Many were shocked that the Orlando Magic drafted Chuma Okeke so early. And that included Okeke himself.
“I’m really shocked,” he told reporters after being selected. “I didn’t know they were going to pick me this early.”
The Magic used the No. 16 pick to select Okeke, a power forward who suffered a torn ACL during Auburn’s run in the NCAA Tournament. The pick gives the Magic another promising young prospect. But for the foreseeable future, that prospect will be rehabbing alongside Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz rather than practicing with Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac.
Okeke’s injury, along with the healthy players still available at the time like Brandon Clarke and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, have left some questioning if the Magic reached too far on Okeke.
“We believe in this player, we believe in this person,” Jeff Weltman, the Magic’s president of basketball operations, said while meeting with the media at Amway Center on Thursday night. “He was someone we had been targeting for quite a while and kind of felt that he was an under-the-radar player. When he did suffer his injury in the tournament, obviously that’s going to have an impact on anyone’s Draft status. But obviously we have done all of our research and are comfortable…But we feel this is just going to be a bump in the road for him and he is going to be an excellent player for us for a lot of years.”
Weltman was then asked about the timing of the pick and if he felt Okeke, who in mock drafts was slated for the late first-round or second round, would have been available in the second round.
“Not a chance,” Weltman responded. “I think that there were a lot of teams that had their eye on him. The kind of guys you always have to watch out for are the ones that nobody is talking about. And I don’t believe that there was any shot that he would have got to the second round at all.”
Had Okeke not suffered the injury, Weltman said the Magic believe he would not have been available for the Magic at 16. What sold Weltman and the Magic on Okeke, other than his pre-injury performance during the NCAA Tournament, was his basketball IQ and versatility.
“He’s got an ability to switch positions offensively and defensively,” Weltman said. “He’s a shooter, he’s a passer, he’s an excellent team defender. He has great instincts. He is a very versatile player and we wanted to add shooting, IQ, team-first players, and he checks all of those boxes.”
Asked whether Okeke at the NBA level was viewed as a small forward or small ball power forward, Weltman said he wouldn’t lock the versatile Okeke into a position.
“His versatility will help him fill in wherever we need,” Weltman said. “The beauty of Chuma is he is that sort of player. He can do many things, he can guard many positions, and he is always going to do it in a way that impacts winning. He plays for others. When you have a guy like that who is talented and skilled and brings shooting and IQ, that’s a really appealing package.”
That package was appealing enough for Weltman and the Magic to take Okeke despite the fact that he could miss most, if not all, of his rookie season (something that has become a trend in recent years for the Magic’s first round picks with Isaac playing just 27 games as a rookie and Bamba just 47). Weltman said the Magic will have a more definitive timetable for Okeke’s return to the court after he gets to Orlando and meets with doctors.
“But you guys know the timetables of ACLs,” Weltman said to the media. “We expect him to be back sometime during the season. We’ll let that, as we always say, happen as it happens. There’s no rush, there’s no rush whatsoever. We are drafting him to be a long-term player for the Orlando Magic.”
It’s those focused on the short-term, looking for the Magic to build on their playoff season by adding immediate perimeter help, who aren’t thrilled with a pick that won’t pay instant dividends. The Magic though have preached drafting the best player available, and Okeke, in their eyes, was just that.
Okeke, now two months into his rehab, averaged 12.0 points and 6.8 rebounds and shot nearly 39 percent from three. Weltman is banking on Okeke regaining the form of the player he was during March Madness, saying his best days are in front of him.
“He was just getting better and better and better as the games get bigger and bigger and bigger,” Weltman said. “Unfortunately, that injury happened in the tournament. But he is certainly a player whose best days are in front of him. We feel like we are fortunate to be able to draft him.”
Our Aaron Goldstone asked Weltman if the nation rallying around Okeke and Auburn during the NCAA Tournament caught the Magic’s attention.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” Weltman said. “We were already tracking him very closely. We were very impressed by the impact he makes on the people around him. He’s not an extroverted look-at-me type of guy. He’s just very workman like and he’s consistent and he plays for his team first. So those are the sorts of people that the fans and the coaches gravitate towards. They lift other people up and those are the sorts of guys we want to bring here.”