Wednesday afternoon, the Orlando Magic held a news conference to introduce 2011 NBA Draft picks Justin Harper (32nd, acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers for two future second-round selections) and DeAndre Liggins (53rd). President of Basketball Operations Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy also attended.
The biggest takeaway from the conference, for me, is that the team highly values both players. Based on the praise Van Gundy heaped upon them, I got the impression that Harper, the 6-foot-9 combo forward; and Liggins, the 6-foot-6 swingman, will indeed make the Magic's opening-night roster. "I've been around a lot of young guys coming into the league," Van Gundy said, "and their work ethic is right there with anybody's." Later, addressing a scrum of five or six writers after Smith and the rookies departed, Orlando's coach expanded on that point:
These aren't guys who are learning how to work. Their work ethic is established. Their professionalism is... they're here ready to work every day, they work without question. All those little things are gonna make their adjustment [to the NBA] a lot quicker [than other rookies']. And for our team especially, that's important. We're not in a situation where we're ready to wait five or six years for some 18-year-old guy to see what he can do. We're trying to win now, and I think these guys are as ready as you can possibly be.
Smith agreed with Van Gundy, emphasizing the players' maturity in his opening remarks. "Background is extremely important," Smith said of the draft research process, "and when we drafted these two young men, probably the thing that stood out the most is that they're men, that they've been through a few things." Obviously, their maturity isn't their only attribute that attracted Orlando to them. "We like the players that they are, we like players that can shoot the ball, we like toughness," Smith said. "And I think both of these young men will bring that."
Van Gundy later went so far as to say he believes "both of them will be [on the Magic's final roster]," though he toned down that statement by adding, "that's not measuring all the variables that could happen roster-wise [with a new collective bargaining agreement.]"
More from the press conference follows the jump.
Harper and Liggins arrived in Orlando three days ago to meet the coaching staff and begin working out. Their focus now isn't so much strategy as it is getting to know one another. "The coaches are really just coming in and stressing to us what we need to work on and where they see how we'll be on the court and where they can best use us," said Harper in describing these workouts. "[The coaches are] kind of just giving us a jump-start before the lockout starts."
Harper has a reputation as a knock-down shooter--he shot 44.8 percent on threes as a senior at Richmond, on 4.6 attempts per game--and said he's worked with Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing on "refining my post play," so I asked him about another part of his offense: his ability to attack off the dribble. It's worth noting that, during the playoffs, Van Gundy identified perimeter shot-creation as a particular need for his club.
Harper said he can create off the dribble, but also conceded he could stand to get better in that area. "I think that's the part of my game that's definitely gonna improve for me to make that transition to the three position," he said, before adding he thinks small forward will "probably" be his "primary" position at the NBA level.
Van Gundy said the players both showed talents he didn't know they had. For Harper, it's his ability to handle the ball. Liggins, who earns his keep as a defensive ace, showed surprising aptitude as an outside shooter. Van Gundy said Liggins has "no problem" making shots from the NBA three-point arc, "which a lot of people coming out of college do." He doesn't expect Liggins to be an offensive liability, the sort of player to whom opposing defenses pay no mind. "He's not gonna be that guy that you don't have to guard," Van Gundy said. "That's huge."
As this news conference included Smith, and as Magic superstar Dwight Howard can become a free agent next summer, the Orlando GM faced questions about Howard's future, and specifically about Howard's "challenge" to the Magic to surround him with better players.
"My job as the General Manager of the Orlando Magic basketball team is to continue to move our organization forward and get better," Smith said.
As a follow-up, Smith was asked if he thinks the team is better, worse, or the same from this time last year. The writer noted the "biggest story" in Orlando is Howard's happiness in conjunction with his ability to leave next summer. Smith's response?
"My job as the General Manager of the Orlando Magic is to continue to put a team on the floor that's going to give us the best chance to win an NBA title, regardless of if somebody else is happy or not. I'd like to be happy too."
I asked Smith what, from a personnel standpoint, Orlando's next priority is.
"We're just trying to put players on the floor that will complement the players that we already have. We still have some unanswered questions. J-Rich is also a free agent coming up, and also Earl is a free agent coming up. We like our team we have on the floor."
We'll conclude with partial transcripts of the rookies' remarks:
How did you get to be such a good shooter at your size?
When I first started AAU, I was looked at more as a big man, so I was put at the five [center] position because of my height. My coached stressed the importance of putting up the most shots that you can over the summer to improve going into high school, and this is really where AAU picked up for me, during my eighth-grade year. I just stayed focused on getting my shot to be as comfortable as possible. And that's what set me apart from guys my size: being able to be comfortable catching the ball on the perimeter and taking that shot. That's what helped jump-start my game
What players have you met so far?
Which coaches have you been working you guys out.
Coach Patrick [Ewing] was working... was focusing on working me out the last few days, just working on refining my post play as well as being on the perimeter.
What are your plans if there is a lockout? Where will you work out?
It's not set in stone. I'm kinda torn between Richmond, Boston, and coming here. I gotta talk and weigh my options, before the lockout starts, with my agent and maybe with a couple players.
You and your agent will start talking about signing [with the Magic] once the new CBA is in place. Is that the plan?
Yeah, definitely. I talked with my agent and he was like, "There's nothing you can do right now. You got to just ride it out, stick it out, go through the lockout."
On when he began viewing himself as a "lock-down defender"
I embraced that role when Coach Cal [John Calipari] came to Kentucky. Once he got there, he really defined my game for me. He saw me as a defensive player. That's how I played at Kentucky and that's how I got into games. That's what I'm trying to do here. Work my tail off, get better as a player.
Can you guard a one [point guard] as well as you can a three [small forward]?
I can guard a one through three. That's my job. Just trying to become a better ballhandler and better shooter.