The Orlando Magic began training camp Friday afternoon, working from approximately 4 to 8:20 with a one-hour break, coach Stan Van Gundy said. Of course, to the media, the start of training camp was more of an aside to the ongoing drama surrounding Dwight Howard.
"That's a lot of people just standing there to watch somebody shoot free throws," Van Gundy said after meeting the media, referring to the crowd of eight to 10 reporters and cameramen who had migrated away from Van Gundy's scrum in order to stake out the other end of the floor, where Howard practice free-throw shooting with Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing.
The hubbub around Howard will persist throughout the season, and Van Gundy has no illusions about that. "We gotta be realistic there's gonna be all this stuff going on," Van Gundy said, "and I understand it's gonna create great interest. And that's fine. But when we come out here, it's not about any of that. It's about basketball.
"We have a short amount of time to get ready. That's my focus. Obviously, Otis has a lot of other things going on, and things he has to be concerned with. He certainly keeps me informed. We talk about those things. But when it's time for practice, that's what I'm concerned with. And our players, that's where their focus needs to be.
"It's not easy. I understand that. I'm not living in fantasyland. It's not easy. As I said, the NBA today was a three-ring circus and we were in the big top. But you deal with it."
And Orlando dealt with it Friday by working hard, though not full-contact. "We got a ton of offense in [and] did some defensive drilling," Van Gundy said. The Magic also worked in two-on-two pick-and-roll sets. Orlando's coach was pleased his team had 12 players on the first day of camp, noting that some teams had as few as eight.
In fact, Van Gundy's only real complaint is the lack of big men at his disposal. The only power forwards Orlando had were Ryan Anderson and Justin Harper, with Howard and Daniel Orton playing center. As a result, those four players hardly got any rest.
Orton in particular is an interesting case for Orlando. Though drafted a year ago, he didn't play in any games because he was injured for most of the season. Van Gundy estimated he only participated in two practices the whole year, and listed him as "new to us," along with camp invitees Larry Hughes and Gabe Pruitt.
By all accounts, Orton acquitted himself well in practice. "He's very smart," Van Gundy said, noting it appears as though the Kentucky product "has shed some weight" during the lockout. He struggled toward the end of the pick-and-roll drills, in which he had to defend Howard. "In the last seven or eight minutes, he was hanging on for dear life," Orlando's coach said of Orton's performance in the 20-minute drill, which included no breaks.
But Orton indeed appears to be in great shape. "This is the best I've felt since going into college," he said. As for his left knee, which has injured several times since his senior year of high school, Orton said "I can jump off it with no pain. It feels really good."
That's a great sign for Orlando, which lacked a solid backup for Howard last season after it traded Marcin Gortat in December. At 6-foot-10 and listed at 255 pounds, Orton has true NBA center size, though Glen Davis (6-foot-9, 289 pounds) will likely see time at center as well.
Orton's biggest challenge Friday, he said, "was just picking up on plays." He explained: "I've been around for a while, but it's different when you're in there from watching. Totally different."
"Totally different" could describe Orlando's season if it indeed parts ways with Howard. But for right now, the Magic's center is in Orlando, "and that's the only thing that matters," Howard said.
Practice resumes Saturday at 4 PM. Van Gundy plans to go through contact drills then, and to do more work on the defensive side of the ball.
Howard's free-throw stroke appears to have altered slightly. To my eyes, he's put much more arc on the shot; he didn't serve up many, if any, line drives. Additionally, it seems to me he's taking his guide hand off the ball sooner than he has in the past.
Van Gundy noted that Hughes "played basically three positions for us and had no problem whatsoever." For a 10-year veteran who had yet to play within Van Gundy's system prior to taking the court Friday, that's high praise. Hughes could make a decent utility option off Orlando's bench if it decides to retain him after training camp.
I found it interesting, and telling, that Van Gundy used Harper as a big man instead of a wing. Harper can play either forward position, but it appears as though Van Gundy intends to use the former Richmond Spider primarily at power forward. Then again, he may simply have slotted him there in order to have four big men.
Howard said Hedo Turkoglu "looked like the '09 Turk" on Friday, a positive sign. Though Turkoglu played fairly well after re-joining the Magic last December--especially as a three-point shooter and facilitator--a return to his near All-Star form from his first two seasons under Van Gundy would certainly boost the Magic's offense.
Unrestricted free agents Jason Richardson and Earl Clark did not attend the Magic's practice, as expected. As best I could tell--and I didn't hear every part of every media scrum--neither Van Gundy nor his players fielded any questions about Richardson or Clark.