The Orlando Magic elected not to utilize their Mid-Level Exception this offseason abreast a market constituted of low-risk, mid-reward options such as Shabazz Napier, Seth Curry, and Isaiah Thomas, among others.
That doesn’t mean the Magic aren’t interested in upgrading the position.
Just six weeks into the regular season, we’ll take a look at the level of production at the team’s signal caller position, and weigh the pros and cons of upgrading with undeveloped first-round talent in Frank Ntilikina and Markelle Fultz.
Before we answer yes or no, let’s examine approximately what it would take to grab the two aforementioned prospects:
Ntilikina, formerly the eighth pick in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft and the last selection of Phil Jackson, has the potential to be a shutdown defender in the back court.
Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress wrote:
“Ntilikina is a high-floor prospect who is destined for, at the very least, a long career as a versatile, two-way player with a high IQ and professional approach to the game. With the physical profile of an NBA two guard (6’6 with a 7-foot wingspan and a projectable frame) and a high motor, Ntilikina projects as a three-position defender who can make a spot up three, play off of closeouts, execute the simple pass while on or off the ball, and use his long strides to slither his way to the rim out of pick and roll.”
The New York Knickerbockers have yet to see this realized potential. A dreadful 33% from the field and 26% from deep last year, he has seen a slight uptick in improvement in his second year moving up to 36% and 30%, respectively. A long-framed athlete certainly fits the mold of a Jeff Weltman and John Hammond prospect, and a defensive stopper would be a welcome addition to Steve Clifford’s unit.
And yet, his effect on the defensive end has yet to take shape, as his team allows four points more per 100 possessions when he is on the floor and eight points less offensively, good for -12.
But therein lies the reason for the Knicks’ hand on the ejector button. Trey Burke has been the pleasant surprise, and the Knicks have given their hearts and wallets to Tim Hardaway Jr. at the alternate position. With Burke, Hardaway, Emmanuel Mudiay (RFA) as well as the surprising Allonzo Trier, the Knicks would be wise to entertain the possible transaction.
But just what should they expect in return? Some bad salary along with a top-ten protected first-round pick is likely all it would take. Timofey Mozgov and a first for Ntilikina and Courtney Lee makes the most sense on paper though the Knicks could substitute Lee for Thomas (unlikely to do so, as Lee has one year and $12 million remaining on the books).
Fultz has been the talk of the association due to the strange circumstances surrounding his jump shot, shoulder and free throw shooting even becoming the subject of ridicule:
Going number one overall certainly comes with a level of scrutiny, especially when considering the Philadelphia 76ers sold off their highly coveted Kings’ selection to jump ahead two spots and select the unanimously dubbed best prospect of the 2017 NBA Draft.
“Fultz is a franchise lead guard, future All-Star, and a player any organization can build around. He’s best utilized on the ball with shooting around him, as he’s a tremendous pick and roll player (30.4% of his offense, 93rd percentile) who can score at all three levels and facilitate with creativity. He’s no slouch off the ball either, as he’s a capable, yet improving, spot shooter and excellent playing off of closeouts. Fultz also has the size and length to defend twos, and even some threes in smaller lineups. All in all, he’s a versatile, plug and play lead guard with star potential who is easy to build around or fit into a current roster.”
To expand on the trouble in Philadelphia, Fultz has made his desire to start anew clear according to Sam Amick:
Markelle Fultz is having a wrist issue examined next week and would prefer a move to a new team, sources tell @JaredWeissNBA, @DerekBodnerNBA and I.@ShamsCharania & @DavidAldridgeDC also contributed to a new report, now on @TheAthleticNBA https://t.co/chrS4TgruF— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) November 21, 2018
It’s difficult to know the value of a player the 76ers sacrificed so much to acquire. Should he be deemed a sunk cost, his $8.3 million salary matches up nicely with Terrence Ross’ $10 million. The Magic have no second round picks to sell after having sent them to Chicago and Charlotte this offseason for Jerian Grant, and they’d be foolish to sacrifice a first-round pick for a player who may not ever come around. The risk is too great, and yet an expiring playmaker on the wing like Ross would give the 76ers the space they need on the floor next to Butler, Embiid, and Simmons and is a defender that could match up with teams’ opposing 1s, 2s and 3s. The deal makes sense for both sides. With a new general manager in Elton Brand, the 76ers dealing the point guard for an expiring playmaker on the wing could become a feasible thought.
Evaluating the Magic’s Point Guard Play:
D.J. Augustin continues to impress as the team’s primary signal caller. Playing on his eighth squad in his 11 seasons, he carries an NBA low 1.1 turnover rate to 5.4 assists. At 11 points per game on 44% shooting from three-point range, he gives the Magic exactly what they need. A spacing point guard capable of breaking down a defense and limiting opportunities for the opposing teams in transition. The Magic are 10 points better per 100 possessions offensively, and break even defensively with the New Orleans native on the floor.
Jerian Grant has been a disappointment, but it’s too early to punt on a player the Magic invested two second round picks in just four months ago. In a small sample size, Grant has improved his three-point range to 37% on two shots per game, but the Magic are ten points worse per 100 possessions with him on the floor. In just his fourth season, we are beginning to recognize Grant’s ceiling, but evaluating his time in Orlando through 23 games would be a bit premature.
So, Should They?
No. The Magic are building a culture of cohesion, fundamentals and above all, winning. Bringing Ntilikina and Fultz in suggests a step back, and yet another season rebuilding for a team that hasn’t seen the postseason in six long years. Removing Ross from the roster would inevitably lead to losses. And while the long term upgrade of Ntilikina over Grant could make sense, there is no evidence to suggest the Magic’s first-round pick could not still land well inside the lottery where a difference maker could make its birth in 2019. Or that pick could be better utilized for a more established player once one becomes available nearer to the deadline (Hello, Bradley Beal!).
The Magic are in prime position to make a play for either of these two prospects, but doing so for the costs required would only set the Magic back both in the short and long term. The Magic should continue with Augustin and Grant until next summer when they should have the flexibility to shore up via free agency, trade or through the draft.