Rise of The Samurai

Evan Fournier has made the most of a new opportunity in Orlando.
by November 25, 2014

Evan Fournier is having a breakout season as a starter for the Orlando Magic. After increasing his minutes from 11.3 as a rookie in 2012, to 19.8 a year ago with the Denver Nuggets, Fournier has earned not only trust, but also 34.1 minutes per night from head coach Jacque Vaughn in Orlando.

Since joining the Magic this summer in exchange for Arron Afflalo, Fournier has responded to his new role with a career best average of 16.5 points. His 45.5 percent mark from three-point range is also the 11th best number in the League heading into Wednesday’s matchup with the Golden State Warriors.

The skilled and efficient 6-7 shooting guard is proving capable of not only scoring in multiple ways, but also helping to lead a rebuilding effort alongside a collection of young talent. With Fournier (16.5), Victor Oladipo (13.6), Nikola Vucevic (19.3) and Tobias Harris (18.8), the Magic feature four players between the ages of 22 and 24 who combine to average 68.1 points this season. That’s encouraging for Orlando fans, even if Monday’s 32-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was one to forget.

Fournier’s personal streak of 14 straight games in double-figures this season ended at the hands of LeBron James, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers. The 22-year-old from Saint-Maurice, France was limited to only 8 points on a rough night shooting for his entire team. James, meanwhile, was simply dominant while ensuring the Cavs snapped a four-game losing streak by securing a win they desperately needed.

“We just got smacked,” Fournier told SLAM, following Orlando’s 106-74 loss at Quicken Loans Arena. “We just have to look forward now. LeBron is a champ. LeBron is LeBron. They lost four-straight, so we knew he would play very hard tonight. And that’s what he did. We just have to look forward now to the next one.”

James opened the first quarter against Fournier and the Magic by matching the 16 points Orlando totaled as a team for the period. He went on to finish with 29 to go along with 11 assists and 4 rebounds, while leading the Cavs to a 32-point victory over a short-handed Magic club playing without the injured Harris (calf strain).

As a team, Orlando shot only 36.3 percent from the field for the game and 29.4 percent from three. Vaughn, and Fournier—who finished 2-9—understand there will be nights like this in the NBA. Just don’t expect their confidence in the overall mission, or each other, to waver when hit with a LeBron-sized haymaker.

“He’s 22 years old, and he’s just getting a feel of playing 30-some minutes per game for an NBA team,” Vaughn said of Fournier. “His role has been expanded with us, as far as having the basketball in his hands. I think he’s still learning his teammates. You can still see that on the floor while we’re playing. But he’s taken an opportunity to be very efficient for us. Whether that’s shooting the basketball, or having the basketball in his hands.”

The confidence Vaughn has demonstrated in Fournier has been critical in his ability to capitalize on his new opportunity. The 20th pick of the 2012 Draft now knows if he misses three, or five, or seven shots in a given night—like he just did in Cleveland—his head coach will allow him to play through those growing pains.

“It’s easy to play when you have confidence from your coaches and your teammates,” Fournier said. “So it’s just a great feeling to be able to play my game, and play through mistakes. It’s a great feeling; I’m playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

Fournier insists that he didn’t do anything outside of his traditional preparation this summer to help increase his production, either. His improvement is more directly tied to the leadership from Vaughn and the chance he now has in Orlando.

“I didn’t do anything crazy,” Fournier said, when asked if he attributes his play to a new training regimen this offseason. “I just played all summer long with the French National Team. So I got better through that. But I didn’t do anything unusual. It’s just been about the opportunity.”

What makes Orlando intriguing is its core of young talent all getting that same opportunity together. As this group continues to grow, the Magic could eventually emerge as a perennial playoff team in the next couple years—a possibility obviously not lost on Orlando fans.

“I think everybody is excited about this team around town,” Fournier said of the hometown fans he’ll return to play in front of on Wednesday against Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors. “We feel that energy and appreciate it. We are very young, but we’re still competitive. So I think the whole city is excited for us. We think can do something big in the future, and that’s really exciting.”

Watching the player who first turned pro at 17 with JSF Nanterre in France begin to establish himself as an NBA starter is similarly exciting for fans around the League. It’s also somewhat scary to think that the same player who grew up rooting for Mike Bibby won’t turn 23 until next season.

“My favorite player was Mike Bibby growing up,” Fournier added. “But you know, another guy I always liked is Manu. He’s about the same size as me, the same physical skills. He’s a guy, as a young player, I’ve always looked up to and tried to learn from.”

After losing his second of four straight to Manu and the San Antonio Spurs on November 19, James exited the arena on Monday with a message that Orlando would also echo.

“A win always makes things feel better,” James told the media after the game. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”

There is still plenty of work for Fournier and Orlando, too. They know that. But even if the losses feel bitter now, there’s reason to believe that wins will eventually follow so long as this group stays together.