By John Denton
August 11, 2017
LAKELAND – This coming season, the Orlando Magic can envision a scenario where one of its young players goes through a morning practice at the Amway Center, plays a NBA G League game in Lakeland and then returns to The City Beautiful that night to sleep in his own bed.
Such a scenario is possible now with Orlando’s G League affiliate, the Lakeland Magic, being approximately an hour away in Polk County. That’s a dramatic difference than the previous setup when Magic players sent to the G League and were forced to fly from Orlando to Buffalo and then shuttle by car to Erie, Pa. – usually an icy, treacherous endeavor in basketball’s winter months.
Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman believes strongly that the easy access to Lakeland will greatly enhance the organization’s goals of developing young players. Weltman, who worked previously for a Toronto Raptors organization that had its G League franchise nearby, speaks from firsthand experience.
“I cannot only envision (a player practicing with the NBA club and playing for the G League team in the same day), I can tell you that where I’m coming from, I’ve lived it,’’ Weltman said, referring to Toronto’s setup with the 905 Raptors based in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario. “There will be a lot of nights where you can practice at one place and play a game at another in the same day. That’s a huge benefit and it’s a way to develop players.
“Let’s face it: There are a number of ways to develop a player on and off the court, but there’s no substitute for getting minutes and getting reps,’’ Weltman added. “For a guy to be able to practice with the Magic and play a game here (in Lakeland), that’s huge.’’
The Magic got to see the plan in action last winter when they were in Toronto to face the Raptors. Power forward Jared Sullinger, who missed the first 41 games of the season because of a broken bone in his foot, was sent to the G League on Jan. 28 and he scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds for the 905 Raptors against the Delaware 87ers. Less than 24 hours later, he was on the floor at Air Canada Centre facing the Magic – a game where he played seven minutes, missed one shot and grabbed one rebound.
The Magic’s driving reason behind purchasing the Erie (Pa.) Bayhawks and moving the franchise to Lakeland back in December was so that it can better utilize the minor league system to greatly enhance their player development program. Of the NBA’s 30 teams, 17 now own their own G League franchises and many of them have moved them within close proximity of the parent club so that there can be a tighter bond between the two.
Whereas the distance between Orlando and Erie limited the Magic’s use of the G League in the past, there is no longer such an impediment.
Magic CEO Alex Martins, who is a part owner of the Lakeland franchise, stressed that there will be a strong, symbiotic relationship between Orlando and Lakeland to maximize the benefits of the arrangement. Employees with strong ties to the Magic, such as Shelly Wilkes (Team President) and Anthony Parker (General Manager), are in prominent positions and that should ensure that there is a seamless transition between the two organizations.
“It’s incredibly important that it’s absolutely seamless between the parent club and the G League club and the proximity between the two is really going to help,’’ Martins said. “Everybody will be able to come back and forth on a regular basis – players, coaches and personnel, etc. … For the first time in our organization’s history we’ll truly have a strong player development program with the minor league system and the parent club working in concert with each other.’’
That tight relationship will be especially evident on the floor where head coach Stan Heath’s Magic in Lakeland will play a style that closely resembles that of Frank Vogel’s Magic in Orlando. Heath will likely spend the bulk of training camp in Orlando with the Magic so that he can learn the offensive plays and defensive schemes that the NBA Magic are running so that he can teach those same schemes in Lakeland. And by also building relationships with players, it should eliminate some of the learning curve and awkwardness when a NBA is sent to Lakeland for some additional minutes in a game situation.
Heath, a successful college coach for years at USF, Arkansas and Kent State, is excited about the prospect of the Magic occasionally sending one of their NBA players to him in Lakeland. Such a scenario should greatly benefit both the player (additional minutes and game reps) and the Lakeland franchise (giving fans the opportunity to watch a NBA-level talent in action), he said. Heath said he has every intention of staying in close contact with the Magic front office and coaching staff so that he will have a full grasp on how the team wants their players used upon being sent to the G League.
“If there’s somebody coming from that (NBA) level, then you know that they are pretty good,’’ Heath said with a laugh. “For them to now come over here (to Lakeland) and get additional minutes on the court, it’s going to help (the player) and it will help us.
“That’s why it’s so important that we’re doing things similarly,’’ Heath added. “The guy can come here, he feels comfortable with what we’re doing and we’re saying the same things and running the same things. It will be a smooth, easy transition. And vice versa because there might be somebody here that’s doing exceptionally well and (Magic head coach) Frank (Vogel) looks down at us and I get a call from Jeff (Weltman) or (GM) John (Hammond) and he’ll go into a game or a practice (with the Magic) and he’ll be comfortable and can help the team win right away.’’
A college coach for more than two decades, Heath is excited about the prospects of not having to recruit teenagers or worry about players staying eligible academically at the professional level. He doesn’t think there will be that great of a transition from the college game to the NBA G League level because he’s always run a pro-style of offense heavy on pushing the pace.
The biggest balancing act, Heath knows, is trying to win while also making sure that enough time is spent on player development. The two facets – developing players and winning – so often go hand-in-hand in basketball, Heath stressed.
“As players continue to get better, you have more success on the floor. So you can do both, and that’s definitely the goal here,’’ Heath said. “We want to be successful on the court and help these guys where that success translates into a future for them going forward. They want to be coached and spend the time needed to get there (to the NBA) and we’re going to help them do that.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.