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Magic remain optimistic as post-Howard era begins

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Magic remain optimistic as post-Howard era begins

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) In the building Dwight Howard's exploits helped build it's hard to find even the smallest remnant of the former Orlando center these days.

The photographs, murals and other likenesses that once adorned virtually every other crevice inside the Magic's Amway Center have been scraped away, now just painful reminders of championship aspirations never realized.

After taking the Magic through one of the most tumultuous years in their history, the six-time all-star who called himself Superman is now a villain - departed from the city he once pledged to take to its first NBA title.

Change is everywhere for the new-look Magic.

Orlando enters the season with a new general manager, coach and roster full of new faces - and a promise to recover is the rallying cry of those that are left.

The marketing slogan for the first year of the post-Howard era: ``We will.''

``It's a new, exciting beginning, a new era for Magic basketball,'' CEO Alex Martins said. ``It's great to see a bunch of guys in camp that really want to be here and really want to wear that Orlando Magic on front of their uniform.''

Whatever the mood following the divorce from Howard, change is not a new word here. After all, the franchise is helped by similar wholesale upheaval following the departure of Shaquille O'Neal in 1996 to the same Los Angeles Lakers team that Howard now finds himself.

Since taking over for fired coach Stan Van Gundy, first-year coach Jacque Vaughn has not shied away from the new slate he's been handed by first-time general manager Rob Hennigan. He's also selling a fresh start approach to a roster that returns just four players that have been with the organization more than one season.

One of those players, point guard Jameer Nelson, isn't fearing the newness, even though he acknowledges it will be a vastly different team now.

``I think we can be better than people think because they don't know, nobody knows what's gonna happen,'' Nelson said. ``So for people to count us out automatically, that's just people writing things. It's up to us to go out there and work hard, make ourselves better and establish an identity.''

Health will be an extra impediment for the Magic, at least during the early part of the season.

Vaughn was one of the last coaches to begin the cut down process for his regular-season roster because so many members of his projected rotation spent most of the preseason on the mend.

With shooting guard Jason Richardson, forward Ryan Anderson and Howard all gone from last year's starting lineup, Nelson and forward Hedo Turkoglu entered training camp as the only holdovers.

But Vaughn has been curtailed in seeing what will likely be his opening night lineup of Nelson, shooting guard Arron Afflalo, forwards Turkoglu and Glen Davis and center Nik Vucevic, mostly because Afflalo has been restricted by a nagging sore left hamstring.

Other expected rotation contributors also have also spent their preseasons rehabbing injuries, including rookie forward Maurice Harkless (sports hernia surgery), forward Al Harrington (knee surgery), backup point guard Ish Smith (shoulder surgery) and swingman Christian Eyenga (hamstring).

It's all going to demand a coach with a lot of patience to manage a group that likely won't be in the best position to produce the Magic's fifth 50-win season in the last six seasons or seventh consecutive playoff appearance.

The 37-year-old Vaughn fashions himself as a no frills person who has a calm demeanor that he says won't change. Even as he becomes the league's youngest head coach.

``That's the most important thing, for me not to pretend to be anyone else but myself,'' Vaughn said. ``That's how I've been and that' great advice for me going forward...I will be me.''

His mentor as a player and assistant the past two seasons in San Antonio, Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich, said that he doesn't think Vaughn will have trouble finding his coaching legs.

``We're all different,'' Popovich said. ``He'll do it with a lot more class than I do it. If I get angry, it shows up on a sleeve...But he in that sense is a lot classier and lot more mature. And I think over time that will serve him really well.

``I have to be who I am and he has to be who he is. But he's a much more calm individual. Now, he will get miffed from time to time and they will test his patience from time to time, like any time would and he'll be as direct as he needs to be.''

The good news for Vaughn is that he seems to have a group that is primed to embrace the remaking of the Magic.

Vaughn has promised an up-tempo, free-willing approach to his offense and merit-based system for playing time that has piqued everyone's interests.

That is particularly true for an upward trajectory player like Afflalo, who will have a role with the Magic that could allow him to raise his profile like he never really had the opportunity to do in Detroit or Denver.

His outputs, most notably his scoring, have improved each of his five seasons in the league. Though he shuns any talk of being able to be a first-time all-star, he says he's ready to be counted on.

``I want to be a versatile player for this team,'' Afflalo said. ``To be able to score, to defend, to mentor. Whatever the coach needs, if I can enable this team to be successful, I want to be able to do it.''

Davis said no one in the locker room is thinking about who isn't in it anymore.

``The only all-star in here is Jameer. So, for us to be successful we're gonna have to use each other,'' he said. ``We're gonna have to play basketball. And that is making sure we execute whatever coach wants us to do...The mentality that (Vaughn) has us playing, he's telling us to play free, with the right mindset and great spirit...That's what it's about and what we have to do to be successful.''

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Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter athttp://www.twitter.com/khightower

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Wizards coach Scott Brooks issues strong defense of John Wall after win over Clippers

Wizards coach Scott Brooks issues strong defense of John Wall after win over Clippers

After his team showed resilience in erasing a 24-point lead to beat the L.A. Clippers on Tuesday night, head coach Scott Brooks swept aside an opportunity to fire back at critics of himself and his team following a barrage of negative headlines in recent days.

Brooks did, however, take the time to address one particular angle of the whole mess. He issued a passionate defense of his star point guard, John Wall, who has been at the center of the controversies surrounding the organization.

Brooks and Wall had an altercation last week during practice that led to Wall receiving a fine from the team. Brooks spoke at length about the incident itself at shootaround. After Tuesday's win, he honed in on a specific criticism of Wall, that he is out of shape and not giving an honest effort on the floor.

"John, he's been taking hits. Let's face it," Brooks said. "You hear all the reports that he's heavy. The guy has seven percent body fat..."

"He's in great shape. I like the way he plays. He plays hard."

Brooks went on to point out how Wall hasn't been playing at 100 percent for much of this season. Wall has dealt with a deep thigh bruise and it's partly to explain for the Wizards' 6-11 start.

The overall numbers look about how they should for Wall.

He's averaging 21.5 points, 7.9 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting 44.4 percent from the field. But his defense has been lacking and he's not getting the assists he usually collects because he hasn't had the same burst in transition.

Playing through injuries is always tricky for professional athletes. When people know they're hurt, that effort is often appreciated. But when the injuries aren't disclosed, fans and members of the media can only draw conclusions based on what they see.

Brooks explained in detail why he thinks Wall should be cut some slack for his start to the season.

"He's a warrior. There's a lot of guys that I've seen in my playing career that they love to sit out. They're just talented and they've got talented contracts. They sit out and you can't do anything about it. You admire and you appreciate and you celebrate the guys that play hard. You don't have to tell the world that he's banged up," Brooks said.

"He didn't say one word and I wasn't gonna say it. It's over. He's feeling great. He's fought. He's not gonna tell the world 'look at me, I'm sore.' He doesn't want your sympathy. He just fights and he plays the right way. He plays hard."

Brooks is clearly trying to stick up for his star player and change the current media narrative.

As long as the Wizards win, that shouldn't be hard to do.

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Emotional John Wall opens up about trade rumors, coming arrival of son after comeback win

Emotional John Wall opens up about trade rumors, coming arrival of son after comeback win

The subject of trade rumors and reports of in-fighting at Wizards practice over the past few days, John Wall proved his worth to the Wizards on the court Tuesday night. 

Washington trailed the Clippers by as many as 24 points, but Wall helped orchestrate a furious comeback which concluded in a 125-118 Washington win. Wall led all scorers with 30 points and dished out eight assists. 

After the game, Wall opened up to NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller about the cloud of controversy which has surrounded the Wizards this week, as well as a far more serious matter in his personal life: he's gonna be a dad soon!

"It's amazing, man. All the heart and effort and drive I've had for this organization, this team, to hear certain things like being traded, I try to stay focused," he told Miller. "Focused on getting ready to have my new son, trying to turn this organization around, this franchise around and win some games."

"All it is is go out there and compete, dog. All of us go out here and compete, that's one thing I always did since day one is give everything I got. And to hear those type of things, it's kind of funny. It's frustrating at the same time, but I've been through worse things. I just stand over top of all that."

And as his coach, Scott Brooks, has been preaching over the last few weeks, Wall believes the only way the Wizards turn around their season is if they show one thing: effort. 

"It's just about effort, man. Effort and heart," he said. "I've been preaching that since I've been here from day one, and in the second half we gave a lot of effort and heart. That's why we came back and fought hard, and got a great win that we needed."

"In the first half, we didn't play with no energy, no sense of urgency, and they beat the brakes off of us. We got to find a way to dig deep, and we made some big shots and got some big stops."

"It's not where we want to be, it's not where we started. Dealing with injuries, dealing with those type of things, you make no excuses. Whoever step between these lines, you go out there and compete, and that's all I ask for the14 guys, including myself, is to go play hard.

It's far too early to declare it as such, but if the Wizards can build off of Tuesday's performance, it may very well be looked at as the night Wall and Washington turned their season around. 

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