ORLANDO – In late October when the Lakeland Magic convened for their first practice together, Amile Jefferson and Troy Caupain – Orlando’s pair of two-way players this year – both felt confident about their G League team.
The team’s depth, for one, stood out to Jefferson, a good evaluator of talent considering he played on several stacked college teams at Duke, including the 2015 squad that won the NCAA championship and featured eventual first round NBA Draft picks Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen.
“The biggest thing I thought starting off was that we had a lot of depth and a lot of diversity within the unit, guys that can do multiple things,” said the 25-year-old, who was named to the 2018-19 All G League Third Team after averaging 18.0 points and 11.3 rebounds in 34 regular season games with Lakeland. “As the season progressed, I think that was something we relied on. Every man at some point of the season played meaningful minutes and contributed to us winning.”
Another reason they were convinced this group would thrive had to do with their camaraderie, an often underrated quality of a team. Caupain, who was also on last year’s inaugural Lakeland team, sensed a brotherhood forming even before they played their first game together.
“We are all around the same age, we all do the same things, have similar hobbies,” the 6-foot-4, 210-pound point guard said. “You can tell when we first got there, the way we competed everybody was trying to get a spot, (so) we battled the whole time. Nobody ever hated each other off the court. Whenever we stepped in between the lines, it was to compete. We talked trash but then after it was a brotherhood, a friendship that we had.”
Although Lakeland’s season ended in heartbreaking fashion when Long Island’s Theo Pinson drilled a last second, game-winning 3-pointer in overtime in the Eastern Conference Finals, that moment doesn’t at all take away from what the Magic’s G League squad accomplished.
After a 2-6 start to the year, Lakeland’s talent, chemistry, grit, poise and confidence propelled them to a Southeast Division title and the No. 2 seed in the East playoffs. During one stretch from late November through the middle of December, the Magic won eight out of nine. Even a grueling West Coast trip didn’t slow them down, as they picked up three wins on that voyage.
Lakeland did a great job protecting its home floor, winning 17 of its final 21 games at the RP Funding Center. That includes its victory over Westchester in the conference semifinals, a game in which Jefferson posted 21 points and nine rebounds and Caupain recorded 14 and eight.
“I’m really proud of this team,” Lakeland Head Coach Stan Heath said. “We’re basically an organization that’s in year two being in Lakeland. All the dynamics that go into this. You talk to anyone who’s involved in the G League, they will tell you it’s probably as hard a job as you can find for the players and the coaches with all the moving parts, guys going up, guys going down, guys leaving your team, coming into your team. Just to withstand all those things and be a team that stayed together through all the ups and downs and all the roller coaster rides, it tells you a lot about the character of these guys.”
To highlight just how balanced and multi-layered this team was, eight different players averaged double figures in scoring and seven players averaged over two assists per game.
Their explosive offense carried them for much of the season, as Lakeland had the league’s second best offensive rating and ranked No. 1 in 3-point percentage. Jefferson led the team in scoring per game, while Caupain and Gabe York both averaged 16.4 points and BJ Johnson, whom the Sacramento Kings recently signed to a contract, averaged 15.4.
The defense was solid overall, too, as Lakeland ranked No. 14 in defensive rating and had the third best defensive rebounding percentage.
“I’m really proud of the job that we were able to do this year, especially with the way we started,” Jefferson said. “From top down, AP (Anthony Parker, Lakeland General Manager) to Tunji (Adedipe, Assistant GM), Tunji to Stan and to his staff and our players and the entire organization, I thought we had a tremendous year and a year that was really special.”