When the Orlando Magic traded Arron Afflalo for Evan Fournier, it looked like one of the most lopsided deals of the offseason. Afflalo was Orlando’s leading scorer last season, averaging 18 points a game on 46% shooting and just missing out on his first All-Star berth. Fournier, in contrast, was a second-year player still trying to find his way in the NBA, averaging only 20 minutes a game in Denver. Most NBA fans probably couldn’t pick him out of a line-up.
Fournier didn’t come into the league with much publicity. He was kind of lost in the shuffle in the run-up to the 2012 NBA Draft, which featured five shooting guards - Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Terrence Ross, Austin Rivers and Jeremy Lamb - who were taken ahead of him. As a 19-year-old in France, he put up good but not great numbers for his pro team and he didn’t have the type of out of this world athleticism that would garner a huge buzz in the months before the draft.
Like many young guys drafted towards the end of the first round, Fournier didn’t walk into a situation where he could rack up a lot of stats early in his career. He was taken at No. 2o overall by the Nuggets, who went on to win 57 games in Fournier’s rookie season. He was the low man on the totem pole, playing behind Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari on the wings. As a rookie, Fournier played in only 38 games.
Things changed for him a bit in his second season, as turnover at every level of Denver’s organization opened up more opportunities for playing time. With Iguodala gone and Gallinari out all season with a knee injury, Fournier moved into the rotation full-time, playing in 76 games. However, because he was coming off the bench, his per-game numbers weren’t huge - 8 points, 3 rebounds and 1.5 assists a game on 42% shooting - and he didn’t attract much notice.
There were way too many other things going on with the Nuggets, who face-planted spectacularly after firing George Karl, going from from a No. 3 seed to falling out of the playoffs entirely. As Brian Shaw quickly found out, you don’t want to be the guy whose replacing the legend. He walked into an almost impossible situation, given a mandate to change a very successful team without a lot of the personnel that had made them successful in the first place.
Unlike most first-time coaches in the NBA, who are given rebuilding teams without much expectations, Shaw was expected to win big. As a result, he leaned on veteran guards like Randy Foye, Aaron Brooks and Nate Robinson, guys he knew he could trust to carry out assignments. He may also have been scarred by benching Andre Miller, which created a huge rift in the team when the 15-year veteran refused to accept a smaller role and demanded a trade.
From the outside, it was hard to get a read on Fournier. He had proven he could stick in the NBA, but he was still waiting for the chance to dominate the ball and show teams what he could do. So while the Nuggets weren’t looking to deal a young player with upside, they couldn’t pass up the chance to acquire Afflalo, a proven veteran who was still in the prime of his career. Afflalo had enough skins on the wall that no one could complain if he was the starter.
Nevertheless, there was still a lot to like about the second-year player. For starters, he was still only 22, the same age as college seniors like Doug McDermott. Instead of spending the last two seasons playing against much inferior competition in the NCAA, Fournier essentially had a two-year internship in Denver, where he got the chance to learn from some of the best wing players in the NBA as well as one of the most respected coaches in the league in Karl.
More importantly, whenever he got the chance to play, he played well. As a 20-year old rookie, Fournier’s per-36 minute numbers were eye-popping - 17 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists on 49% shooting. They slipped in his second season, which you would expect from a guy getting more minutes on a significantly worse team, but they were still impressive for a guy his age - 15 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists on 42% shooting. This is a guy who needed more minutes.
When you combine his production with physical tools, Fournier was one of the more intriguing young players in the league. At 6’7 200 with a 6’8 wingspan, he had the size to switch between either wing position and even slide down to playing as a small-ball PF in certain situations. And while he wasn’t an elite athlete, he had the skill to make up for it. Fournier had a complete offensive game, with the ability to shoot, put the ball on the floor and find the open man.
In that respect, Fournier was a lot like Tobias Harris, another promising young player whom Orlando scooped off another team’s bench. After coming into the league as a 19-year-old, Harris spent his first 1.5 seasons in the league playing behind a bunch of veterans on a Milwaukee team trying to contend. As a result, when the Magic were shopping JJ Redick around at the 2013 trade deadline, the Bucks had no problem moving an unproven youngster like Harris along.
As soon as he got consistent playing time in Orlando, Harris exploded onto the NBA scene. He went from 11 minutes with the Bucks to 36 minutes with the Magic, averaging 17 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists on 46% shooting. Milwaukee, meanwhile, lost Redick for almost nothing, shipping him away to the LA Clippers for a few second-round picks in a sign-and-trade. The same things could happen to the Nuggets, as Afflalo is a free agent at the end of the season.
Harris and Fournier, meanwhile, have thrived in Orlando. While their recent high lottery picks - Victor Oladipo and Aaron Gordon - have been in and out of the line-up with injuries, the Magic have been able to count on Harris and Fournier, both of whom are averaging around 35 minutes a night. Even with all their injuries, Orlando has been surprisingly competitive this season, with a 6-9 record that includes many close losses in the fourth quarter.
Their two starting wings have been a huge factor in that, as Harris is averaging 19 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists on 47% shooting while Fournier is averaging 17 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists on 48% shooting. They have both benefitted from the driving lanes created by Channing Frye’s presence at the PF position, as well as the opportunities in the offense opened up by the departure of Afflalo and the injury to Oladipo, Orlando’s two main scorers last season.
The surprising play of Harris and Fournier has already created a good problem for the Magic front office, which spent three Top 4 picks on perimeter players in the last two seasons. Gordon, Oladipo and Elfrid Payton all have a lot of potential, but it’s not going to be easy for them to unseat the two under-23 starters ahead of them. Fournier, in particular, is such a good shooter - 47% from 3 this season - there’s no reason to move him to the bench anytime soon.
If you look at it, there isn’t all that much that separates him from Oladipo, despite the vast differences in the amount of publicity they have received. Oladipo is the more athletic of the two and projects as a better defensive player, but Fournier is bigger and a much better shooter. And while Oladipo has received a lot more opportunities to play with the ball in his hands, Fournier is just as good a playmaker, with a superior assist-to-turnover ratio.
If Fournier had spent three seasons at Indiana playing next to Cody Zeller, he would be pretty well regarded too. Instead, because he came to the NBA as quickly as he could and wound up on a team full of veterans, he spent his age 20-21 seasons as a practically anonymous young player, learning from the bench. It’s far too soon to make any judgments about Orlando’s recent draft picks, but the front office clearly knows how to spot talent once it is in the NBA.
Before they came to Orlando, guys like Fournier, Harris and Nik Vucevic all represented free money laying on the ground, waiting to be picked up. The same thing happened to a lesser extent in Phoenix, where an aggressive young front office grabbed Eric Bledsoe and Miles Plumlee for pennies on the dollar. There are a lot of good young players in the NBA waiting for a chance to play. The Afflalo/Fournier trade was a heist alright, but not for the Nuggets.