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Evan Fournier's Path to the Top 5

On a team where defense reigns supreme, it is Evan Fournier that will be the key to Orlando's success

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic's identity has been clear since nearly the moment that Frank Vogel was hired as head coach this offseason. After going with the flow for years with limited success, the Magic now strive to be the ultimate hipsters basketball. This current regime wants to go retro with two bigs, taking a contrarian approach to all that is considered the acceptable dogma of the modern NBA.

In fact, over the last 15 head coaching hires across the league, only three came to town with the promise of a defensive identity: Dave Joerger in Sacramento, Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, and Vogel in Orlando.

This is remarkable considering that defense can be taught, while offensive scheme can only do so much to hide a player's lack of natural talent. Dion Waiters can become a serviceable defender for OKC, but Evan Turner cannot magically develop a jump shot in Boston.

That's all well and good, but those other two defensive coaches have something that Orlando clearly lacks – a go-to scorer. In fact, both Sacramento and Minnesota have two players each that can handle the ball in crunch time. Be it the DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay pairing for the Kings, or the tandem of Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins for the Wolves.

So then where does that leave Orlando, a team without a clear number one? Last season, the front office drove itself crazy with that question. Was it Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic, or the dark horse, Aaron Gordon? Each had their shot, and each performed just well enough to continue the confusion.

Frank Vogel appeared unfazed at this year's media day, saying "The go-to guy’s going to be the open man. We’re going to be a selfless team, a share the basketball team, a play for each other team and a team first team."

Regardless of what Vogel says, however, the Magic front office let their pocketbooks tell a different story.

When Evan Fournier re-signed this offseason, he seemed exuberant to stay in Orlando. Orlando Sentinel beat writer Josh Robbins asked Fournier why he turned down more lucrative offers during free agency, and the Frenchman responded, "Because I feel great here. I have the confidence of the front office, of the coach, and it means more to me than a team that doesn't really know me and offers a lot of money."

That confidence was echoed in other roster moves as well. Only four players from the Magic's top-10 scorers on a per-game basis are returning from last year: Vucevic, Fournier, Gordon, and Elfrid Payton. Payton is far from a scorer, Vucevic's role has been reduced by the acquisition of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, and Aaron Gordon is still too raw to be depended on on a nightly basis.

While Ibaka will be leaned on more than he was in OKC, his best career scoring output was 15.1, which is less than Vucevic's career average in Orlando. Even with Ibaka assuming a huge role, it will be unlikely to see the defense-first big man average near what Vucevic did last year at 18.2 per game – especially in that crowded rotation.

That means that this year's team will go as Evan Fournier goes. For the Magic to achieve their stated goal of making the playoffs, Evan Fournier needs to take not only a step, but a dramatic leap forward. A leap that would put him into the top-five at his position.

Before making a case for the sharpshooting wing from Charenton-le-Pont, let's have a look at the current top five.

Sitting Royalty

1. Klay Thompson

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Klay Thompson is a multi-dimensional guard that has paired with Steph Curry to make the deadliest shooting back court in NBA history. His spot-up shooting is among the best in the league, as he was second behind only Curry with 276 three-pointers last season. His 6'7" body, combined with length and athleticism makes him able to guard some teams' 1-4 in a pinch. James Harden's transition to point guard has ended the conversation once and for all. Thompson is the modern king of NBA shooting guards.

This is the absolute dream scenario for a similarly-sized Fournier, though it's highly unlikely. Evan has the height and smooth jump shot, but his athleticism and defensive instincts will probably never be what Thompson's already are.

2. DeMar DeRozan

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DeMar DeRozan is a rare slashing scorer in a league that looks for open jump shots. Though his field goal percentage is the lowest on this list, and he's around league average from beyond the arc, just look at his free throws per game. As the Magic saw in their bouts with Toronto this year DeRozan lives at the line, and his 23.5 points per game are most among shooting guards.

As a member of Team USA, DeRozan showed off his athleticism, as well as his straight line speed. It's safe to say that the Raptors' All-Star is about as far from Evan Fournier's skillset as any guard in the league, but his production can't be denied.

3. Bulls Shooting Guard (Dwyane Wade/Jimmy Butler)

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This one may be incorrect, as this spot is meant to hold Jimmy Butler's name. With Butler forced into service as a small forward, the spot is Wade's until his seemingly timeless game takes a step back. Wade brings more than raw stats to the table, as his playoff success, unquestioned leadership, and knack for making clutch shots have won him three NBA titles.

Butler would've been number two on the list, but as it stands, Wade is a more than capable number three.

4. C.J. McCollum

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McCollum broke onto the scene last year, winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award as part of another elite backcourt in Portland. Though personal accolades like All-Star teams aren't the Blazers' style, their dynamic duo of guards led them to a five seed in the competitive Western Conference.

McCollum is as well-rounded as it gets, and has plenty of room for improvement in only his fourth NBA season. He can score from anywhere – cracking the top 10 in both made threes and total field goals – as well as distribute, and play some solid defense. McCollum's stock is rising, surpassing the aging Wade seems just around the corner.

5. J.J. Redick

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Magic fans are very aware of the shooting prowess of J.J. Redick. It's easy to see the evolution of both Redick's game, and the NBA as a whole, by comparing his splits from Orlando to Los Angeles. The former Blue Devil saw his three-point attempts jump from 3.5 to 5.7 per game with a change of scenery. The unbelievable part is that Redick was best in the league from three-point range, blowing by even Steph Curry with a blazing 47.5% from beyond the arc.

However, Redick also has clear limitations including self-described "alligator arms", a lack of athleticism, and a low ceiling of improvement. At his best, he is the best shooter in the league. At his worst, he is defensive liability that can get bullied off the court by physical guards like DeRozan.

The Case for Fournier

The cliff in production between fourth and fifth place is much steeper than the one between fifth place and around eighth. If Evan Fournier hopes to lead the Magic to the post season, he must raise his game to that of an elite scorer.

Last year, this was the stat line that Fournier put up while splitting minutes and shots with Victor Oladipo in the backcourt.

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Speaking of young shooting guards, Fournier saw an uptick in every major statistical category during last year's campaign. Though it wasn't on the level of McCollum's output, there were actually more mouths to feed in Orlando's convoluted offense.

To prove this point – here are those four guards, plus the now-traded Victor Oladipo, sorted by usage percentage. Usage percentage is essentially the amount of plays that end with the ball in a player's hands – through free throws, shots, and turnovers. The rank on the far left is based on all guards and swingmen in the league, basically anyone in the back court.

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Evan Fournier had the second lowest usage percentage of any player that averaged 15 or more points per game. Yes, McCollum's minutes were similar, but his role in the offense was much greater than Fournier's last season. By trading Victor Oladipo, who played fewer minutes but had a higher usage rate, Magic brass essentially gave Fournier the keys to the offense.

Despite being 31st on that list of players in usage rate, Fournier was sixth in true shooting percentage, as well as fifth in effective field goal rate. These advanced shooting metrics basically mean that the shots that Fournier did take were good ones, and that he scored very effectively with the opportunities he was given. He was content to be passive until the situation called for aggression. This is radically different from players like Wade or DeRozan, who launch themselves toward the rim with little regard for the quality of shot.

Last year, Fournier proved that he was much more than the shooter that played for the Nuggets. He put the ball on the floor and looked more comfortable as a ball handler than ever in his career.

This new Fournier will have to accept that not every shot will be perfect, but as the only scorer in the starting five, he will be the most qualified to take them. This Fournier will need to be a shot creator, not just an opportune shooter. If he embraces this role and makes teams guard him like the scoring threat his is, it will allow better looks for other players.

Fournier will need to score upwards of 20 points per game this season, and if he does, the Magic may just make the playoffs. If he doesn't, it'll be another year of watching the postseason from home in Orlando.