Marreese Speights says joining hometown Orlando Magic is 'a dream come true'

Marreese Speights says joining hometown Orlando Magic is 'a dream come true'

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Marreese Speights says joining hometown Orlando Magic is 'a dream come true'

Marreese Speights is finally heading home.

After playing for five NBA teams in nine years – the Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies, Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers – the Florida native signed with the Orlando Magic this summer.

Speights was born and raised in St. Petersburg, FL, playing the majority of his high school ball at Gibbs High School and Admiral Farragut Academy. He decided to stay close to home when making his college decision, committing to the University of Florida. As a freshman with the Gators, he won an NCAA championship and played alongside future NBA All-Stars Al Horford and Joakim Noah in a loaded frontcourt. He broke out as a sophomore – averaging 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks – so the 76ers made him the 16th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.

The thought of playing for one of Florida’s NBA teams at some point was always in the back of his mind. While he enjoyed his other stints around the NBA – particularly when he hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy with the Warriors during the 2014-15 season – he’s ecstatic to be joining the Magic. He rooted for Orlando growing up and he’ll be near his family and friends for much of the year.

“Playing for the Magic has always been a dream of mine,” Speights told HoopsHype. “The arena is an hour and 20 minutes from my house in St. Pete. I grew up watching them; I became a big fan of them as a kid and that’s when I fell in love with the game. I’ve always wanted to play for the Magic. This is a dream come true.

“All of my family in Florida are going crazy and they have the city buzzing. I’ve never felt like this before in all my years playing in the NBA, so it’s going to be good. My family is so excited and my wife’s family is so excited. I have a lot of family in North Florida – people from Gainesville to Lake City to Jacksonville to Live Oak to Marianna – who never had a chance to come to one of my NBA games before, so they’re really excited to come see me play in person.”

Speights averaged just 15.7 minutes per game in the Clippers’ crowded frontcourt last season, but he played well in his limited minutes. He put up 8.7 points and 4.5 rebounds, while shooting 44.5 percent from the field, 37.2 percent from three-point range and 87.6 percent from the free-throw line. Per-36-minutes, those stats translate to 19.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 blocks.

Speights had to settle for a one-year deal worth the veteran’s minimum with the Magic, but if he emerges as a leader for this squad and produces when given playing time, he could ink a more lucrative deal next offseason when he will be an unrestricted free agent again.

“It was a weird free agency period,” Speights said. “As you know, the money kind of dried up, especially for backup big men. So for me, I figured if I’m going to play on a minimum deal, which is what I got, I might as well play for Orlando! This allows me to be close to home and around my family. I also feel like there’s an opportunity to play and contribute in Orlando. I’m not exactly sure what my role is going to be yet – I can only control what I can control – but I’m going to do whatever I can to help this team. That’s my mindset entering training camp and the season. It’s on the coaching staff to determine my role. But I love to hoop, so I’ll enjoy every minute I’m out there.”

Ever since Dwight Howard’s ugly exit from the Magic in 2012, the organization has tried to assemble a young core and surround that group of up-and-comers with quality veterans. Orlando has brought in a long list of experienced players, hoping they’d serve as strong leaders and help the Magic become more competitive. Orlando is in the midst of a five-year playoff drought and they’re 132-278 over that span.

This offseason, Orlando’s revamped front office – led by president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond – brought in a new group of veterans to surround the Magic’s young core, which features under-24 players Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, Bismack Biyombo and Mario Hezonja. This summer’s veteran additions were Speights, Afflalo (who re-joined Orlando on a one-year, minimum deal), Jonathan Simmons and Shelvin Mack – with DJ Augustin and Terrence Ross returning after being acquired last year.

The Magic are hoping this is the season when everything will come together for their squad. Head coach Frank Vogel is entering his second year with the team, some of the youngsters seem like they could be poised to break out, the supporting cast has quite a few talented pieces and a playoff seed in the top-heavy Eastern Conference seems more obtainable than in past years.

Landing Speights on a $1,471,382 contract is a steal for Orlando. The talented stretch-four will certainly help the Magic as they try to develop a winning culture. As a key contributor on the Warriors for three seasons, he saw exactly what it took behind the scenes to go from being a team that was eliminated in the first round of the 2013-14 postseason to an absolute juggernaut that won the championship in 2014-15 and then rattled off an NBA-record 73 victories the following season (although they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals rematch).

Speights has qualified for the playoffs in seven of his nine NBA seasons. He is one of only four active players who’s won both an NCAA title and NBA championship – with the others being Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mario Chalmers, San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Danny Green and Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Corey Brewer.

“I’ve learned what it takes to win in this league over time based on the different experiences I’ve had,” Speights said. “I think the biggest thing I’ve seen is that the more time you spend around each other, the more comfortable you get on the court together. The more team-bonding events you do, the better. Those bring you closer as a team and they help you when you step onto the court together. I’ll definitely try to get the guys together on road trips and even get guys together when we’re home. I’ll be planning different events for the group. That kind of stuff really helps the team.

“I’m also going to tell the young guys, ‘If you want to win, if you want to make the playoffs, you have to sacrifice.’ And when I say sacrifice, that may mean different things for different players, but everyone has to sacrifice in some way. Whether it’s not playing one night or not getting the last shot or whatever, everyone has to make sacrifices and prioritize winning. Everyone needs to be thinking, ‘I’ll make sacrifices and do whatever I can to make sure our team wins.’ Once you start doing that kind of stuff and thinking that way, you start winning more games. And then once you get a taste of winning, you realize it’s the most important thing.”

One such team-bonding event takes place this week. Nearly every Magic player is traveling to Los Angeles to work out together and build chemistry. Orlando’s younger players are excited to work with Speights and pick his brain.

“His championship insight and leadership is definitely something we can use,” Payton told HoopsHype.

Last season, it only took a .500 record to qualify for the postseason in the East. This year, it may be even easier to snag one of the final playoff seeds since several All-Stars like Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap each left their respective lower-tier playoff team to play in the Western Conference. This presents a great opportunity for an up-and-coming team like Orlando and Speights believes making the playoffs is a realistic goal for the 2017-18 campaign.

“I’m just going to stress the importance of getting better every single day. We control our effort and we control whether we put in the work to get better each day. If we handle our business, [making] the playoffs will be easy,” Speights said. “That starts this week in Los Angeles, working hard together and developing those strong bonds during our workouts. Then, that will help us going into training camp. Then, we’ll have a strong camp and keep building those relationships. That’s the kind of stuff that helps you have a strong start to the season. You see what I mean? Winning doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process. Everybody has to buy in, which means working hard, listening to the coaches and making sacrifices to win. If we do those things, we could easily make a run for the playoffs. Easily. With the team we have and these young guys being a year older? Easily.”

Make no mistake, Speights wasn’t brought to Orlando solely to be a strong locker room presence. He can also contribute at a high level and he’s a perfect fit for this team since their biggest weakness is their shooting. Last season, Orlando ranked second-to-last in the NBA in field goal percentage (44 percent), three-point percentage (32.8 percent), effective field goal percentage (48.9 percent) and true shooting percentage (52.4 percent).

Speights, who shot 37.2 percent from three-point range last year with the Clippers, could be a key part of the Magic’s supporting cast. Last season, he ranked ninth among power forwards in three-point percentage (37.2) and 11th in total three-pointers made (103, despite averaging 15.7 minutes).

“He’ll be a great fit with our team,” Payton said of Speights. “He’ll be able to knock down threes and he’ll space the floor, which will create driving lanes for me and others.”

“I feel like I can help the team a lot,” Speights said. “I know I can help on the court and off the court. I’m open-minded [entering this situation]. I’ve put in a lot of work this summer and I’m going to keep putting a lot of work in moving forward. I’m going to be prepared to play whatever role is asked of me.”

While Speights has embraced a reserve role throughout his career, he admits that he does feel a bit underrated at times. He feels there’s more to his game than what he’s been able to show as a bench player.

“I feel underrated because I know what kind of player I am and what I could do if put in the right situation,” Speights said. “I know what I could do if given the right opportunity. Say I was given a chance to start; I think I’ve shown what I can do, putting up good numbers when I have gotten the chance to play in the starting lineup. Last season, I made 103 three-pointers in about 15 minutes a night. You don’t see other people doing that, so that’s where I do think I’m underrated a little bit. You know what I’m saying?

“But it honestly doesn’t bother me. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder or anything like that. I just love playing basketball and as long as I’m able to keep doing that, I’ll be happy. I’m about to enter my 10th season in the NBA. I’m fine being underrated and people can view me however they want; I’m still here in the league after 10 seasons! I get to do the thing that I love every day, so I’m not complaining. I can’t control how people view me or rate me, so I just go out there and play my game.”

With Orlando desperate for shooting and Speights looking for an opportunity to showcase his game, this marriage seems like it could work really well for everyone involved.

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