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Magic to be nearly full strength against Spurs

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Three starters are expected to make their preseason debuts Wednesday.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic underwent a dramatic makeover in the summer of 2016. Through trades and free-agent acquisitions, they’ll only return six players from the ill-fated 2015/16 squad, which won 35 games but failed to make the drastic improvement the team and its fans expected of it.

Through two preseason losses, the new-look Magic haven’t played at full strength. Expected starters Elfrid Payton, Aaron Gordon, and Serge Ibaka have sat out due to injury. But that situation is likely to change when Orlando hosts the San Antonio Spurs Wednesday night at Amway Center.

As Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel notes, Payton (hip), Gordon (ankle), and Ibaka (knee) are expected to play when San Antonio comes calling. Each has something to prove.

Following a down season which had some Magic fans wondering if newcomer D.J. Augustin might challenge him for the starting point-guard job, Payton is out to demonstrate he can serve as a bona-fide quarterback for coach Frank Vogel’s offense. Payton’s playmaking has rarely been called into question, but his poor shooting and finishing ability makes him an offensive liability. And while he has the size and athletic tools to develop into an ace defender, he has yet to meet his potential on that side of the ball.

Gordon shone after the NBA All-Star Break, averaging 12 points, 7.3 rebounds, and two assists as the Magic wound down their season. Now he needs to prove he can sustain those numbers, and that he can do so playing primarily at small forward. Orlando’s three-headed monster at power forward and center—Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo, and Nikola Vucevic—will, by necessity, force the gadget-like Gordon to play more three than he has previously in his young career. To what degree he can succeed despite not having a reliable outside shot remains an open question, one which Wednesday’s opener will at least begin to address.

Ibaka stands as the closest thing to a star the Magic have had since trading Dwight Howard in 2012. Though he’s never made an All-Star team, Ibaka has established himself as a solid complementary player with the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing alongside Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. He welcomed the trade to Orlando in part because he wanted a larger role than what his agent told Yahoo! Sports OKC “overpromised and under-delivered.” His production tailed off so dramatically with the Thunder that it became fair to wonder if he had already passed his peak.

Wednesday’s preseason game will have essentially no bearing on how the Magic’s season will play out, but it may, in a way, serve as an unofficial introduction to the new crew Rob Hennigan and his front-office staff has assembled.