Since trading Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic, prior to this season, had largely gone nowhere. Their record in the three seasons after dealing Dwight: 20-62; 23-59; and 25-57. Such marginal improvement, for a team so low in the standings, was indicative of a team going in circles, rather than forward. And the reality with a young team is that you cannot keep it together forever unless you believe it can win, because extension years come eventually, and you cannot pay everyone if you’re not going to win with them.
The Magic then made an excellent move to trigger development in their young talent absent prior to this season: they hired Scott Skiles. And with Skiles and his Magic sitting at 12-10, it is clear that he has caused the roster to turn the corner. Yet, Skiles has a reputation as a coach who is bad for young players because of his tough personality, and an apparent unwillingness to be patient with young players. It led to his hire in Orlando being questioned in several circles. As the school of thought goes, you cannot be too hard on young players, or they will go into their shells rather than developing. And you should provide young players with 30-35 minutes per game when rebuilding, so that they can develop. The worry was Skiles would fail at both tasks in Orlando.
To the contrary, if the goal when heading a young team is to turn young talents into young winners, Skiles has done a splendid job, and he has done so by doing things his way. He has shown that expecting young players to win, and not giving them minutes unless they earn them, are way more valuable to player development than many believe.
Coaches should be tough on their young players, as Skiles has been in Orlando by expecting them to win games. That toughness spurs development, and pushes young players to perform. One of the worst environments for a young player to be in is a place where failure is considered ok, or normal. The worst attitude an organization can have is, “it’s fine, you guys are young, you’ll develop in three years.” That type of culture leads to an acceptance of losing. It fosters an environment where, frankly, players are more likely to give less than 110%, in practice and on the court. Why leg out that last sprint in August when your legs are burning, if 25-57 next year is ok so long as you are getting development minutes? If losing is acceptable, why, when the rubber hits the road against a playoff team beginning to assert itself in a game, take the challenge head on. It can be so tempting to back down from the challenge rather than battle, especially when losing is accepted as the norm during development. But Skiles will not allow for such attitudes in Orlando.
Skiles benching Victor Oladipo is a perfect example of his tutelage at work. Skiles did not banish Oladipo from his rotation, or put him in a proverbial doghouse. He did it for the good of the team. Skiles felt Oladipo as a starter was not in the Magic’s best interests in trying to reach the playoffs. He wanted Oladipo to help his team from a bench role, for the greater good. He felt his starting lineup needed Channing Frye’s shooting. He taught Oladipo, in the process, that winning requires sacrifice . . . even if you are a prized youngster drafted in the top five overall.
It worked: the Magic are 6-2 since.
Talent alone does not win games, in any sport. Almost every athlete has talent. But not every athlete converts that talent into a package that can deliver wins. Just because a basketball player is a great talent, does not mean he is a great player. Skiles is coaxing his young players to bridge that gap by refusing to allow them to accept losing, and it is pushing them to places where they have never been before.
In addition to fostering a culture where winning is expected from his young players, Skiles has done another great thing in Orlando: make his young players earn their minutes. The criticism of franchises like the Lakers, where young players are losing minutes, tends to be “their young players need 35 minutes per game.” And yes, you do not want to banish your youth while Kobe Bryant has a 30% usage rate. There is a balance. Still, Skiles understands that this balance should not be struck in favor of handing young players 30-35 minutes without earning them.
Skiles has made his young players earn each and every of their minutes, and they are and will be better off in their careers for it. In requiring that minutes be earned, Skiles has in no way banished his young pieces. He is heavily reliant on Tobias Harris, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, and even Andrew Nicholson and Aaron Gordon, while Oladipo sees significant bench minutes. However, he has been criticized for not giving significant playing time to prized draft pick Mario Hezonja, and even in some corners for the move of Victor Oladipo to the bench, as the move was seen as a “win now” move, rather than a long term consideration.
Those criticisms are entirely undeserved, as we see Skiles’ young Magic develop before our eyes. A huge reason for that is that Skiles is making his young players earn their minutes, and that burden has boosted their development. Harris, Vucevic, Payton, and the rest of the roster know that if they want to play, they need to provide 110% effort, take good shots, be unselfish, be active defensively, dive for loose balls, and put the team’s output above their individual statistics. There are consequences for being lazy on defense, for taking bad shots. Indeed, development is not linear, and and the idea that coaches should sit back and just watch young players make mistakes in perhaps unearned minutes does not foster development.
Think about how often a young team in sports bursts onto the playoff scene, and we hear “they are ahead of schedule.” That’s because there is no schedule. Player development is sometimes slow, sometimes exponential, and rarely is a slow burn. Placing players in pressure packed situations, where they are to learn and perform or lose minutes, nudges players toward that exponential development. There is a reason, beyond just talent, that so many young players on good teams, where they are asked to fill a role and fill it well or else they will sit (like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, or Paul George), have developed exponentially. A player like Hezonja is not playing much because he has weaknesses, and has not earned that right. Rather than reinforcing that those weaknesses and warts are acceptable, Skiles is forcing Hezonja to improve so that he can earn his playing time. And when he does, the 15-25 minutes per night he may earn will be more fruitful than just handing him minutes right now he does not deserve, and teaching him that his bad habits are acceptable. Despite the hesitance of many to see young players on the bench, there is value in Hezonja observing other players defending and making good rotations, diving for loose balls, and being unselfish, and saying to himself “I can see why I am not out there.”
Skiles also understands that not only don’t unearned minutes trigger development, but they can have unintended consequences. One of the easiest ways for a player to develop the attitude that he is bigger than the team is to, quite literally, show him that he is bigger than the team, by giving him minutes he does not deserve because he was drafted high, or is a player management wants to see develop.
Overall, Skiles has created a culture in Orlando where his young pieces are expected to deliver, and where their minutes are not a given unless they win, or at least defend and play the right way. And that is great for his players. There are no greater teachers than, not just experience, but also pressure, as you try to evolve from a talent, into a winner. When it is 85-82 with 4 minutes left, hearts are beating quickly. The game becomes tougher to read. Tougher to process. The best teacher there is for a young player is not only earning the right to be in that situation, but being asked to problem solve in that situation. Scott Skiles is not patting his young Magic on the back for being young, and being content with “no consequences, this is just the development stage” moral victories. He is asking them to problem solve and deliver in those elevated heartbeat situations. That’s how his young players grow into winners. That’s also how his young players, by problem solving together, grow into a team and unit. There are simply no substitutes for those lessons.
The opposite organizational approach to how Skiles has pushed his young talent? Look at the culture in Philadelphia, at least prior to the hiring of Jerry Colangelo. Philadelphia so deeply invested in draft a superstar or bust, that there was, literally, no urgency to win games. Wins have even been viewed as a negative in light of the year’s coming draft, or a miracle given their infrequence. And you can see how unable their players are to close games, or to even make plays in fourth quarters of games. That leads to the development of bad habits, and bad attitudes. How are Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor supposed to see themselves as a part of their team, rather than as bigger than the team, when their team burned entire seasons tanking to draft them, then surrounded them with the most disposable of parts that clearly do not matter to the overall plan? That is how you build a group of individuals rather than a team.
The education Skiles has given Harris, Vucevic, Payton, Oladipo, and the rest of his young Magic is something Noel, Okafor, and Embiid have not even sniffed in Philadelphia. That shows how great of a job Skiles has done (and also is a window into why the Sixers hired Colangelo, for that matter.
Indeed, Skiles has not just disproven the notion that he cannot develop young talent. He has developed his young talent into players who know how to win games.
And to date, his tenure in Orlando, despite criticism of his hire, has been a huge success.