ORLANDO – When he was in high school, Daniel Pressley, now 20, injured his right knee in a car accident. The injury prevented him from playing basketball, the sport he loves and starred in during his youth, through graduation.
Although he contemplated giving up the sport, family and friends encouraged him to do the opposite, reminding him of how talented he is and what the game means to him. The Pensacola resident listened to that advice and is now 100 percent healthy and back to playing the game on a regular basis.
“My brother was like, ‘no, no you have to focus on basketball, you are good at it, you have talent,’ and everyone else was telling me that,” he recalled from when he was recovering from his injury. “I was going to go to college, but what I was really trying to do was pursue my dream of going to the NBA. That’s my dream.”
Hoping to turn that dream into a reality, Pressley tried out for the Lakeland Magic, Orlando’s G League affiliate, over the weekend. Of course, Pressley wasn’t the only one dreaming big. Nearly 250 players tried out at either the Auburndale Community Center or the Orlando Sports Center.
One of them was former Auburn and FAU center Ronald Delph, a Winter Haven native who grew up a die-hard Orlando Magic fan. The 7-footer’s favorite Magic player was Tracy McGrady, which made trying out in Auburndale, T-Mac’s hometown, extra special.
“It would be a dream for me to play for the Magic,” said the 26-year-old, who most recently played professionally overseas in Lithuania and Estonia. “I’ve watched them ever since I was young.”
A native of Naples, which is where Magic forward and friend Jonathan Isaac is from, 22-year-old Jeffercy Jean showcased his abilities in front of Lakeland’s scouts as well. Jean, a 6-foot-6 swingman known for his athleticism and deep shooting range, recently played at and graduated from Flagler College, an NCAA Division II school in St. Augustine.
“It was great to play against high level competition,” he said. “I feel very confident. I think I played really well. It was great being able to talk to the coaches and just play in front of them and showcase my skills.”
A little further south, at Daytona Beach’s Bethune-Cookman University, was where 6-foot-3 guard Jamal Gaines, another Lakeland hopeful, played his college ball. From Sarasota, Gaines is extremely passionate about the game, which shows every time he steps onto the court.
“I’ve been training for this since I got out of school,” the 25-year-old said. “I work out three to four times every day. It is what I love to do. When I heard about the tryout, I was excited to come. I knew this is what I wanted to do. I feel like I have one of the best opportunities to make the team. I came here very confident. I know how hard I work though so I feel I deserve to be confident.”
At last year’s open tryout, Lakeland discovered hidden gem Jeremiah Hill, one of the G League’s best 3-point shooters in 2018-19 and a surprise standout on Orlando’s Summer League team this past July. Hill, who appeared in 44 G League games last season, was the second player Lakeland added by way of the open tryout, with the other being Polk County native Kevin Foster during the team’s inaugural campaign.
Fully aware that another diamond in the rough can walk through the door, Lakeland’s basketball operations staff took the entire open audition process very seriously. General Manager Anthony Parker, impressed with the turnout and talent that showed up at both tryout locations this year, was one of many scouting each participant.
“You look at people in this environment and think about what they would look like in our G League games,” said Parker, who played for four NBA teams, including Orlando, during his career before becoming an executive in the league. “So, you’re looking for size, you’re looking for athleticism, you’re looking for a (well-rounded) skillset. Sometimes guys look great here, but against G League guys it may not translate.”
Another talent evaluator at both locations was Lakeland Head Coach Stan Heath, who led the Magic’s G League squad to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
While he expects this year’s team to look fairly different, Heath is excited to get reacquainted with returning players such as Amile Jefferson, who signed another two-way contract with the Magic over the summer. He also is eager to start coaching the newcomers, including Orlando’s other two-way player, Josh Magette.
“If you can’t beat him, have him join your team,” Heath said about the 6-foot-1 point guard, who was one of the Atlanta Hawks’ two-way players a couple seasons ago. “I love him. He knows how to play. He makes guys around him better. He’s savvy. He is one of those guys where you just feel like, here’s the ball and you know pretty much good things are going to happen.”
For those who tried out, the hope now is that they will get to join Jefferson, Magette and the rest of Lakeland’s 2019-20 roster when training camp opens next month.