ORLANDO, Fla. — With all the attention paid last week to where the Orlando Magic and 13 other teams will be picking next month, it is worth remembering that there is a place in the NBA for the undrafted free agent.
DeQuan Jones is an example of that.
Despite starting in only two games as a senior at the University of Miami and never averaging as much as six points a contest in any of his four years there, the 6-foot-8 small forward turned in a rookie season that a handful of lottery picks and several players chosen in the second half of the first round might look upon with envy.
Jones earned a spot on the roster with his speed and athletic ability in training camp and the preseason, and first-year Magic coach Jacque Vaughn inserted him into the starting lineup after Hedo Turkoglu fractured his left hand in the regular-season opener.
For a while, it felt like a flashback to the franchise’s “heart and hustle” era when Doc Rivers was an unproven head coach and the Magic occasionally utilized a lineup comprised of nothing but undrafted players such as Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw and Ben Wallace.
Those similarities didn’t last for long. The Magic flirted with the .500 mark through their first 25 games before their inexperience and a string of injuries jolted them back to reality. And the lasting image of Jones might be when, after both Maurice Harkless and Tobias Harris had fouled out of a game at Miami, he came in cold off the bench and was entrusted with the thankless task of trying to defend LeBron James with the outcome on the line.
Jones, who had gone against James in some pickup games while still in college, had no better luck trying to stop the NBA’s MVP in the closing seconds than Paul George of the Indiana Pacers did in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. The 97-96 loss to the Heat marked one of eight times the Magic were beaten by three or fewer points.
Coming so close twice to defeating both the Heat and the Chicago Bulls gives Jones cause to think the Magic aren’t as far away from playoff contention as their 20-62 record would suggest.
“I believe we’re very close,” he said. “This season was a direct reflection of just being in a lot of close games and with our youth being against us, so to speak, just not knowing how to close out games with the lack of experience. But I believe we can contend for a playoff spot next year.”
Although the Magic are expected to continue to be in a rebuilding mode, it’s unlikely they would take a small forward with the No. 2 pick in the draft. That could give Jones a decent chance at sticking around with a group of players he came to enjoy and respect.
“I know we have a lot of great guys on our team,” Jones said. “But most of all, they’re competitors. And whenever you deal with those types of issues, that brings out the best in you.”
Fellow rookie Doron Lamb didn’t have to overcome quite the same odds Jones did, but his road to the NBA was by no means smooth. Lamb, the 42nd overall selection, was inactive for 22 games with the Milwaukee Bucks and spent six games in the Development League before they packaged him with Harris and Beno Udrih in a deal before the trading deadline.
The 21-year-old guard out of Kentucky gave the Magic a taste of what he might develop into when he knocked down four 3-point field goals in their overtime win over the Bucks. Lamb is the third-youngest player on the team next to Harkless and Harris and thus figures to be part of the summer league squad the Magic will field July 7-12.
What He Did Right
It was commendable for Jones to make the roster as an undrafted rookie, much less start in 17 games. His speed and athleticism were evident, even while averaging less than 13 minutes a game. During the stretch of a few weeks in January, he was starting ahead of first-round pick Maurice Harkless at small forward and getting more playing time than him.
Where He Needs to Improve
On a team full of young players who can be categorized as works in progress, he might need the most work of all. He may never become someone for whom plays are run, but that shouldn’t keep him from developing a dependable jump shot or becoming a better ball-handler. Despite his raw talent, he didn’t block many shots.
March 27 at Charlotte. This was one of the four occasions when he scored in double figures. He made six of his nine field-goal attempts, including some open jump shots, and finished with a career-high 13 points. A week later, he played 36 minutes off the bench at Chicago as the Magic almost knocked off the Bulls.
Given all the playing time Harkless and Tobias Harris received over the final seven weeks, it’s hard to picture Jones being more than a low-cost insurance policy next season. He’s a free agent after making the rookie minimum salary of less than $475,000.