Tough season doesn't deter Jacque Vaughn

Orlando Magic coach Jacque Vaughn talks with forward Kyle O'Quinn during a break in a game. AP Photo/Duane Burleson

Less than a year removed from NBA All-Star Dwight Howard bolting for the Los Angeles Lakers, the Orlando Magic -- his former team -- head into their final game of the regular season Wednesday night tied for the worst record (20-61) in the NBA.

What's left in the wake of Howard's insistence on being traded to Los Angeles is a Magic roster full of players you'll need to Google: Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless and a host of others.

But that hasn't deterred first-year coach Jacque Vaughn.

"I believe in the human spirit," said Vaughn, who played 12 years in the NBA, including 80 games with the Magic (2002-03). "I believe that if you lift people up, you'll get the best out of them."

And, despite the record, the Magic have shown some signs of promise with the makeshift roster of trade thrown-ins, undrafted players and several rookies.

• Vucevic, who was involved in the Howard trade in August, is the second-leading rebounder in the league to Howard. Against the Miami Heat on Dec. 31, Vucevic set a Magic team record with 29 rebounds.

• Harris, who was acquired in a trade in February for J.J. Redick, has increased his scoring to about 17 points a game for the Magic, after averaging only five with the Milwaukee Bucks.

• Harkless, a rookie who was acquired in the Howard trade in August, has been averaging about 14 points and five rebounds per game since the All-Star break.

"Once the season ends, we'll focus on the rebuilding process here," said the 38-year-old Vaughn, who had never previously been a head coach. "We have this one game remaining and we have to approach it like we do every game: Do the best we can. I expect every player to come in with that mindset."

That mindset is one reason the Magic, who had made the playoffs the previous six seasons, chose the unproven Vaughn as coach. He had spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach in San Antonio, where he also won a championship as a player (2007).

"With everything we've been through this year, Jacque has never wavered one day from what you see. He has been very consistent in good times and bad times," said Magic CEO Alex Martins, whose team took some heat for hiring Vaughn. "I can say a year later that I couldn't be more pleased in how that has played out on a day-to-day basis. That comes whether he's giving a postgame locker room speech after a win or a loss, an internal meeting or making a public appearance."

Martins thinks Vaughn, who was a standout in high school in California and then as a Kansas Jayhawk, has prepared his whole basketball career with the goal of being a coach.

"I honestly believe from the day that Jacque went to Kansas that he was preparing to be a head coach some day," Martins said. "[Former Kansas coach] Roy Williams said that Jacque was one of the most prepared players he had ever coached."

Vaughn credits his parents for keeping him focused on what's important and not allowing outsiders to influence his decision-making.

"I think the root of all of this is my upbringing. They instilled those values in me," Vaughn said. "That's why I care for those guys in the locker room and I know over time we'll grow together."

Harris, a 20-year-old forward who left Tennessee after one season, said his coach this spring gave him the green light to become more of a scorer.

"He trusted my ability and wanted me to be a leader on the floor. He's given me a lot of confidence in my game," said Harris, who scored 20 points Monday in a loss to the Chicago Bulls. "I think the positivity is a key factor for us, especially as a young team trying to get better."

The question is will Orlando fans and Magic management be willing to go through more growing pains in Season 2?

"I will spend my summer referencing a lot of these games, and I do think the team has become more aggressive and better over time," Vaughn said. "Now that the season will end, the evaluations will begin. The fans have always been there. Now we have to do our part to get better -- which we will do."

And, for Martins, the evaluations will continue as he watches his new coach try to get the most out of his players.

"I see that there is an incredible level of confidence the players have in him and a great deal of respect," Martins said. "I believe that to be successful, coaches need to have a positive attitude. I think Jacque's attributes will continue to serve him well as coach."