With one game in the books -- a workmanlike win over the Cavs that wasn’t quite as comfortable as it should have been -- it’s time to start dreaming big about what the season may have to offer for the Magic. 48 minutes of basketball has given us a bit of a feel for the side, so I’m going to do my best to extrapolate the information gleaned and make some Positivity Projections for the remainder of 2019/20.
I ran through the same exercise last year, and despite the team’s modest success my own results were … mixed. Although I was pretty close on Isaac, Ross and Coach Cliford, elsewhere the optimistic take was a little wide of the mark (please forget that I claimed Vucevic’s greatest contribution would be getting traded). Still, these are the Positivity Projections, so I won’t be letting some incorrect guesses in the past pour rain on my present-day predictive parade.
As you did last year, settle in with a glass half-full of your favorite beverage as we optimistically envision how this season might play out in Central Florida!
In Wednesday’s opener the big guy largely picked up where he left off last regular season, dropping 21 and 9 with relatively efficient shooting numbers on a soft Cleveland defense. All signs point to Vucevic being able to replicate his All-Star form of the previous campaign, but that’s not enough for the positivity projections! Where might some gains be made?
Vooch has established himself as a dependable playmaker, and with the amount of offense the team will again direct through him at the top of the key there’s a chance this could be the year he establishes new career-best passing numbers. Last year he dropped 3.8 dimes per contest on an assist rate of 21.9%, both of which were personal bests. Additionally, he also shrunk his turnover percentage to a figure below 10%, evidence of greater care and precision with the ball in hand. They’re good numbers, but with the continuity of an established offensive system and the seasoning of twelve month’s comfort and experience there’s every chance he could establish himself as an elite playmaking big man in 2019/20.
Best case scenario? Vucevic settles in at 20 points, 12 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game in approximately 32 minutes of court time. Add to that his already improved interior presence on a side expected to be effective defensively and you’ve got the criteria for a second straight All-Star appearance. Pencil the big guy in now for a trip to Chicago come February.
Have you heard of this guy? Let me tell you, he’s worth watching. The Magic convinced the 76ers to throw him in last season when they dumped the Simmons contract at the trade deadline, and for a player that the fanbase has zero expectations for he’s been pretty good so far.
Okay, Fultz probably won’t ever live up to the lofty billing that followed him out of Washington when he was drafted first overall in 2017. However, the good news is that the Magic aren’t pencilling him in for that type of contribution. Instead, the team is willing to bring him along slowly, placing him in a position to succeed with the second unit and letting him play through any tough stretches. It’s a great tactic to rebuild the confidence of a young, recently distressed -- but ultimately unfinished -- player.
Yet, it’s hard not to be excited by the potential on display in game one. Fultz is already the team’s most dynamic passer, consistently aware of his rollers, cutters and trailers, and finding creases and lanes on the court that others simply don’t see. His dribble drive game is effective and his ability to finish on the improve, a skillset tailor-made for Orlando’s offense-starved second unit. He was also able to flash a nice two-man game with Vucevic when given some minutes alongside the All-Star center, a nice indication of things perhaps still to come.
In a perfect world Fultz will first establish himself as a consistent and reliable contributor for the Magic off the bench, averaging around 10 and 5 and quarterbacking the second unit. An opportunity later in the season -- say, a short-term injury to DJ Augustin -- thrusts him into a starting role in which he flourishes. The team coalesces around him, and DJ, ever the consummate professional, offers to cede the starting spot as Orlando march to the playoffs. The Fultz redemption arc gets off to a flying start in his first full year in pinstripes.
This is an easy one. Fournier will force his way back into the hearts of Magic fans everywhere if he can just get the ball to find the bottom of the basket with greater regularity. After a down year in terms of accuracy it’s easy enough to envision the previously sweet-shooting Frenchman bouncing back, with game one against the Cavs providing all the evidence that the Positivity Projections need. He was 2 of 4 from deep and 7 of 13 from the field overall, with his only real blemishes coming at the line (0-for-2 on the night, which is both too inaccurate and infrequent). Fournier was excellent for France at the World Championships during the offseason, and on more than a few sequences it looked clearly like he is going to carry that form over into the season proper. If he does, expect a career year -- in a contract year, no less -- from the previously maligned shooting guard.
I’ve already given some consideration to the potential routes to stardom for AG, and although each of the proposed alternatives are unlikely they do provide some idea of what an ideal season might look like from Orlando’s versatile wing. The team will need him to continue to play high level defense, regularly clamping down the opposition’s most dynamic forward scoring threat. While Cleveland didn’t offer much in this regard on Wednesday, continuing to do a competent job against elite talent like Leonard, Griffin and Giannis should finally garner him some of the All-Defensive Team votes that he already deserves. On offense, the major strides the Magic need to see him make involve decision making and the consistency of his shooting. With his skillset and athleticism there’s no reason why 20, 8 and 5 on 45/36/75 splits isn’t possible. If he can put all of that together and couple it with team success there’s a chance that two All-Stars in the East will be sporting pinstripes.
Like AG, Isaac is a player I already spent some time thinking about during the offseason. After a strong finish to last season -- one that was filled with tantalizing sequences of legitimately game-changing potential -- hopes in the Magic Kingdom are suitably high for the former Seminole. The wildest projections envision a stat line of 15 and 10 with 4 combined steals and blocks, all while converting from deep at a rate above league average. Such numbers might realistically be out of reach on a team with a number of players looking to make hefty box score contributions, and Game One seemed to imply as much: 3 points, 8 rebounds, 3 total shot attempts, and a miniscule usage rate of 11%. The Magic came out even in the time he spent on the court, the worst figure outside of Evan Fournier. It was a rough start and Isaac will undoubtedly be better -- he has too much talent and feel for the game not to be! -- but the Positivity Projections will be happy just to see meaningful and tangible improvement from the young forward. Talk of a leap is probably premature, but a few lengthy strides in the right direction seems like a good bet.
A positive outcome as it relates to the Magic’s second year center is a simple proposition: Bamba needs to play and not be a total drag on the team when he does. 2018/19 was tough for the rookie, with analytics presenting a dim view of his on-court contributions and injury ending his campaign early. However, he’s already shown a propensity for blocking shots, so the focus this year should be on being in the right place at the right time in terms of his positioning and defensive rotations. He’s also demonstrated a willingness to stretch defense by uncorking from deep, so the goal this year has to be to nail these at a more consistent rate. If Bamba can start to regularly put these two skills together he’ll undoubtedly give himself a chance of a redemptive sophomore season.
Orlando’s major offseason acquisition has been a consistent winner throughout the majority of his time in the league, an outcome the Magic will be hoping he again replicates this season. If the veteran forward can help to stabilize a bench unit that at times last season struggled, and if he can add another element to the team’s defensive chops, and if he can maintain solid shooting numbers from outside, and if he can carve out enough minutes amidst a crowded frontcourt rotation, he’ll prove his worth. Aminu ticked all four of those boxes during the season opener while making a clear and tangible impact, evident in the plus/minus figure of +14 that he racked up in 29 minutes of court time. The Chief has already given Magic fans a glimpse of the positive contribution they’re projecting.
Rapid fire! DJ Augustin maintains his excellent finishing numbers (almost 65% within 3 feet of the rim last season!) and continues to protect the ball when conducting the offense. Terrence Ross continues to earn the moniker ‘The Human Torch’ while making a run at his own single-season record of total triples made by a player off the bench. Michael Carter-Williams makes the average fan love him as much as Steve Clifford already does. Wesley Iwundu stays patient and seizes the opportunity when playing time finally comes his way. Khem Birch stays patient and seizes the opportunity when playing time finally comes his way. Melvin Frazier Jr plays well enough that the team picks up his option for next season. Steve Clifford finally sees the second round. Orlando makes a run at home court advantage.
A fan in October can talk themselves into just about anything. A career year for a favorite player. A deep playoff run. A title. And although it’s unlikely that Orlando needs to start planning parade routes there’s still plenty to be said for looking on the bright side. Sports are meant to be fun! They’re meant to inspire awe and aspiration, but instead we -- the collective basketball fanatics -- seem to spend most of our time worrying about how things could be better. We’ll undoubtedly hit that point of the season, but for now I’m just happy to put my unfiltered optimism front and centre. Magic above all!