Evan Fournier returns to Denver in larger role for Magic
ORLANDO, Fla. — As 2014 drew to a close, the weather forecast called for a low of 13 below in Denver and the possibility of four inches of snow over the weekend.
When Evan Fournier awoke to begin the new year, temperatures in Orlando were expected to get up to 65 degrees.
It hasn’t just been in a climate-related sense where the 22-year-old native of France has warmed to his surroundings with the Orlando Magic. When Fournier plays Wednesday night for the first time at Denver since the Nuggets traded him and the draft rights to Devyn Marble for Arron Afflalo last June, the Magic will bring with them a 6-foot-7 guard whose confidence has been bolstered by his increased responsibilities.
"First of all, I’m playing 30 minutes a game," Fournier said before the Magic began a four-game trip which will also take them to Los Angeles, Portland and Chicago. "When you play 30 minutes and you only play 19 (in Denver), you have the opportunity to do a lot more stuff. And being in pick-and-roll situations, handling the ball, just being the guy who I was in France."
Though the decision two weeks ago to move rookie Elfrid Payton into the starting lineup alongside Victor Oladipo means Fournier now comes off the bench, his playing time has held steady. He played the entire fourth quarter Friday night as the Magic went from trailing the Brooklyn Nets 86-61 when the final 12 minutes began to having a chance to tie them at 98 with less than 30 seconds to go if Fournier’s 3-pointer from the top of the key hadn’t bounced off the rim.
"I’m still playing 30, 32 minutes a game," he said. "I just have to be aggressive, to get into the paint, get good shots, find my teammates. So my role doesn’t really change."
Fournier already has 16 games of 15 or more points in less than half a season with the Magic. He had the same number of such games in 114 contests over two years with the Nuggets. While Afflalo (14.7) is averaging more points a game than him (13.6), the rest of their major categories are almost identical.
An injury which sidelined Oladipo for the entire preseason gave Fournier a chance to play more minutes than he would have otherwise. There were occasional rough spots, but back-to-back road games in early November of more than 20 points — including a career high of 28 in a win at New York — made a believer out of coach Jacque Vaughn.
"You definitely see a European-based game, whether it’s him passing and cutting or his ability to jump off the opposite foot," he said. "You see those things that we’ve allowed him to do because we’ve put the basketball in his hand. A little different than the looks he got when he was in Denver last year."
Despite playing in twice as many games as he did as a rookie with the Nuggets, Fournier grew unhappy with the style of play implemented by first-year coach and former Magic guard Brian Shaw. When he was taken with the 20th pick in the first round of the 2012 draft, one turn after the Magic selected forward Andrew Nicholson, the Nuggets had George Karl as their coach and Masai Ujiri as their general manager. Ujiri stepped down in May 2013 to take a similar position with the Toronto Raptors, and Karl parted ways with them a week later.
"It was just the system, the way we played changed," Fournier said. "The first year with George, there was a lot of random basketball — getting into the paint, attack, attack, attack and keep attacking, always being in attack mode. The second year was more trying to play a different style of basketball, halfcourt. Obviously it was a transition year for all of us because you have a new coach, new GM (Tim Connelly), new players. So it was not easy."
While admitting the Magic’s type of offense is closer to Shaw’s than Karl’s, Fournier has proven to be a better fit for what Vaughn is trying to do. He handed out a career-high eight assists Nov. 17 in a victory and Detroit and hit at least one 3-point field goal in each of his first 26 games.
"It was something I was working on my first two years in Denver," he said. "When I got drafted, I was shooting 27 percent from 3. So I just really worked on it. I got better. And now it’s one of my strengths."
Often it’s the things not in the box score which leave a favorable impression on Vaughn, who saw Fournier try to get the bench involved in a game at Charlotte where the Magic trailed by as many as 23 points before rallying to win. His competitiveness might have been most on display last month at Toronto when Fournier returned to the game one quarter after a stray elbow by the Raptors’ Tyler Hansbrough left him bleeding profusely with a cut that required seven stitches to close.
"I really enjoy being around that," Vaughn said.
The Nuggets went from winning 57 games when Fournier was a rookie to only 36 in his final season with them. Despite that, his memories of there remain fond.
"I was surprised at how beautiful Denver was — the mountains and everything," he said. "I had a great time there."
But now he’s in a place where he feels wanted. In the case of center Nikola Vucevic, he even has a teammate with whom he can converse fluently in French.
And when Fournier had his parents and in-laws in town for the holidays, there was no need to bundle up against the elements.
"Obviously the weather is unbelievable. I mean, that’s the best part of Orlando," he said. "And of course you have all these parks — Disney World, Universal. So it’s great when my family comes that we can have a good time enjoying ourselves."