Commentary

Arron Afflalo's magical breakthrough

After years as a role player, Orlando's All-Star hopeful is getting his chance to lead

Updated: January 28, 2014, 2:22 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPN.com

Arron Afflalo, Victor OladipoSteve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsArron Afflalo, left, is shouldering the load while Orlando's promising youngsters get up to speed.

Arron Afflalo hears the All-Star talk, and he's flattered. It would be a huge honor, his first time being recognized for the completeness of his individual game, and not just for all the ways he helps a team win games with his defense and outside shooting. A validation of all the hard work he's put in over the years and the way he's blossoming in his seventh year as a pro.

So yes, he's appreciative and flattered just to be mentioned.

There's just one thing, and it's the reason Afflalo's breakout year feels like such a breakthrough, and why an All-Star nod is "not the end all, be all."

"A lot of what I'm doing today, I've been able to do for a long time," Afflalo said. "But just based on the teams I was on, it wasn't being asked of me.

"I've always been, more or less, what the team needed. So if you needed scoring, I could do that. If you needed a defender, I could be that. If you needed a shooter, I'll be that."

In Orlando (12-33), where he's considered one of the veterans at age 28, Afflalo has to be the man for as long as it takes for the Magic's talented young kids to find their way in the league. But in Detroit (which drafted him 27th overall in 2007) and Denver (which signed him to a five-year, $43 million extension in 2011), he was mostly asked to be a "3-and-D guy."

[+] EnlargeArron Afflalo
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesUsed mostly for his long-range shooting and defensive skills early in his career, Afflalo has developed into an all-around talent.

The Pistons still had Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace. The Nuggets had Billups, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.

No one had to explain the realities of the situation to Afflalo; he knew his place. So long as the team was winning 50 games and contending in the playoffs every year, he was fine with it.

"There just wasn't a necessity for me to come in and score points in those situations," he said. "But it didn't mean I couldn't do it, though. That just wasn't the time in my career to complain or try to prove myself as a scorer. I had to be patient and do what they needed me to."

In Orlando, the team needs him to do a little bit of everything: score, make plays for his teammates, defend, post up, be a leader, control the locker room -- everything. And this season he's done it, averaging a career-high 20.4 points a game with a blistering true shooting percentage of 58.9.

Hence the All-Star talk, the compliments on his breakthrough and the satisfaction he feels knowing that he's elevated his game to a level he's always thought was possible.

What's hard is that his individual success hasn't yet translated into wins for his team. The Magic lost 62 games last season and are on pace to lose about the same again in 2013-14.

"If anything, that's what hurts the most," Afflalo said. "It's important that I keep the proper perspective on how things can change so fast in the NBA and to stay positive when you're not winning.

"But [losing] is what probably bothers me the most. Not the individual recognition or lack thereof, it's my impact on winning games, night in and night out. When I'm not feeling that, that's tough to handle.

"I won a state championship in high school, we got to the Final Four in college [UCLA], in Detroit and Denver I was used to 50-win teams. So this really has been the toughest transition in my life. I've never been in a losing situation at all in my life."

So yes, that All Star nod would be nice. It would mean a lot to him. But individual recognition has never been what he's about.

"

I won a state championship in high school, we got to the Final Four in college [UCLA], in Detroit and Denver I was used to 50-win teams. So this really has been the toughest transition in my life. I've never been in a losing situation at all in my life.

" -- Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo

"It was the same thing in high school," said Vadim Malikin, who was an assistant coach at Centennial High in Compton, Calif., when Afflalo starred there, and is now the head coach. "We had another kid, Gabe Pruitt, who was a little more athletic, he had a little more AAU hype behind him. But Arron always thought, 'Man, I'm better than him. I know everybody's touting Gabe, but I'm better. I can do anything he can do.'

"When Gabe transferred as a junior, Arron took a team of guys who'd never played varsity and put them on his back. He averaged 25-5-5, kind of what he's doing right now, and went to adidas camp and led the camp in scoring."

Pruitt ended up going to USC and becoming a second-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, but was out of the NBA two years later. Afflalo went to UCLA, helped lead them to back-to-back Final Fours, and was a first-round draft pick for a Detroit team with championship aspirations.

When he got to Detroit, he did the same thing he'd done in high school and college -- whatever the team needed from him to win.

"That's just him. It comes from his dad and his mom," Malikin said. "He's always played the right way. Even now, if you watch him play in Orlando. If you really watch him play, he could take far more shots than he's taking. But he doesn't. He's trying to play the right way."

The Magic just aren't winning very much. And as much as the losing wears on Afflalo, he's determined not to let it affect his focus or his play. Things can change in an instant in the NBA. One trade, one draft pick and a franchise "can go from this to that, overnight" he said. Afflalo has learned that firsthand through the various trades he's been involved in -- or almost been involved in.

He came to Orlando from Denver in the Dwight Howard trade. His name has come up in trade rumors ever since, most recently last summer, when the Clippers had substantive talks with Orlando as they tried to move Eric Bledsoe. It will likely come up again as the trade deadline approaches next month, even though the Magic have resisted all inquires about him thus far.

It's a huge question for the Magic going forward. Is Afflalo as much a part of their future as he is their present? Do they want him to grow alongside their young players like Victor Oladipo, Andrew Nicholson, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic?

"Honestly I don't think about it too much because I really don't believe, unless I was a free agent, that that's in my power," Afflalo said. "What I do is just focus on my play and let my course become dictated by that and then hopefully I become a piece that [the Magic] definitely want to continue to build with.

"I just want to continue to improve and show that I'm a player you definitely want to keep."

To prepare for his increased role and responsibilities in Orlando this season, Afflalo completely changed his diet and put himself through a rigorous training program in Las Vegas last summer. For 12 weeks he worked out three times a day -- swimming and basketball skills work in the mornings, open gyms in the afternoon and strength training and conditioning at an MMA gym in the evenings.

"It was very intense, that's all I can say," said Malikin, who has worked with Afflalo since he's been in the NBA. "I just think it developed a whole different level of toughness and endurance.

"The intensity was different with MMA. It was like we were training for a fight."

Afflalo always felt he had the skills to play the lead role the Magic were asking of him, he just didn't have the body for it. He wanted to be able to lead at both ends of the court for 48 minutes. To be able to carry a team, not just play a role. He'd been able to do that in flashes last season, but couldn't sustain that level over the whole season.

"He's been serious for a long time," Malikin said. "But once he got put in the role he's been in Orlando, after that first go at it, I think he realized, 'I have the ability to do this, but I need to get myself an extra edge.'"

It's what his team needs right now, which is always what Afflalo has been about. It's also the opportunity he needed to be able to grow and evolve as a player, or maybe just show what's been there all along.

So yes, the All-Star talk is nice. He appreciates it. But if he isn't selected, it will remind Afflalo of what's really important to him in the first place.

"I know a lot of people put a lot of stock into the records of the teams," Afflalo said when asked if the Magic's record might affect his chances.

"It is what it is. That's something I can't control. I can only be the best player that I can be.

"It would show that I'm evolving into that player and growing into that conversation. Whether it becomes reality this year, it's definitely a career goal of mine. But it's not the end all, be all."

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