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Vaughn's early NBA experience helps him with the Magic's young players

SALT LAKE CITY — Here, in this city, Jacque Vaughn learned how to survive in the NBA.

Circumstances forced Vaughn into a significant role just months after the Utah Jazz selected him in the 1997 NBA draft. With John Stockton recovering from knee surgery, Vaughn opened his rookie season as Utah's first point guard off the bench.

Sometimes the results were ugly. Sometimes they weren't. But those initial stumbles and successes gave Vaughn a crash course in pro basketball that now, 15 years later, helps him coach the four rookies and three second-year players on the Orlando Magic's roster.

"It's been a little bit of a guidance map, of remembering how that opportunity felt," Vaughn said. "I think for me the biggest thing was understanding how difficult it is to play in this league and the work that goes along with it."

Vaughn and his assistant coaches are attempting to teach those lessons to rookies Maurice Harkless, DeQuan Jones, Andrew Nicholson and Kyle O'Quinn and second-year players Gustavo Ayón, E'Twaun Moore and Nik Vucevic.

The youngsters would benefit from following Vaughn's example. As a player, Vaughn lacked dynamic physical gifts. Instead, he relied on his smarts and his work habits to last 12 seasons in the NBA.

"In one instance, he shared with us his journey from going to not playing to second string and so on," Jones recalled. "He gave us tips and pretty much explained his whole mindset: that he was always ready and he always took pride in the gameplan."

Vucevic and Harkless are entrenched in the Magic starting lineup. Injuries to veteran players forced Jones and Moore to start a total of 10 games. Nicholson and Ayón play regularly. O'Quinn has earned more minutes in recent games.

"I think there's a general sense that it's going to be a process for a lot of these young guys," shooting guard J.J. Redick said.

"They have a lot of potential. They're all good guys. They want to learn and get better. So on a night-to-night basis, you're going to see maybe some inconsistency, but they're doing things every night that maybe they didn't do the night before, and the coaches notice that and point that out."

Vucevic has endured the most conspicuous adjustment. He has started all 17 of Orlando's games, and in that role, he has faced such players as Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez.

He struggled during Orlando's recent homestand, but he has responded with two strong games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors.

"I believe in him, and I believe in his abilities," Vaughn said. "It's honest and it's true, and I tell him that, and I tell him to his face, and I'll keep telling him that. He is a really good basketball player, and he's going to get better."

The benefit to a rebuilding process is, with reduced expectations for the team from outside the organization, it reduces some of the pressure for the rookies and second-year players. When they make mistakes, it's not the end of the world.

Vaughn didn't have that luxury as a young player. The Jazz reached the NBA Finals the season before he was drafted and returned to The Finals his rookie season.

The Magic can afford to be patient. On Sunday night, after one of his young players flubbed a defensive assignment early in the first quarter, Vaughn called a timeout. But Vaughn kept the same players on the floor after the timeout.

Jones thinks the coaches' patience has helped when he and his teammates make mistakes.

"They all understand how this is all new to us and they understand it's a constant progression," Jones said. "But, overall, they're extremely patient."

jbrobbins@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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