Inside the Magic: How Orlando’s assistant coaches chart during games

by Josh Robbins

NEW YORK — The Orlando Magic fared well on their first offensive possession Monday against the Atlanta Hawks. D.J. Augustin brought the ball upcourt and passed to Nikola Vucevic. Evan Fournier cut along the baseline, toward the lane, and caught a pass from Vucevic.

Fournier received the ball underneath the hoop and, in a difficult position to shoot, hurled the ball to the perimeter, where Jonathon Simmons stood on the right wing.

Simmons drove into the center of the lane, passed out to Augustin on the left wing, and Augustin hurled the ball to Vucevic at the top of the arc.

Vucevic dribbled forward along the inside of the right edge of the lane, drew contact on Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon and flung a shot off the backboard and into the hoop. A referee called a foul.

It was effective offense. Over the course of 18 seconds, the Magic made five passes and generated three paint touches, instances in which the team possessed the ball in the lane. The combination of ball movement and opportunistic drives forced the Hawks to scramble. The effort produced Vucevic’s basket and an ensuing free throw, which Vucevic sank.

Magic associate coach/player development Rick Higgins watched the action closely. Higgins remains busy during a game. His responsibilities include tabulating the total number of paint touches the Magic generate and the percentage of possessions with at least one paint touch.

Higgins sat directly behind the Magic bench. Immediately after Simmons drove into the lane and passed, Higgins looked down at a pad of paper for a fraction of a second, jotted something down and started monitoring the game again. Then, after Vucevic scored, Higgins looked down again and scribbled additional notes for several seconds.

Higgins is not alone in his work. Assistant coaches Pat Delany, Steve Hetzel and Bruce Kreutzer also chart different elements of the game as the game progresses. Almost every action on the court results in some notation by either Delany, Hetzel, Kreutzer or Higgins. Their work — along with the observations of coach Steve Clifford and assistant coaches Tyrone Corbin and Mike Batiste and the box score itself — helps make sense of a game as it occurs.

“To me,” Clifford said, “the only way that you can truly get better is if you really know what happened. And without all that information, it’s hard to really know what happened in the game. So that’s the big advantage of doing all this stuff.”

Delany tracks the Magic’s defensive activity. Hetzel tallies the play calls the Magic run and the results of those plays. Kreutzer keeps a detailed shot chart that identifies where the team is taking its shots, making its shots and how it is generating those opportunities.

If all that work sounds simple and complex all at the same time, well, it is.

All of the coaches have extensive, wide-ranging résumés, and their experience enables them to juggle multiple responsibilities during the course of a game.

Hetzel, whose background includes stints as a G League head coach and as the head video coordinator for the Cleveland Cavaliers, works closely with Fournier, Isaiah Briscoe, Jerian Grant and Terrence Ross. So in addition to charting the results of certain offensive sets and monitoring the overall flow of a game, Hetzel also is keeping an especially keen eye on Briscoe, Fournier, Grant and Ross.

“The charting part is really simple,” Hetzel said. “It’s kind of in our coaching DNA to know what the play that we’re running is. You can hear the play and also you can identify the play by the way that it’s being run. So it only takes a second to recognize the actual play. And then you’re constantly watching what’s going on within the game, so it doesn’t occupy a lot of my time or my concentration.”

The in-game charting may be simple for Hetzel and his colleagues, but their efforts are important. Their work also reveals areas that Clifford values and the areas the coaching staff emphasizes to the players.

This is a rundown of what Magic assistant coaches track in real time.

‘Energy and activity on defense’

Delany tracks deflections.

The number of deflections the Magic make — the number of times the team’s defenders get their hands on the ball — tends to indicate how well the defense as a whole performs.

“It speaks to our overall energy and activity on defense,” Delany said.

The goal, Clifford said, is for the team to record at least 38 deflections per game.

“Thirty-eight is usually a pretty good indicator,” Clifford said. “If you get 38, it usually shows an energy level — not that you’re going to win but that you’re going to play good defensively.”

During Monday’s 122-103 victory over the Hawks, for instance, the Magic generated 42 deflections, an unusually high number, Clifford said.

On Jan. 16, the Magic lost to the Detroit Pistons 120-115 in overtime, and the Magic had only 24 deflections, an unusually low number, Clifford said.

Pat Delany, shown here coaching Orlando’s summer league team in 2018, tracks the deflections Magic defenders make during a game. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

Clifford, Delany and the entire Magic coaching staff preach the value of having active hands without fouling.

“You can’t let guys just zip the ball by you, whether you’re a big guy or a perimeter guy,” Clifford said. “Some guys (deflect the ball) very naturally. Other guys can learn how to do it. It’s always been a big deal. But you play these teams where four guys are out shooting 3s and five (guys are out shooting 3s); if that ball is being snapped around, you’ve got no shot (to win).

“So deflections are a big deal. Ball pressure is a bigger deal. It’s still the same thing. Think about when you were a kid. It’s one of the first things they’ll teach you, youth coaches: ball pressure, contest shots, contest passes. The major things at every level remain the same.”

Magic coaches place such a high value on deflections that Delany will write the team’s total at halftime on a dry-erase board in the team’s locker room.

Every 10 games, players will receive data on the number of deflections they have made. That data will include their individual ranking on the team and how the team is faring as a group.

“I would say deflections are something that we rely on pretty heavily,” Delany said. “If we’re at a high number, the defense is usually pretty good when that happens.”

Identifying offensive trends

Hetzel will chart the Magic’s offensive play calls and the results of those calls.

“We keep an overall frequency of the plays that we run,” Hetzel said. “With that, we can get all the data of our success rate.

“It just helps us in the game to say, ‘Hey, we’ve run this play three times. We’ve been successful three out of five times. Let’s look to either go to that or go to a similar action that we have within a different play call.”

Clifford and the rest of the coaches, of course, already have a good feel for how successful the team has been with specific sets during a game. But Hetzel is able to offer concrete figures in real time. The data can be used to confirm a hunch when Clifford needs to call a play at a critical stage of the game.

Hetzel can tell Clifford specifics, such as how, exactly, the Magic are generating their layup and 3-point opportunities. Hetzel can identify specific trends, such as the Magic having significant success with high pick-and-rolls.

Mapping Magic shots

One of Kreutzer’s biggest areas of expertise is helping players hone their shooting mechanics. He estimates he works with 12 of the 15 players on the Magic roster.

During a game, he will keep a detailed shot chart that identifies where the team is making its shot attempts and how they’re getting those shot attempts. Kreutzer also will track the makes and misses as well as the number of free-throw makes and misses.

Clifford can ask Kreutzer in the middle of a game how many attempts the team has had inside the paint, and Kreutzer can offer an immediate answer. The answer even can be broken down, if necessary, quarter-by-quarter.

One of the reasons a shot chart is important is that the coaches discuss with players where shots should be taken during particular sets. By monitoring where players take their shots, Kreutzer can provide immediate feedback.

Kreutzer also watches whether defenders slide under when the Magic run pick-and-rolls — in other words when defenders take a path between the screener and the hoop. Defenses use that tactic when they are not concerned about the ballhandler’s perimeter shooting.

‘Preach and teach’

When Clifford talks about the importance of playing “inside-out,” he is referring to having a player catch or drive the ball into the paint and then, once defenders collapse toward the ball, pass toward the perimeter. The goal is to force a defense into rotations.

Then, with savvy and patient ball movement as well as enough capable outside shooters, an offense can ultimately generate a spot-up 3-pointer. Spot-up 3-pointers should be efficient shots.

This explains why Orlando’s coaches place such a high emphasis on paint touches. A possession with paint touches can eventually result in open 3s.

“It’s extremely important in the sense that you’re making the defense move multiple directions,” Higgins said. “Anytime anybody has to move one direction and then try to get back out to where they originally came from, the pace of it is going to be substantially slower (than if he’s going in one direction all the time).”

Higgins tracks the total number of paint touches the Magic have in a game, the number of offensive possessions with a paint touch and the number of possessions without a paint touch.

The Magic’s goal, Clifford said, is to have at least 70 percent of their possessions include at least one paint touch.

Higgins tracks how those paint touches occurred: whether they came via passes, drives or cuts. He also will tabulate paint catches on post-ups.

Every coach on the Magic’s staff stresses the importance of getting the ball into the lane, and the players receive concrete data that shows how possessions with a paint touch yield more points on average than possessions without a paint touch.

Monday’s win over the Hawks offered proof.

After a game ends, the Magic’s video specialists will load the clips of the team’s offensive possessions onto the assistant coaches’ laptops. Then, Batiste will pore through each possession. One of the areas he tabulates is how many points the team scores when the ball hits the paint and when it does not hit the paint.

Against the Hawks, the Magic scored on 34 of 56 possessions when the ball hit the paint, yielding 69 points, Clifford said. The Magic scored on 25 of 54 possessions when the ball did not hit the paint, producing 53 points.

“We really preach and teach these guys about paint shots: how easy it is to get uncontested shots when the ball hits the paint,” Batiste said. “You can get good shots when the ball doesn’t hit the paint, but it’s not as effective as when the ball hits the paint and you get uncontested 3s or you get shots at the rim.”

Helping out

Last Friday, the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation awarded a total of $1.2 million to 16 local charities.

“There’s so much need in our community, in particular for at-risk youth, and these organizations are doing such great work,” Magic CEO Alex Martins said. “For us to play a small role in helping them do their work through these grants is very gratifying to us.”

The Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida and Grace Medical Home received a collaborative grant totaling $300,000 over the next three years. The nonprofits will team up to provide a dietician to children when they arrive at Grace Medical Home for treatment. The dietician will help the kids and their families understand how healthy foods can help the children recover faster from their illnesses.

The dietician will write a prescription of sorts that will enable the kids’ families to go to one of Second Harvest’s food pantries (or one of Second Harvest’s partners) and obtain nutritious food.

“This is brand new to really look at these kids that are at risk,” said Jennifer Landress, stewardship and special projects manager for Second Harvest. “This is adding a dietician who is going to check in with these kids and really personalize care. This wouldn’t exist without this money.”

Old friend

The Magic had not played the Hawks this season until Monday, an unusually late date in the calendar to face a Southeast Division rival for the first time.

When the game finally did occur, the Magic saw several familiar faces, including former Orlando assistant coach Matt Hill.

Hill originally joined the Magic in 2012 as a video analyst. During his six-year Magic tenure, Hill worked closely with three different head coaches: Jacque Vaughn, Scott Skiles and Frank Vogel. Hill eventually become an assistant coach under Vogel.

Hill, a former big man who played at the University of Texas, was the lone assistant coach the Magic retained after the team fired Vogel last April. Hill chose to accept a Hawks assistant-coaching job on the staff of first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce.

“He’s got great connections with players and great experience being at UT playing with Kevin Durant and being in Orlando and working with the different coaching staffs and all the players,” Pierce said.

“I try and categorize all of my coaches as ‘coaches’ and not put them in a box. He’s a big man, but he’s not a big man’s coach. He’s a coach, and I think all of our guys do a good job of coaching. Having the experience of working in Orlando with Frank and with Jacque and with Skiles, he’s got three different coaching styles (to draw from). That’s how I grew up in the NBA. … There’s a lot to be said about having versatility in your experience of having worked with different coaches and different styles. You just see the game in its totality.”