learns his tendencies.

This is not done without any thought. There is a specific plan for these players.

And so if veteran players like Michael Carter-Williams or Dwayne Bacon have to take on more responsibility, it is done to make sure the young players are in well-defined roles that give them experience and a small taste of success.

The development and progress might be slow, but it is still a step forward for each player within their role. Clifford is a coach who values structure and this is his way to build a foundation for each player.

And So Clifford’s task is trying to pair those young players with his menu of veterans to get the most out of them.

It is still a task that is a work in progress especially as players return from injuries and move in and out of the lineup.

The same page

It is still clear the team is getting on the same page. Many of the players the Orlando Magic are relying on the most are still learning the team’s concepts and principles. Let alone how to execute them at a high enough level to win.

It is among the many things the Magic are trying to balance the rest of this season.

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The potential is all there though. It is just about finding the right ways to nurture it.

Gary Harris is among those trying to find the right way to fit in with this team while also setting a good example. Whether he wants to or not, he is going to become a leader on this team.

"“We’re all learning, they are learning about me, I’m learning about them,” Harris said before Friday’s game. “We’re all building this chemistry. We’re going to be here helping out these guys and helping out this team and this organization and doing whatever we can to bring back Orlando Magic basketball.”"

All the pieces are still coming together for the Magic. It is hard to see what this whole puzzle looks like.

The young players are clearly the focus for the team. That is the direction the Magic are going. Clifford is trying to make sure they are in a position to succeed and carving out roles and lineups that will get them there.

Cole Anthony makes return all about the team. dark. Next

This balance remains his biggest challenge.