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Orlando Magic Season Preview: Gordon, Ross and a motley crew of wings

How much faith do you have in AG taking his long-teased leap?

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With the season opener against Miami now less than two weeks away, it’s time to continue breaking down the state of Orlando’s roster and making an educated guess as to what to expect from the different components. We’ve already spent some time considering the backcourt, and today we move onto the wings before we cover the bigs later this week. Remember, we’ll be running through the old and the new before determining whether that section of the lineup is a strength or a weakness for the Magic. Let’s get started!

Familiar faces

Before we can even begin to explore expectations for the Magic’s wing rotation, it’s probably best to consider who won’t play a part: Jonathan Isaac. One of the perceived future pillars of the roster won’t see any on-court action in the 2020/21 season, the result of a cruel ACL and meniscus tear in his left knee suffered in the Disney bubble. It’s a significant setback for both the player and the team, serving as a roadblock to his own individual development and denying the front office the opportunity to continue their roster evaluation with a full suite of information. Although expected to make a full recovery, JI’s absence hurts the team’s bottom line in the campaign to come.

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

If there’s any silver lining to be found in the aftermath of this debilitating injury, it’s only in the fact that it will allow Aaron Gordon to solely inhabit the power forward slot. It’s the position at which he has proven himself most effective in recent years, and without the awkward duplication and redundancy that playing him alongside Isaac brings he’s free to step up and make the leap that the team has long awaited.

But … couldn’t that be said of basically every Aaron Gordon season in recent memory? When hasn’t it seemed like he’s on the verge of something greater? Of forcing his way into the All-Star equation? Of finding his place as a dual threat, equally adept as a defensive stopper and a diverse scorer? The six year veteran has established himself as a key cog on this Magic side, but would he be as important on any of the teams that fancy themselves genuine contenders?

In that context, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to think that AG may yet ripen into a banana worthy of top pair billing. There’s undoubtedly more to his game still to be unlocked, but how that fits with the other pieces on Orlando’s roster is a little unclear. It’s apparent — courtesy of every pull up jumper or over-dribbled sequence — that he still views himself as a dynamic halfcourt scorer through whom the offense can be funneled, but the accumulated evidence doesn’t really support this as an effective or efficient use of his skills. And while it’s true that Gordon has recently demonstrated a developing maturity, seen in the steady minimization of these moments of frustration, there’s still a ways to go before it could be said that he plays within the limit of his own talents.

Despite the polarizing takes that the springy forward is capable of generating with his oscillating performances, Gordon will be given every opportunity this coming season to reach his full potential. In fact, for the Magic to maintain their recent level of modest success such a blossoming will almost be necessary. Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier have both already likely reached their respective ceilings, while some of the other tantalizing pieces on the roster — like Cole Anthony or Mo Bamba — forecast only as low-key contributors by even the most favorable of projections. With an uncontested stranglehold over his preferred position, a budding penchant for playmaking, and the complete trust of his head coach, 2020/21 could be the season that Gordon finally pairs his talents with the consistency required to push his stock higher.

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If projecting AG’s performance is a murky process, the same cannot be said of his most significant teammate on the wing. Terrence Ross, the Magic’s flamethrowing supersub, will be judged almost solely by how accurately he shoots the ball. After a prolific long distance campaign in 2018/19 — he shot 38.3% from deep on 7.0 attempts per game and set a record for the number of three pointers made by a player coming exclusively off the bench — the Human Torch came back down to earth last season, making just 35.1% of his attempts from beyond the arc and seeing his advanced metrics drop across the board as a result.

Much of this was the result of a cold start to the season; Ross shot sub-30% from deep across October and November on his way to a 39% field goal percentage in the season’s first two months. That he was able to bounce back and push these figures at least into the general vicinity of his career averages (despite a wayward radar in the closing bubble games) speaks to the momentum he’s able to gather when things are going well. With a slightly greater balance of shooting threats around him this season the hope will be that Head Coach Steve Clifford can implement some creative ways to shake him free of the often smothering defensive attention he receives, particularly when being asked to buoy the otherwise offensively impotent second units. Ross can shoot better, certainly, but the team can also put him in more advantageous spots to do so.

It’s true for most players, but particularly stark in Ross’ case: he shoots so much more accurately in wins than losses that it’s almost impossible not to use such correlation to assume causation. Put simply, when the Human Torch’s shooting stroke shines bright, the Magic are likely to end up on the right side of the final ledger. A minor favorable adjustment to his shooting numbers is a reasonable expectation based simply on regression to the mean, which bodes well for both Ross’ individual output and the team’s overall chances.

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James Ennis is one of the returning players on the wing whose presence should theoretically help both Gordon and Ross. He’s cast as a defensive specialist with a willingness to shoot the three ball when the opportunity arises, a fact that helps keep the opposition honest and provides a modicum more space for his teammates to operate in. After arriving via a mid-season trade it wasn’t long before he found his way into the starting lineup, providing some balance by allowing AG to exclusively occupy the power forward slot and giving the team one extra player with at least a perceived reputation as a marksmen. He didn’t really live up to this notoriety — just 28.6% from deep on 3.2 attempts per game in pinstripes — but it was enough that he was often guarded as though he would make such shots.

In a perfect world Ennis would likely be much further down the rotation, a result of his shooting and playmaking limitations. In fact, it would be hard to find a starting spot for him on the roster of any team that fancies themselves a genuine contender this season. By no means is he the best at what he does, but he happens to be the best that the Magic have for this particular job. As a short-term fix he’s serviceable, and an upgrade over some of the other options that were available to the team last year. Ennis’ presence won’t singlehandedly elevate Orlando as a playoff threat, but it will lift the floor of the side ever so slightly.

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Another late season acquisition who has been brought back is Gary Clark, the reserve four who has demonstrated an almost unbelievable infatuation with the three-pointer since coming into the league. A shade under 90% of his total career shot attempts have been from beyond the arc, and he continued this tradition uninterrupted after coming across from the analytically-inspired Rockets just in time for Orlando’s playoff appearance. He didn’t do much other than bomb away — nor was he asked to — but it was interesting to note the effect his willingness to hoist triples had on the spacing that his teammates resultantly enjoyed. Clark is a slightly below-average long-range marksmen, but one who other teams do pay some attention to. As a depth piece he won’t move the Magic’s needle, but he does offer Clifford some modern roster deployment choices should the need arise.

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Finally, we have Al-Farouq Aminu, the major free agent addition from the 2019 offseason who could almost be placed in the ‘new blood’ category still to come. His first season for the Magic was cut short due to injury (just 18 games played), and it could still be some time before we see him suit up as the after effects linger through his recovery. As yet another power forward his initial arrival was met with some skepticism, but a clearer path to sensible playing time allocation is available this year due to JI’s injury. Aminu figures to add another defensively solid player to Orlando’s rotation, although he’ll need to do a much better job shooting the ball (a woeful 29.1% from the field and 25.0% from deep during his brief time in Orlando) and leveraging elements like the corner three (which he demonstrated a proclivity for in Portland) to emerge as an overall positive contributor.

New blood

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The wings in Orlando are relatively bereft of novel contributors for this upcoming campaign, but the one new face is an intriguing one. Chuma Okeke is the Magic’s rookie power forward (because of course!) out of Auburn, and he will likely step immediately into some meaningful minutes when the season proper gets underway. Drafted sixteenth overall, he was effectively red-shirted last year with an injury but will now be injected into the team as the only additional talent on the wings. Is it reasonable to project him as a difference-maker?

Okeke figures to toggle between the three and four slots as the coaching staff figure out the position that best fits his skill set at the professional level, another factor that could add turbulence to the normal ups and downs of any rookie campaign. Scouting reports in the lead up to the draft suggest that he could be a solid individual defender from day one, and with a reportedly strong work ethic and basketball IQ there’s a good chance he positively contributes to the team game in the season’s early stages. He looks to be possessed of a smooth jump shot and refined off-ball cutting instincts, two elements that should allow him to settle in as a reasonably dependable (but teammate dependent) low-usage option when on the floor.

Yet, many of the warnings that exist for his rookie teammate Cole Anthony apply here also. Expecting any non-lottery pick to come in and immediately carve out a role is a dangerous proposition, particularly when it’s one with a recent injury history like Okeke’s. He will also have to make peace with his tweener status, a positional versatility that can serve one well in the College ranks but that is ripe for opposition exploitation when playing against the real deal. If he can hang on the perimeter against those quicker and smaller while also holding his own against more physical bullies the Magic might just have a long-term piece on their hands. If not, it’s tricky to see how he projects as anything more than a player deeper down the rotation.

Strength or weakness?

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Last season the Magic’s most dependable offensive contributions came from Vucevic and Fournier, the side’s literal centerpiece and it’s most trusted backcourt option. By comparison, Gordon had only the fifth highest usage rate on the team (20.7%), while Ross possessed the fourth (22.8%) by virtue of his central role on the second unit. Disconcertingly, whenever this pair were called upon to generate offense they did so in a way that resulted in some of the worst true shooting percentages on the team (.516 and .548, respectively).

Simply put, when the Magic were searching for a bucket their collection of wings were rarely the preferred port of call. If the team is going to improve over last season’s eighth placed finish and first round wipeout, they’re going to need more from the traditional forward slots.

Unfortunately, outside of the oft anticipated AG explosion, it’s not clear that there’s enough talent on the wings to make this section of the roster a strength for Orlando. Gordon is good but not great, and could possess a pinstriped expiration date that has currently been extended only because of Isaac’s ongoing absence. Ross can win a game singlehandedly, but he’s a one-dimensional player that takes on outsized importance for the scoring-bereft Magic. Ennis, Clark and Aminu are all serviceable depth pieces, but they’re foot soldiers as opposed to end-level bosses capable of significantly tilting the odds of success. And as much as Okeke’s potential tantalizes, he’s still a non-lottery rookie playing his way back after an extended absence due to injury. This is hardly an awe-inspiring crew of wings.

For that reason, this part of Orlando’s rotation is almost certainly going to be a weakness in need of covering this coming season. Any injury to one of the top guys will immediately reveal the limitations of this particular group, as will the relative strength of the opposition wings on any given night; it’s a position at which some significant talent now exists!

What that means for now is that, once again, the Magic faithful will be maintaining their belief in the long-prophesied AG leap. If in 2020/21 Orlando is going to wage war on the wings and actually win, they’ll need this vision of All-star talent to come to life.