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Orlando Magic Season Preview: Fultz, Fournier and a fragile Magic backcourt

Success for Orlando’s backcourt will be measured largely by the progress of their young point guard

Oklahoma City Thunder v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

With the season opener against Miami now less than two weeks away, it’s time to start breaking down the state of Orlando’s roster and making an educated guess as to what to expect from the different components. For the purposes of this exercise we’ll be considering the backcourt, the wings and the bigs, with a look at both the old and new before we determine whether that section of the lineup is a strength or weakness for the Magic. Let’s get started!

Familiar faces

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

For Orlando, the prospect of genuine backcourt success almost certainly starts and ends with Markelle Fultz. The former first overall draft pick, entering his second full season in pinstripes and the final year of his rookie deal, is the potential-laden key to the team’s performance both this season and beyond. His development will go a long way towards determining the long-term health and viability of this roster.

If it seems like a bold claim to make about a player only twelve months removed from the designation of ‘major reclamation project’, well, it is. But it also speaks accurately of the position the Magic franchise finds itself in: a middling team without a bonafide star, too good to sink to the bottom of the standings but lacking the projected upside of youth that could theoretically push the team’s ceiling significantly higher. Fultz is the roster piece that could change that equation.

His first uninterrupted campaign was ultimately a resounding success. The major limitation of his individual game — namely, shooting — was almost always painfully evident throughout, yet he found ways to contribute anyway to the tune of 12.1 points, 5.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals, with an acceptable conversion rate of 46.5% from the field and an encouraging 73.0% from the charity stripe. He had a handful of game-dominating moments interspersed throughout, and intriguingly emerged as one of the team’s most dependable contributors in clutch moments. The staccato rhythm of his dribbling and deft maneuverability through the angles that define basketball movement are reflective of a player capable of controlling absolutely the tempo of the game; Fultz gets to just about any spot on the floor he desires not because of superior athleticism but because he is capable of determining the flow of the contest. Every team should want a point guard like that at the helm.

However, it might be worth pumping the brakes a little on the most ambitious of future prognostications; remember, it was only last season that Fultz ranked as an inadequate contributor by many metrics. Both his Player Efficiency Rating (14.3) and box plus/minus numbers (-1.8 points per-100 possessions) fell beneath the league average, a result of his deflated long range shooting and slender free throw capacity. He contributed less win shares per-48 minutes than any player in the normal rotation bar James Ennis, while it was also only this same name that kept him from posting the worst turnover rate of any Magic regular (he coughed the ball up on 14.9% of all possessions he ended). While there was much to appreciate about his play in 2019/20, we shouldn’t gloss over the obvious blemishes.

Still, there’s plenty of reasons to be bullish regarding Fultz’s chances this season. For all intents and purposes he was a rookie last year, and by the end of the campaign he had established himself as the unquestioned starter, steadily accumulated more minutes and responsibilities, and provided tantalizing bursts of genuine stardom. Offseason rumors of a refined shooting stroke might be wide of the mark, but even without that next step in his play he’s positioned to make some progress.

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Fultz’s starting partner in the backcourt, Evan Fournier, presents as much more of a known quantity in terms of expectations of output for the coming season. The sweet shooting two-guard is fresh off the strongest campaign of his professional career, posting personal bests in a multitude of categories including points per game, PER (16.4), Value Over Replacement Player (1.6), and box plus/minus (1.0). He shot the ball better than he ever has before in Orlando (59.5% true shooting), with his three-point accuracy (39.9%) literally the only thing saving the Magic from being one of the least accurate long-range teams of recent memory. Fournier also posted the second best turnover rate (10.9%) of his career despite the highest single-season usage rate he’s ever accumulated (23.9%). Add it all together — efficient scoring, solid playmaking and possession protection in a demanding role — and you’ve got an almost unimpeachable campaign.

And yet, it wasn’t enough to cement himself as a legitimate pillar on offense. Fournier isn’t among the team’s three best passers, nor is he the most effective option in the pick and roll. He demonstrated a number of struggles in the closing minutes of tight games, and the less said about his wipeout in the playoffs the better. He’s overtaxed in Orlando, undoubtedly, but that very fact speaks to the paucity of dependable options and the general incohesion of the roster construction. There’s also a danger in expecting any player, let alone one who is 28, to improve upon or merely even replicate their newly established career-best form. ‘Never Google’ would be a wonderful third or fourth option for a genuine contender; in Florida he’ll struggle to extend the Magic beyond their limits as a low-end playoff participant even if he once again reaches last season’s heights.

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The final returning back court regular is Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year who has been forced to redefine himself as a bench weapon reliant on intense energy and a complete disregard for his own physical wellbeing. In his season-and-a-half in Orlando he has established himself as a key cog for the second unit, a manic defensive presence who tenaciously chases transition opportunities and plays primarily off the ball. The Magic have been a better team with MCW on the floor, evident in his solid PER (15.3), defensive box plus/minus (1.6), VORP (0.5) and accumulated win shares (1.9), despite playing just 18.5 minutes per contest.

The absence of DJ Augustin this season will likely push Carter-Williams back onto the ball for some stretch of time, a difference in Clifford’s recent deployment of his as more of a wing. He hasn’t been great as a playmaker in Orlando, with a propensity for turnovers (14.7%) and a reasonable-but-not-significant assist rate (19.1%). He’ll have to reign in the breakneck pace of his play a little when called into point guard duty, but he has a track record of some success in this role from earlier in his career. He still can’t shoot, but is capable of quarterbacking an offense for short stretches against second units.

New blood

Orlando Magic v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The most intriguing addition to Orlando’s backcourt rotation is Cole Anthony, the rookie point guard drafted fifteenth overall out of North Carolina. He’s a slight-but-not-diminutive presence on the court, with a laser-pointed offensive focus on the basket. He’s possessed of both a scorer’s disposition and skill set, with the hope being that in time he aligns this more evenly with a traditional playmaking presence. He struggled with both injury and shooting accuracy (particularly from deep) in his one collegiate season, but should he bounce back to a level closer to where his early scouting report put him he projects to be the perfect injection into the Magic’s offensively challenged second unit.

In many ways, though, it’s unfair to expect much of Anthony this coming season. He’s a non-lottery pick in a purportedly weak draft, playing a position that often requires years of acclimatization for even the most-fancied prospects. As the preseason has already demonstrated he’s going to experience his fair share of tough stretches once the real games get underway, so penciling him in for more than minor back-up minutes is a tall order. Realistically, the more we see of Anthony the more likely it is that the Magic’s season is going south.

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The final fresh backcourt face on Orlando’s roster is Dwayne Bacon, a fourth-year shooting guard who opened his career in Charlotte. He fell from favor in 2019/20, becoming available to the Magic for a minimum contract this offseason. It’s a transaction that reunites him with Head Coach Steve Clifford, who evidently still believes in his game and will provide him some opportunity to turn things around in Florida.

It’s a low-risk gamble with minimal upside, even if it’s possible to see how his scoring capacity theoretically fits in the rotation. An early preseason surprise was his insertion into the starting lineup for the games against the Hawks, topped only by his first quarter blitz that saw him pace the Magic with 11 points on 5-5 shooting from the field. He’s cooled off considerably since, but it was an immediate indication of what he potentially could bring to the table when called upon this year. Although he won’t play when the team is fully healthy, Bacon seems a reasonable replacement for the departed Wes Iwundu in terms of roster context and needs.

Strength or weakness?

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With a lack of depth, the looming specter of regression, and some major uncertainty around projected performance, it’s hard to argue that Orlando’s backcourt is anything but a relative weakness. Fournier is a fine complementary piece pushed into a more demanding role for the talent-strapped Magic. Carter-Williams has deservedly carved out a place in the rotation after looking lost to the NBA, but he remains a player with serious limitations and ongoing injury concerns. The new faces don’t figure to shift the bottom line all that much, with Anthony likely to experience the full turbulence that comes with any young point guard’s rookie campaign and Bacon a player best suited as a depth piece.

And then there’s Fultz.

In 77 total games last season the mercurial guard flashed enough promising performance to suggest that he could one day develop into a top-notch player in this league. Much hinges on his jumpshot, of course, but his sublime court maneuverability and attuned passing instincts are enough to ensure that there will long be a role for him as an on-court contributor. Even modest development in his second full campaign will serve to improve the Magic’s season outlook.

However, it would ultimately take some truly significant strides by Fultz to immediately vault the backcourt of this Orlando side into a position of strength. While such a leap is unlikely, it’s undoubtedly one both the franchise and fans alike will be hoping he proves he can take. Success both this season and beyond likely lies in his ability to stick that landing.