ORLANDO, Fla. — Andrew Nicholson is far from the first player in NBA history to have experienced defeat more often as a rookie than he did during four years in college.
The Orlando Magic were pleased with the mental toughness their first-round draft pick of a year ago showed during the occasional ups and many downs of a 20-62 season. It’s Nicholson’s physical toughness which will be more of an issue in the months ahead.
The 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward from St. Bonaventure has relied on basketball smarts more than brute strength to get to where he is. While the Magic aren’t asking him to abandon the brains-above-brawn approach, he’s sure to continue being one of the top priorities of strength and conditioning coach Joe Rogowski.
“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, probably pick it up a little bit in the summertime in the weight room,” said Nicholson, who recorded two double-doubles during a three-week stretch in February but was frequently outmuscled on the boards.
The lumps that he took along the way weren’t confined to games that the Magic lost. In a win over Indiana, Nicholson tied a dubious record by picking up six fouls in the fourth quarter. Two of them came when he and the Pacers’ Tyler Hansbrough, who has gotten underneath the skin of the Miami Heat’s Chris Andersen during the Eastern Conference finals, were called for double fouls in a span of 65 seconds.
“He is learning about the NBA,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said afterward of Nicholson. “I can’t teach those lessons in practice. He’s learning how to play versus an extremely physical guy, learning how to fight adversity and how to play with referees on the floor, how to play with poise.”
But there were breakthrough moments, particularly during the Magic’s 12-13 start. He gave them 19 points and nine rebounds off the bench in a victory at Phoenix, and that was followed two games later by 15 points and four blocks against the Golden State Warriors.
Nicholson made his first start Dec. 21 at Toronto. Maurice Harkless was also in Vaughn’s lineup that night, making it the first time since April 2005 that the Magic had opened a contest with two rookies. It also came two days after Glen Davis, who started every game at power forward to that point, suffered a sprained left shoulder.
Should Davis be back at full strength when training camp rolls around, going against the rough-and-tumble veteran on a daily basis ought to provide a measure of how far Nicholson has progressed.
“I can’t make the same mistakes I made as a rookie,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep building on what I started this year.”
Getting stronger and developing more consistency on defense should go a long way toward helping Nicholson put behind him the memory of the second-worst season in the franchise’s 24-year history.
“We got 20 wins this year, so we don’t want to repeat that next year,” he said.
Like Nicholson, second-round pick Kyle O’Quinn came to the Magic after a four-year career in college. It wasn’t until just before the All-Star break that the 6-10 product of Norfolk State began receiving anything close to regular minutes. But once O’Quinn got his chance, he quickly caught on with fans because of his all-out hustle and deft shooting touch.
When Nikola Vucevic was unable to go at New York on March 20, he came off the bench and provided 12 points and 14 rebounds. A week later at Charlotte, he established a career high with 23 points.
But the individual progress made by O’Quinn was offset by the repeated losses he and the Magic had to absorb.
“This year was a pretty rough year,” he said. “We didn’t win a lot of games, and we’re obviously not happy about it. But we’re all going to work hard this summer.”
What He Did Right
He played in 75 of 82 games, including 28 starts, and was a 52.7 percent shooter from the floor. His accuracy from 15 to 20 feet is above average for someone his size, and he is fundamentally sound. The Magic were represented by him and Nikola Vucevic during All-Star Weekend at the Rising Stars Challenge featuring the top first- and second-year players.
Where He Needs to Improve
Opposing teams often took advantage of his inexperience, particularly when he was on defense. Nicholson may never develop a mean streak, but an offseason program that includes lots of time in the weight room should make him more physically prepared for his second NBA season. For someone listed as a power forward, he didn’t average many rebounds (3.4 in 16.7 minutes a game).
Feb. 8 at Cleveland. With a sizeable contingent of fans from St. Bonaventure having made the two-hour drive to cheer him on, Nicholson scored 21 points against the Cavaliers on 9-of-13 shooting. He also pulled down eight rebounds and blocked two shots.
Given how well Tobias Harris played over the last two months after being acquired in a trade, Nicholson could have a hard time getting increased minutes next season. It wouldn’t be out of the question to see him offered on the trade market, especially if the Magic intend to become more of an uptempo team.