Coming into training camp, the Orlando Magic had 13 players with guaranteed contracts for the season. With Jodie Meeks working his way back from offseason foot surgery, the Magic were going to be down one of those guaranteed contracts for the opening portion of the season.
To have more bodies during camp and the preseason, the Magic brought in six camp invitees, three of which played for the team during the Orlando Pro Summer League. The other three were headlined by Damjan Rudez, the smooth shooting Croatian forward who spent time with the Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Rudez, 30, came into Orlando possessing something that the Magic desperately needed: shooting. Through three preseason games, Rudez has been the Magic’s best shooter, knocking down 9-of-11 from the field, including 7-of-9 from beyond the arc.
Friday night against his former team the Pacers, Rudez torched them, much the same way he torched the Magic while sporting their jersey just two years ago. As part of the second unit that single handedly brought the Magic back into the game, Rudez finished the night with 11 points, five assists and four rebounds.
The 6-foot-10 veteran dished no-look passes, and knocked down shots when found open in the corners. His performance led to Magic big man Nikola Vucevic jokingly saying he looked like soon-to-be Hall of Famer Steve Nash.
Having played for coach Frank Vogel with the Pacers, Rudez has a familiarity with the Magic’s first year head man. Following the game, Vogel had high praise for one of the six Croatians currently in the league. “Maybe our highest IQ player on the team,” said Vogel.
“He just really has a great feel for the game. He’s a knock down shooter so there is a reason he’s here. He has had a great camp for us.”
Getting such high praise from one of the men who will likely decide who makes the Magic’s roster is a great sign for Rudez. His continued strong play also gives him an upper hand as he works towards making his third NBA roster in three years.
Add in the Magic’s continued need for more shooting and it’s clear why Rudez has the upper hand in making the roster come the regular season.
“It’s a huge compliment coming from him [Vogel],” said Rudez when asked about Vogel’s comments on him being the highest IQ player on the team. “I’m just trying to make good plays out there, good reads. I think passing is very good and contagious, so I’m trying to have good decision making on the court. I feel his [Vogel’s] confidence in me, and it’s always easier to play when your coach trusts you.”
The trust that Vogel has was clear Friday night when he chose to leave the Magic’s second unit in for much of the second quarter, a move that turned the game in their favor. With Rudez knocking down open shots, and throwing dazzling no-look passes to open teammates, the Magic outscored the Pacers 44-23 to storm back into the game, taking a 10 point halftime lead.
Vogel turned to that unit once again late in the third, but was unable to find the same push they had in the second. Then, early in the fourth, Rudez knocked down a key three to cut the Pacers five point lead back down to two. CJ Wilcox knocked down a three on the following possession, giving the Magic a lead they would hold for almost the rest of the game.
While his play has likely locked him into a roster spot, the 30-year-old isn’t counting his chickens quite yet.
“I’m just trying to do what I do,” he said. “What I’ve been doing for years; trying to have fun out there, trying to enjoy, and most of all have good decision making and prove I can be a reliable part of anything. Just contribute in a good way with my outside shot, and like I said passing the ball and being a good team player.
“The decision obviously isn’t up to me. We’re all trying to do our best to be part of the team and make a name for ourselves. I’m happy tonight was a good night for me, and for the team.”
The team first mentality has gotten Rudez this far, and will continue to help him work his way to the end goal of making the roster. While nothing is set in stone yet, and he isn’t considering himself safe, it’s hard to imagine the Magic not keeping him for the season.
From his unselfish play to his knockdown shooting, Damjan Rudez has made a name for himself already this preseason, and could give the Magic just what they need at the end of the bench.