ORLANDO, Fla. — The Orlando Magic are clearly counting on the credo of "defense wins championships" to raise the fortunes of a team with the NBA’s worst combined record over the past two years.
By drafting forward Aaron Gordon of Arizona with the fourth pick and pulling off a trade to acquire the draft rights to guard Elfrid Payton of Louisiana-Lafayette, the Magic added two young players whose defensive skills appear to be well ahead of their shooting abilities. Those talents, as well as the ones shown last season as a rookie by Victor Oladipo, will be under heavy scrutiny since the Magic also traded their leading scorer, Arron Afflalo, to the Denver Nuggets.
The deal involving Afflalo had not become official as of late Thursday night, meaning Magic general manager Rob Hennigan could not comment on any particulars. But he had no shortage of praise for Gordon, who was the leading rebounder as a freshman on a team that came within a game of reaching the Final Four, or Payton, the Sun Belt Conference’s defensive player of the year.
"Any time you have someone who wants to defend and gets excited about defending, that’s a positive thing in our eyes," Hennigan said of Gordon. "His desire to want to compete at that end of the floor is genuine."
The 6-foot-9, 225-pounder was taken even though Dante Exum, the guard from Australia whom many experts had projected as going to the Magic, was still available.
"It wasn’t a huge surprise that I was picked fourth," said Gordon, who won’t turn 19 until Sept. 16. "I have confidence in myself, and I have confidence in my work ethic. It was just the anxiety of being picked."
Gordon averaged 12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds in his one year at Arizona. His vertical leap at the draft combine was measured at 39 inches, and he has a 6-foot-11 wingspan.
On defense, he is regarded as versatile enough to guard smaller players on the perimeter as well as hold his own in the low post. But his offense needs work, as illustrated by his poor free-throw shooting percentage (.422). While he shot almost 50 percent from the floor, most of his baskets came on lobs and dunks, and he often had a hitch in his shot.
When he worked out for the Magic earlier this month, however, the recent work he put in with a shooting instructor who has also tutored Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors appeared to pay off.
"I found my touch," he said. "I shot the ball well. I knocked down my first jumper, and it just kind of relaxed me. I was a little nervous at the beginning, but after that, I got in a groove."
Payton was chosen 10th by the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Magic used the second of their first-round picks at No. 12 to take forward Dario Saric from Croatia. But less than 30 minutes later, multiple reports had the teams swapping picks. Saric had signed a contract last week to play in Turkey for at least the next two years and possibly a third.
The Magic will also send the Sixers a second-round pick in 2015, as well as a first-rounder in 2017.
In the Saric-Payton Jr., deal, Sixers also get back the first-round pick sent to Magic in Dwight Howard deal — likely 2017, source said.
Payton averaged 19.2 points, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals a game as a junior last season in helping Louisiana-Lafayette reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
"We love his toughness," Hennigan said. "We love his competitiveness. We love his desire to want to play defense and compete at that end of the floor. So as the draft started to fall and things started to shake out, we felt it was worth it to go and acquire him using some of the assets we have."
Even if the Magic decide to keep veteran Jameer Nelson rather than waive him before the middle of next month to create an additional $6 million under the salary cap, the combination of Payton and Oladipo would give them two guards who can create transition opportunities with their defense.
Exum went to the Utah Jazz with pick immediately after the Magic’s selection of Gordon.
"There were a lot of good players we had to look at," Hennigan said. "And there are going to be a lot of good players we didn’t select who are going to have really good NBA careers. In that sense, it was a very difficult decision. But we’re excited about adding Aaron Gordon."
In return for Afflalo, the Magic will get guard Evan Fournier and second-round draft pick Roy Devyn Marble. The Nuggets took Marble, a 6-6 guard from Iowa who averaged 17 points a game as a senior, with the 56th overall selection. Fournier was a first-round pick in 2012, chosen one turn after the Magic took forward Andrew Nicholson.
Afflalo averaged nearly 20 points per game last season heading into the All-Star break for a team which ended up with only 23 victories, the third fewest in the NBA. He spent three seasons with the Nuggets before being acquired in August 2012 as part of the four-way trade in which the Magic sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I’m excited," Afflalo told the Orlando Sentinel. "Since I left there, there’s a completely different change in the management, a completely different coaching staff. I’ve always been very appreciative of the Kroenke family. They gave me my first opportunity for success, so to speak. . . . When you play this game, you play to win and you play to have fun with your teammates and build relationships with your teammates. That group of guys that are still currently there are guys that I’ve had the best tenure with in my NBA career."