The sun is all but setting on one of the strangest off-seasons in recent memory, which was preceded by one of the strangest endings to an NBA season in league history.
Take a deep breath Magic fans, you’ve made it - regular season basketball is back in Orlando!
“I am pumped, I really am,” guard Evan Fournier told reporters after practice Monday afternoon. “Just being at Amway, even though we don’t have the fans, it feels good - it feels good, it feels right. It’s been a while, so I think (again) we’re all excited.”
The Orlando Magic made minimal changes to their roster this past (abbreviated) off-season, deciding instead to bring back 12 of the 15 players from last year’s team that finished as the eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference (33-40).
Veteran point guard D.J. Augustin is the lone significant departure that the Magic will have to overcome. Augustin, who played four seasons in Orlando, signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Milwaukee Bucks. His backup point guard minutes will likely go to rookie Cole Anthony, who Orlando drafted with the 15th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Anthony had a strong preseason debut with the Magic, averaging 13.7 points and 3.7 assists in four contests. The “one-and-done” prospect from New York (played collegiately at North Carolina) capped-off Orlando’s preseason slate by scoring four points in the last 14.4 seconds of last Saturday’s 120-117 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
Chuma Okeke, Orlando’s 16th overall selection from the 2019 NBA Draft (who spent all of last season recovering from an ACL injury), also debuted for the Magic this preseason. Okeke, who appears to be in line for the backup power forward minutes behind Aaron Gordon, showed-off his diverse skill-set in the preseason - knocking-down perimeter jump-shots, hitting cutters with precision back-door passes, and flashing defensive instincts that he routinely modeled over two years at the collegiate-level (Auburn).
“Chuma is my guy,” Terrence Ross told reporters after Orlando’s preseason finale against Charlotte. “When he made that pass (a back-door pass to Ross that led to a dunk), I knew. There’s not too many guys that can make that pass, especially on the back-door off the dribble. Usually, that’s me and (Aaron Gordon’s) play, me and AG got that connection, but Chuma, he surprised me with that pass right on the money.”
The Magic will be looking to clinch their third-consecutive playoff berth in 2020-21, but that feat will likely prove to be more difficult than it has been over the past two seasons. Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Miami, Indiana, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn - the seven teams that finished ahead of the Magic in the standings last season - all look primed to return to the playoffs this year.
To complicate things further, the Atlanta Hawks are expected to be much improved (healthy Clint Capela, additions of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danillo Gallinari, Kris Dunn, and Rajon Rondo), the Chicago Bulls brought in a new head coach (Billy Donovan), and the Washington Wizards brought in Russell Westbrook to pair with All-Star guard Bradley Beal.
‘Cliff’ on the Heat
The Magic will be tested right out of the gate, as they are set to host the defending Eastern Conference champions on Wednesday night. Miami finished the regular season last year at 44-29 (4th seed in the East) before going on a magical run that led them all the way to the NBA Finals, ultimately falling to the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
“They’re (Miami) going to have a confidence level in knowing that when they play well, they’re as good as anyone,” Coach Steve Clifford told me Monday after practice. “So that’s a great place to be mentally. And they have so many things that they do on both ends of the floor well – they have a lot of different aspects of offense that are difficult to deal with, they’re a great cutting team, (and) last year their three-point shooting was a big part of their success.”
“To me, they’ve always been as good as anyone in the NBA with their cutting game,” Clifford added. “(I think) in the bubble, they were #1 in the NBA in that aspect of offense.”
Clifford specifically mentioned how dangerous Miami can be when they spread you out, boasting five players in their rotation who shot 37 percent or higher on three-point attempts last season (Dragic, Herro, Leonard, Olynyk, and Robinson).
The Heat take a lot of three’s, they’re efficient on offense, they get to the free throw line, and they work really hard on the glass. Competing with the Heat this early in the season will be a true test for the Magic.
And of course, the Heat are also one of the toughest, hard-working, and physical teams in the league - led by All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
“They’re really the only team, so far, that can play both man-to-man and zone defense at a really high-level,” Clifford told reporters regarding Miami’s team defensive versatility.
Locked-in (and loaded with cash)
Long journey for Fultz, the former No. 1 overall pick, to a $50M rookie extension with the Magic. Orlando has been thrilled with his progress there, and he's become a key part of franchise's future. https://t.co/TTxCnzvn72— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) December 21, 2020
Jonathan Isaac has agreed to a four-year, $80M extension with the Orlando Magic, his agent Jeff Wechsler tells ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) December 21, 2020
The Orlando organization announced early Monday evening that they had come to contract extension agreements with guard Markelle Fultz and forward Jonathan Isaac. Per team policy, the Magic did not officially disclose the exact terms of the two deals. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news minutes earlier, reporting that Fultz was extending with the Magic for three-years at $50 million, and Isaac for four-years at $80 million (respectively). Both players were eligible for rookie-contract extensions as they head into their fourth NBA seasons (and the final year of their respective rookie contracts).
Fultz (22), the former number one overall pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, played in 72 games (60 starts) with the Magic last season. The fourth-year guard averaged 12.1 points, 5.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in 2019-20. Over 105 career games, Fultz has averaged 10.7 points in 25.5 minutes per game.
Isaac (23) played in 34 games last season, averaging 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 1.5 steals per contest. He missed just over 30 games last year due to a left knee/bone contusion. He then returned during the NBA’s restart at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, before suffering a catastrophic injury to his left knee (ACL). Isaac will be sidelined for the entire 2020-21 season. Orlando’s former sixth overall selection from the ‘17 draft has averaged 9.3 points and 5.4 rebounds over his 136 game NBA career.
“We are thrilled to keep both Markelle (Fultz) and Jonathan (Isaac) in a Magic uniform,” Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said in a press release Monday. “They both have a very bright future and they mean a lot to our organization, both on and off the court.”
All in the family
Magic veteran guard Michael Carter-Williams, who played at Syracuse from 2011-2013, has actually been watching a lot of Creighton Jayhawks basketball. Random, right?
Because they don’t share the same last name, many people may not realize this, but Carter-Williams has a younger brother who starts at point guard for Creighton. Marcus Zegarowski, a three-year starter for Coach Greg McDermott, has aspirations of playing in the NBA like his older brother.
“That would be like a dream come true (to one day play on the same NBA team),” Carter-Williams told me Monday after practice. “Obviously, I watch him at Creighton, and he’s done a lot of good things there (and of course I’ve been following his career since he’s been born). That would be unbelievable, I think he has a great chance to be a good player in this league.”
Through 71 career games at the collegiate level, Zegarowski is averaging 13.4 points and 4.3 assists per contest. The Massachusetts native has connected on 41.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc (5.3 attempts per game) in his career.
“He’s smart, he takes care of the ball, he’s a knock-down shooter, and he can lead,” Carter-Williams added about his younger brother. “He can lead guys and put them in the best position to score. That’s what the NBA is looking for nowadays, guys that can knock-down open shots from the point guard position – as well as get guys involved (and be smart).”
Ennis out, 10-man rotation for now
Coach Clifford told reporters Monday that forward James Ennis, who missed the entire preseason with hamstring and calf injuries, will not be available for Wednesday’s season opener (and his status beyond Orlando’s first game is “questionable”).
Expect newly acquired wing Dwayne Bacon to start at small forward for the Magic in place of Ennis for the time being.
Clifford also mentioned Monday after practice that he was likely to go with a ten-man rotation, rather than the nine-man rotation he has utilized in the past, to begin this season (he stressed the importance of utilizing depth amidst such a strange/unique set of circumstances players and coaches currently find themselves in).
I would expect Fultz, Fournier, Bacon, Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Anthony, Carter-Williams, Ross, Okeke, and Khem Birch will all see the floor Wednesday night.
Aaron Goldstone has been writing for Orlando Pinstriped Post since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @AaronGoldstone.