It’s been quite some time since we’ve taken the pulse of the Magic in this fashion! Now, with eight bubble games behind us and the playoffs looming, it’s once again time to dig into the data, reflect on what we’ve witnessed, and determine what the state of pinstripe-adorned basketball looks like right this minute.
If we’re looking on the bright side, what exactly can we find? What’s got hearts aflutter? Is there a trajectory we should be excited about? Who or what is trending in the right direction?
For the pessimists: any elephants in the room? Is the bottom falling out somewhere? Where are we hiding the bodies? Is anyone suffering through a protracted slump?
Let’s dive in and see what stories have emerged in Orlando of late.
It would probably be more accurate to say that Nikola Vucevic’s play has been steady as opposed to either up or down, but we’re going to start by recognizing him here anyway for his consistency of performance once games resumed. Despite the uncertainty in returning to play after such a long layoff Vooch has hardly missed a beat, putting up numbers eerily close to those he established across the entirety of the season. 20.4 points and 9.6 rebounds both pace the Magic in the bubble, which he has complemented with 2.5 assists and a steal for good measure. He’s operated as the central pillar of the team’s offense, while also providing relatively solid defense in a demanding position. In short, he’s been a rock.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of Vucevic’s Disney performance has been his improved shooting numbers. He’s nudged his field goal percentage up five whole points in the eight games played, converting at a clip of 52.8%. This has also included a strong bump in three point accuracy, up from 33.2% on the season to 40.0% since the resumption. He’s even making free throws at a slightly better rate: 81.0% on 2.6 attempts per game (compared to 78.4% and 2.7). His offensive play hasn’t necessarily been breathtaking but it has been dependably good, a major boon for a Magic side that has had to look further down the bench than expected for contributions.
Interestingly, the mid-range has also been an area of improved efficiency for Vucevic, particularly after a relatively down campaign. Almost one-fifth — 19.6% — of his total points output has come from this area of the court, a significant increase from the 12.0% of his scoring that it has constituted over the entire season. He’s also managed to get by with a little less direct help in the bubble, with 36.7% of his two-point field goals coming without a helper from a teammate; this is a noticeable increase for the Magic player who, on the season, is least likely to make an unassisted two-pointer (just 28.1% of Vooch’s such made baskets).
Since returning to play Vooch has been almost exactly what the Floridian doctor ordered for an ailing Magic side. He really only has one poor showing to his name, a tough match up against the ghost of recent playoffs past: Marc Gasol and the Raptors. Otherwise, he’s been the major reason for any competitiveness that the Magic have demonstrated. Here’s hoping he can find another gear yet when the playoffs get underway.
It was a cautious approach to bubble basketball for the Magic in regards to Markelle Fultz, with the young point guard eased back into the rotation following his late arrival at Disney. He opened with solid output in sub-twenty minute showings across the first two games, coming off the bench and primarily quarterbacking the second unit. As the games wound on his minutes steadily ramped up, with back-to-back performances against the Celtics (16,10 and 6 in 33 minutes) and Nets (18, 2 and 5 in 22 minutes) indicating that he was close to returning to his pre-hiatus peak. He was inserted back into the starting lineup for the final regular season game, a tune-up that gives a clear indication of where he’ll be in the rotation when the playoffs tip on Tuesday.
When all was said and done, Fultz averaged 12.3 points, 4.4 assists and 3.1 rebounds per contest after the restart, numbers remarkably similar to those he established across the season. Although his field goal percentage took a hit — dropping almost six points to 40.6% — he was pleasingly able to improve both his three point and free-throw accuracy, converting at 35.3% and 77.8% respectively. To watch the games was to witness a player growing ever-increasingly comfortable in the mid-range, employing the off-rhythm nature of his dribbling game to slither into the high paint for floaters and little pull-ups. He has been the team’s most prolific player from this spot on the floor, getting almost a quarter (22.4%) of his points at this range. He might not have a reliable long-range shot, but already he’s finding ways to minimize the associated fallout.
Fultz isn’t yet a finished product. However, if we’re being totally honest, he might already be somewhere close to his ceiling as a non-shooter in a league that prioritized that skill to the expense of basically all others. Still, the young point guard has once again provided glimpses of making it work regardless, and these playoffs should be looked at by the franchise as a chance to see what he can do on a more competitive stage. It’s highly unlikely that the Magic will be able to make any real noise, but it’s time to at least get the band marching to Markelle’s beat.
It would be easy for this to get lost in the shuffle of a season that has been unlike any other, but your Orlando Magic are going back to the playoffs for a second straight year. They’ve achieved the honor in similar fashion to last year, even if this time round they were forced to navigate a trickier path with player availability; as a result, the eighth seed and a winning percentage of .452 seems about right. Although it doesn’t jump out as immediately notable improvement, it is a consistency of performance that has eluded the franchise during this rebuild. That they’re still standing during the business end of things for a second consecutive season is worthy of some commendation.
And with that we’ve arrived at the end of the first installment. We’ve taken a deep dive into a number of positive revelations enjoyed by the team recently, but what might be lurking just beneath the surface that could keep us up at night? Be sure to come back as we uncover what has been trending down in Part Two.