For Vucevic and Ross, Main Focus in Free Agency Was Always Re-Signing With Magic

Ross: "We feel like we still have a lot of unfinished business with this team and we’ll go into next season with a chip on our shoulders"
by John Denton

ORLANDO – In the days leading up to the start of the NBA’s free-agent courting period, center Nikola Vucevic and guard Terrence Ross were nearly in constant contact, repeatedly discussing the many options that each of them had with several suitors in hot pursuit of their talents.

Despite that frenzy of activity, the Orlando Magic never strayed too far from the focus of either Vucevic or Ross. Both of them had been driving forces on the Magic reaching the playoffs for the first time in seven years this past spring, and they felt they owed it to themselves and to the franchise they felt a certain ownership of to return and try and finish the reclamation project started years earlier.

When it came time to make a decision that would impact their careers for years to come, Vucevic and Ross ignored the interest from other teams and showed their faith in the up-and-coming Magic by signing multi-year deals with Orlando.

They officially signed those contracts on Saturday – the first day teams and players were allowed by the NBA to consummate contracts. On Monday, a beaming Ross and a relieved Vucevic talked about what led to them to putting their faith in a Magic franchise they feel is only going to experience more and more success in the years ahead.

``I felt like for us, we both had a lot of other suitors, but our main focus all along was here (in Orlando),’’ said Ross, who noted that he either had contract offers or serious interest from the Lakers, Jazz, Mavericks, Pacers and Kings. ``It was one of those things where we were like, `Hey bro, wanna go and run it back?’ And we both were like, `Yeah.’ It worked out pretty quick because we were on the same page and it worked out perfectly.’’

Added Vucevic, referring to his talks with Ross leading up to free agency: ``We stayed in touch a lot throughout the process and I think it kind of helped calm each of us down because we knew exactly what was going on. We both wanted to come back and I think the fact that we had just had that success and a small taste of it, that made us want to keep this thing going in Orlando. It feels like unfinished business. And it’s fun when you’re a part of something that starts from zero and you see it growing and improving – that had a huge part in our decision to stay.’’

To understand the magnitude of the Magic being able to retain an all-star center and a guard who became the first player in NBA history to make at least 200 3-pointers in a season without starting a game you must understand where the franchise has been in recent years. Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the team, struggled through six years of torturous rebuilding before finally seeing the Magic break through this season. Ross was traded to Orlando 2½ years ago when the franchise was in the midst of another reboot and his previous season was wrecked by a serious knee injury.

Now, however, Ross and Vucevic are confident that things have changed for the better in Orlando under the direction of President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, GM John Hammond and head coach Steve Clifford. Ross said the Magic are now a place that players recognize as a winning and appealing environment.

That proved to be true this offseason with versatile forward Al-Farouq Aminu – a nine-year veteran who has been a part of playoff teams each of the past five seasons – signing a free-agent deal with the Magic on Saturday.

``When I first got here it was a little shaky and we still had to figure things out, but once you win and get a taste of that, it becomes infectious,’’ said Ross, who averaged career highs this past season in scoring (15.1), rebounds (3.5), assists (1.7) and 3-pointers made (217). ``We could all feel it changing around here during the season and when you can be a part of that it’s something really special. Getting to the playoffs like we did and having that success, that was icing on the cake.’’

Weltman, the architect of an Orlando team that had an NBA-best 17-win improvement, said it became apparent to him late in the season that the Magic needed to do everything in their power to retain Vucevic and Ross for the foreseeable future. After Jan. 31, the Magic went on a 22-9 run that saw them defeat the eventual champion Toronto Raptors, Golden State, Indiana (twice) and Miami. Ulitmately, the defining moment of the Magic’s season came on April 7 when they won in Boston to clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2012.

Chemistry can be an elusive and tricky element sometimes in the NBA. Teams don’t always know how they get it, but they’re fully aware when it’s gone. Weltman said the togetherness and effectiveness of the team down the stretch convinced him that the Magic had something special going and they needed to keep it together as long as possible.

``It’s everyone’s goal in this league to figure out, `What is your path to winning? How does that work for your team?’’’ said Weltman, who has used his nearly 30 years of experience in pro basketball to reshape the culture in Orlando. ``Our guys showed that (winning style) at the end of last season and once you establish that then it’s our responsibility to recognize that and then try and build upon it. And it’s the players’ responsibilities to get better and not be satisfied.

``For sure, the way that we finished the season last spring that was an indication that the team was coming together, there was still room for growth and our goal then was trying to bring the same team back the best that we could,’’ he added.

Vucevic, 28, feels that he is just coming into his prime as a standout player after joining Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard as the only Magic players ever to average at least 20 points (20.8) and 12 rebounds (12) a game for a season. The son of a former professional basketball player who played for 24 years, Vucevic has lived in Switzerland, Belgium and Montenegro before coming to the U.S. to chase his hoop dreams. He had several choices of where he could have headed this offseason, but he ultimately decided that Orlando is where he wants to be because he believes in what the Magic are building.

``Orlando feels very much like home for my family and myself,’’ said Vucevic, who should have a chance to move into the top five in most major statistical categories in Magic history by the time his new contract is complete. ``We’ve been here for seven years, we have our house here, my son was born here, and we have a very good life here. That was also a very big part of my decision.

``My wife said for me to do what was best for my career, but at the end of the day what was most important was if certain boxes could be checked on the other things, then it was all about staying here in Orlando,’’ the 7-footer added. ``We really enjoy being in Orlando and that was a huge factor in my decision.’’

The same could be said for Ross, who feels confident that the Magic are poised for a run of success in the coming years. Ross, 28, said he knew Orlando had playoff fever last spring when his son’s elementary school teacher referred to him by his nickname of ``The Human Torch,’’ while picking young Tristan up at school. He said he can’t wait to provide more joy to the success-starved fans in Orlando.

``It’s kind of funny to see that people were so happy around Orlando just because we made the playoffs,’’ Ross said with a smile. ``But we lost 4-1 and that’s not how you want to end it. I’d rather lose on a Kawhi Leonard buzzer beater than go out like we did.

``So, we feel like we still have a lot of unfinished business with this team and we’ll go into next season with a chip on our shoulders,’’ Ross added. ``This past season was a good step in the right direction, but now we’ve got to work to figure out what it’s going to take to get where we want to be and win big. I’m happy I’ll be a part of that here.’’

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.

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