Hoping to broaden their brand even further throughout Central Florida and maximize their player development program, the Orlando Magic have purchased the Erie BayHawks and plan to move the NBA Development League franchise to nearby Lakeland.
The Magic’s NBA D-League team will begin play in Polk County in November and will call The Lakeland Center home. There are also plans in the works for a practice facility to be constructed in nearby Winter Haven.
“It was the right building, it was the right community, it was the right partnership,’’ Magic CEO and D-League Team Managing Partner Alex Martins said on Wednesday at a news conference at The Lakeland Center. “And, ultimately at the end of the day, it was the right home for the Magic’s D-League team.’’
The Magic are the 17th NBA team to own and operate their NBA D-League affiliate. Currently, the Magic and the Erie (Pa.) BayHawks are in the final year of a three-year, single-affiliation hybrid partnership where the Magic control the basketball operations and local ownership manages business operations.
The franchise is planning to launch a “name the team’’ contest in January and it hopes to have things such as the nickname, colors and mascot in place by the summer.
Next season, the Magic will have full control over the franchise and it will be in close proximity – Lakeland is approximately 55 miles from downtown Orlando – so that they can develop and track minor league players more effectively.
Having the franchise based in Lakeland will allow the Magic to send young prospects in need of playing time or development to the D-League with a quick turnaround. Theoretically, the Magic could have a young player practice with them on an off day, drive to Lakeland for a game that night and be back at the Amway Center in Orlando the next morning for practice.
“From a basketball standpoint, we’re incredibly excited about the platform that is now created with the team coming to Lakeland,’’ Magic GM Rob Hennigan said. “Our Basketball Operations department will be able to set out a plan that can utilize and interact on a daily basis with our minor-league team.
“So if that means giving guys at the end of our roster who need a tune-up or a chance to play or a chance to sweat out (minutes), we have that ability to send them (to Lakeland) for practice or for games,’’ Hennigan continued. “Then, we have that equal ability to have them not miss a beat with the Magic team. That proximity is the crux of this and the catalyst. We’re excited and we see this as a way to increase the integrity of our player development.’’
With the Orlando-affiliated D-League franchise currently in Erie (Pa.), the Magic must send designated players on commercial flights to Buffalo and then transport them via automobile to Erie. The same routine must be followed to get players back with the parent club, an arduous process that could have deterred the Magic from fully utilizing the D-League for a maximum benefit. In 2 ½ seasons, the Magic have sent just two players – Devin Marble (2014-15 and 2015-16) and Stephen Zimmerman (Nov. 28-Dec. 10) – to Erie to play for the BayHawks.
The NBA D-League season, which runs from November to April, is made up of 50 regular-season games, plus a postseason. During the 2015-16 season, 32 NBA D-League players earned 42 GATORADE Call-Ups to the NBA, while 68 NBA players spent time in the NBA D-League on assignment. In total, more than 40 percent of players drafted into the NBA since 2005 have spent time in the NBA D-League.
On their current roster, the Magic have four players who have played in the D-League at some point in their careers: C.J. Watson, C.J. Wilcox, Arinze Onuaku and Zimmerman. Zimmerman, Orlando’s second-round draft pick from last June, just concluded a successful four-game stint in the D-League and on Dec. 7 he set the BayHawks’ franchise record for rebounds in a game with 24.
This season, the D-League consists of 22 teams: Austin Spurs, Canton Charge, Delaware 87ers, Erie BayHawks, Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Grand Rapids Drive, Greensboro Swarm, Iowa Energy, Long Island Nets, Los Angeles D-Fenders, Maine Red Claws, Northern Arizona Suns, Oklahoma City Blue, Raptors 905, Reno Bighorns, Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Salt Lake City Stars, Santa Cruz Warriors, Sioux Falls Skyforce, Texas Legends, Westchester Knicks and Windy City Bulls.
D-League President Malcolm Turner said it wasn’t until this past season that all the teams became one-to-one affiliated with NBA parent clubs. Ownership of D-League teams by NBA franchises has jumped from 30 percent to 70 percent in two years. Turner added that the Magic were making a wise investment in buying the D-League franchise and moving it close to Orlando to get the maximum benefit out of the developmental system.
“No question there has been a growing value on proximity,’’ said Turner, who noted his league’s growth in partnerships with ESPN, Facebook Live and Nike. “If you look at our league five years ago, the distance between the affiliated team and the NBA parent team was more than 560 miles. Three years ago that was down to 400 miles. And when we tipped off this season, the distance between the D-League teams and the affiliated NBA parent teams was at an all-time low of 180 miles. So, we’ve clearly seen a growing value to proximity.’’
Shelly Wilkes, a full-time member of the Magic since 2004, has been named president of the Lakeland D-League team. Martins and Steve Demetriou will be joining as minority partners in the ownership of the team.
Martins said that Magic’s D-League franchise will be for more than just developing players. It will also be “a testing ground,’’ he said, for future front-office personnel, coaches, trainers and staffers.
Wilkes, a UCF grad and a product of the DeVos Sports Business Management Program, has worked her way up the Magic’s organizational ladder, starting as a group sales coordinator in the ticket sales department in 2004. She was promoted to group sales account executive in July 2005, then named game presentation manager in July 2006. She was later promoted to assistant director of event presentation in July 2007, director of arena and event presentation in 2010 and senior director of event presentation, broadcast production and creative services in 2015.
She sees the move of the D-League franchise to Central Florida as a way for the Magic to extend its already-strong brand deeper into Polk County and the nearby Tampa-St. Petersburg areas.
“As we talk ab out the development of people and players, we want to be in development of fans, too,’’ Wilkes said. “We want to get people here from Lakeland to be fans of our D-League team here in Lakeland, but also Magic fans in Orlando. So we want to continue to build that bridge for the brand.’’
As for Lakeland, Winter Haven and Polk County, Wednesday wasn’t so much about expanding brands and developing players as it was a celebration for establishing a tie in with professional sports. For so long, Lakeland has known as the host for so many high school, AAU and various other amateur teams. On Wednesday, Lakeland established its first ties to professional basketball.
“It’s the holiday season and we feel like we just opened up our main Christmas present,’’ Lakeland City Manager Tony Delgado said. “What we see here today is a commitment by the Magic and a commitment by our organization to become a family and raise the bar here in Lakeland. … This really puts us back in that (pro) market. Again, for the lack of a better term, we got a chance to open a Christmas present today and it’s one that we’re going to cherish for many, many years to come.’’
Much the way that the Magic came to Central Florida in 1989 and has had great success both on and off the court through the years, Lakeland’s leaders feel that landing the D-League franchise is a boon for the area. Polk County is geographically Florida’s fourth-largest county and Lakeland is no stranger to professional sports as it has served as the Spring Training home to Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers for the past 80 years.
Pat Williams, who co-founded the Magic back in 1986, was on hand in Lakeland on Wednesday and he said the moment reminded him so much when the NBA first hit Orlando. Back then, Williams wore a bright orange shirt that was emblazoned with the phrase, “ORLANDO IS ON THE WAY TO THE NBA.’’ On Wednesday, Williams removed his Hawaiian shirt to reveal a T-shirt that read, “WE ARE ON THE WAY’’ on the front and “5,000 SEASON TICKETS OR BUST’’ on the back.
Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs, who called himself a Magic fan long before Wednesday’s announcement, said the tie-in with Central Florida’s lone NBA franchise was a groundbreaking day for Polk County.
“For many years many of us have adopted the Orlando Magic as our team and there’s already a strong, emotional connection with the Magic,’’ Wiggs said. “One of the things that we stress in Lakeland is emotional connections and getting involved and being engaged. This is as perfect of a fit as I could imagine for any city and a professional team because of the quality of (Lakeland) and the Orlando Magic.’’
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