It's 1 p.m. inside the Orlando Magic's Amway Center offices, and Steve Clifford sits at his desk.
Wearing a light dress shirt and blue jeans, he has spent part of the day talking with Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman.
Clifford also has watched game film of Mohamed Bamba, the 7-foot-1 center the Magic just picked sixth overall in the 2018 NBA Draft. Clifford has paused the playback of one of Bamba's games during Bamba's one-and-done season at the University of Texas. The monitor of Clifford's Macintosh computer displays an image from the Longhorns' home games.
The office is sparsely decorated. After all, the Magic hired Clifford recently, on May 30. The only ornamentation is what Clifford has scrawled on the office's dry-erase boards, including a few plays and the start date of the Magic's training camp.
Clifford takes a few minutes to answer questions from the Orlando Sentinel about Bamba, his first several weeks on the job and his efforts to get to know Magic players, including Aaron Gordon.
Here's the transcript of that conversation.
Orlando Sentinel: From what you've seen of Mohamed Bamba already, what can he ultimately accomplish? What's his ceiling?
Steve Clifford: Oh, he has a tremendous upside. The NBA now is so much about two-way players, versatility and positional size. And he has all of those things. When you start watching him, this stands out right away: his size, length and agility. The rebounding part, the blocked-shot part — those are the things that strike you right away.
But he also, to me, has a very good feel and instincts for the game naturally. He can read the defense. He can anticipate off the ball. I see someone who sees the game, and in this league, it's hard to win if you can't play a smart game. He's going to play an intelligent, smart game, which in this league is paramount.
OS: How do you achieve balance with this team, which seems to be short on shooting at the moment?
Clifford: That's what the summer's for. There's two ways for improvement in the summer, in the offseason. You use the draft, free agency and trades for external development, and then you want internal development. Progress is just as important.
I'll give you an example. We went in Charlotte between our second year and our third year from a team that I believe was 26th in 3-point makes to fourth in makes and eighth in percentage. It was a big part from going from 33 wins to 48 wins. It wasn't all Nic Batum and Jeremy Lin and Troy Daniels. Kemba Walker went from 33 percent to 39 percent, and Marvin Williams made many more. That was all from the work they did in the summer and primarily with [assistant coach] Bruce Kreutzer.
We have that going on right now, too. Some of it is roster-building. One thing I'm pleased with is the younger guys are here. Vooch is here. But these guys are working. Evan's been in Miami; he just stopped in here and he's working hard. D.J. Augustin, I know guys who've coached him, and he's a hard worker. Aaron Gordon? I went out [to California] and watched him. He's an extremely hard worker. Terrence Ross is in here. They're working.
OS: Your team has a lot of centers now. At what point, if not immediately, do you start thinking how you juggle that?
Clifford: We're not even in July yet. We're just getting into free agency.
OS: You mentioned the visit with Aaron Gordon. How many players from last season's roster have you spoken with face-to-face?
Clifford: Most of them. I've spoken with everybody, either by phone or face-to-face. The majority of them I've tried to get in front of so we could talk. With some of them, we've watched film.
I've had more time to watch film, so I feel like I'm a little bit more up to speed on guys and how they play. But to me, that's what this whole offseason is all about. Again, it's not just the external development part. Jeff [Weltman] and [General Manager] John [Hammond] are highly organized. They know how to build a winning team. And then our part is more developing — maxing out the players that we have. So that's what more of my role is.
OS: You went out to San Jose to see Aaron Gordon. You could've just called him up on the phone. Why go out there? And how did that go?
Clifford: It was very good for me because I got to see him work out. When I first got here the first day, the three of us sat down — Jeff, John and I — and they gave me a good evaluation on all the players, where they're at. So it was a great starting point for me. And they had told me what a great worker Aaron was.
So when I went out there I watched him work out in the weight room and then also on the floor. And then we had a good chance to talk, too. So it was good. Obviously, there's a big difference between talking to someone on the phone and meeting them face-to-face. In order to build the right type of player-coach relationship, which is so critical in this league, I just feel like the face-to-face part is much more beneficial.
OS: Where do you stand on your film review of last season?
Clifford: I would say the first thing that stands out is the bad luck. They were 8-4. I don't care who you are, it is hard to withstand the health issues that they had. Terrence Ross playing 24 games and Jonathan Isaac playing 27 games. Vooch missed time. Aaron missed time. They just had so many injuries. I think that was a big part of it. At 8-4 against a difficult schedule, they had gotten off to a good start. That's what I'm looking at as a glass half-full: evaluating the good things that were done in that stretch and then [asking] why weren't they sustainable. And a big part of that was health.
OS: How far through the season are you?
Clifford: Well, I've skipped around a little bit because I want to get a look at different players. So for instance, watching Khem Birch and the younger guys that played later in the year — I've done some of that, too. So I'm skipping around. I'd say I've watched probably a little bit more than a quarter of the games.
OS: Will you watch all 82?
Clifford: That's my plan.
OS: What does a typical day look like for you?
Clifford: A big part of it early was putting the staff together. We're almost done with that. A lot of time was just getting to know the players. We have Jonathan and Wesley [Iwundu] with Rodney Purvis, Khem Birch and Jamel Artis — those guys have been in here four or five days a week. So when they're in here and the coaching staff's working them out, I like to be down [on the court] for that so I can watch them. So that's two or three hours a day.
And then I've spent quite a bit of time on the draft. I'm not nearly as involved. I think coaches have to be careful how much they get involved in the draft. But Jeff did give me film on six or seven guys to watch just so they could get my feedback. So that's taken some time, too.
OS: What else have you gleaned about what Mo Bamba can do offensively right now and what he ultimately can do?
Clifford: They also had some edits of him working out some. To me, [one of the] things that you want to be able to do in today's NBA offensively is play 5-out, which is what I believe he has the potential to be able to do. He shot just under two attempts from 3 a game in college; he shoots it easily. He shot just under 30 percent, but it's new for him. He shot just almost 70 percent from the free-throw line, which is usually a good indicator of what type of range they can have. So I think he'll be able to shoot from there and drive the ball from there.
And then the other thing that he obviously has is, especially because he's such a lob threat with his length, if you can't play 5-out, then I think you're looking for the dynamic roller — the [Clint] Capelas, guys like that, that can put pressure on your defense with the roll game. That is one of the things he fits.
Then, at the other end of the floor, his agility and size and ability to block shots make it so that you're not going to have to give as much help in pick-and-rolls, which is a major, major thing. There are teams now building their whole defense around guys like that. So I'll know more in these next few weeks watching him, but he's the kind of guy you can build a lot of things around that fit in today's NBA.
OS: Jeff Weltman said that with a frontcourt of Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba an opponent ultimately won't be able to small-ball them off the court. Do you see it the same way?
Clifford: Absolutely. All three of those guys have size but they have athleticism and agility. So I totally agree with that.
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