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Good, bad, and ugly early-season trends for the Orlando Magic: Part I

A look at early season basketball trends for the Magic, starting with the good

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

With a healthy dose of 2020/21 basketball now under our collective belts, it’s time to take Orlando’s temperature at this early juncture of the season. The team has come back down to earth after one stage being the league’s only undefeated team, but still sits in the relatively pleasing position of fourth in the Eastern Conference. Similarly, the performance of individual players has waxed and waned across the opening slate, a fact only exacerbated by required coaching adjustments related to injury management. Already the season has been anything but smooth sailing for the Magic.

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.


Terrence Ross’ scoring profile

Orlando Magic v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Something that has been glaringly obvious across the Magic’s start to the season is the fact that the Human Torch is already well and truly alight at this early stage. Terrence Ross has been spectacular in the five games he’s played to date, averaging 22.0 points per game on 49.4% from the field, 43.8% from deep and 90.9% from the free-throw line. He’s actually leading Orlando in scoring in his 28.6 minutes off the bench each night, a phenomenal achievement for a player who is ostensibly a reserve.

The improved numbers are important, particularly for a player that struggled through a down season last year. More significant, however, is the manner in which Ross is achieving this avalanche of points. The long-range marksmen has actually flashed a diversified offensive repertoire through this early stretch, leaning less heavily on three-point bombs and finding other ways to put the ball through the net. His current three-point rate of .416 is the lowest of his career, and has resulted in almost one fewer attempt from deep each night — 6.4 this season compared to 7.3 in 2019/20 — despite the slight bump in minutes he’s currently experiencing. He’s being more selective about when to pull the trigger, a factor likely contributing to his improved accuracy.

Ross has turned a chunk of his previous three-point attempts into jumpers in the 10 to 22 foot range, converting them at a rate well above his career averages. Now, this isn’t to say that those numbers are going to imminently plummet, although he might cool off some from that range inside the arc; instead, it’s likely that he continues to get good usage out of that area of the floor. His direct opponent is generally so worried about the threat he poses on the perimeter that they they look to blanket him, a fact which Ross has done well to recognize and exploit; he’s much more likely this season to attack the closeout with a hard dribble into space, and he’s even looking to do the same coming over screens when he knows his man is fighting hard over the pick. He’s doing a great job of reading the floor and taking advantage of any space that opens up in front of him.

Additionally, Ross has supplemented his shot-making and improved decisions as the ball-handler with a free-throw rate that currently ranks as his career best. He’s getting up 4.4 attempts from the charity stripe each night, courtesy of a free-throw rate of .286. This means that he’s generating easy points on more than one out of every four possessions he ends, a fact which is undoubtedly only further putting his defender in two minds. This sort of variation and unpredictability is an essential ingredient of any elite scorer’s playbook, and through five games the Human Torch is proving just how bright he can burn as a featured option on offense.

Nikola Vucevic

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

At this point, what is there to say about Orlando’s big man? Nikola Vucevic continues to chug along as the Magic’s most important cog, buoying a seriously limited offense with the dual threat of his own shooting and playmaking while also adding extra wrinkles to a defensive game of his that has long been wrongly derided. If he keeps doing what he’s been doing he should be an All-Star once again.

What he has been doing looks like this in the box score each night: 21.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 52.0% shooting from the floor, a team-leading 48.5% from deep, a career-best true shooting percentage of 61.1%, his lowest ever turnover rate (6.2%), an elite PER of 26.6, and an absurd .233 win shares generated every 48 minutes by his contributions alone. If the Magic could just play five Voochs for the entirety of each contest they would be on pace to win 78 games in a 72 game season.

The team has asked plenty of Vucevic over the years, and they continue to do so in 2021. Because of the bereftness of shooting on the roster they’ve needed the big man to stretch his shot profile further from the hoop; he’s responded by hitting more threes at a higher accuracy than ever before. After working hard to limit opportunities for his opponent at the rim (where he’s not a noted shot challenger) he has been tasked this year with also hedging more strongly on screens instead of always defaulting to drop coverage; Vooch has emerged as one of the team’s most visibly engaged defenders, covering more ground on an average possession than many perhaps thought possible for the big man. His game continues to develop.

It might be that the Magic, as currently constructed, are a limited team fighting for one of the final playoff spots. In fact, that’s almost certainly the case. But that ceiling isn’t one that’s been installed by Vucevic; instead, as has been the case for a few seasons now, he’s the major reason the team can reach that modest height in the first place.

Markelle Fultz

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

The opening half-dozen games of this season have appeared to be another stepping stone for the Magic’s young point guard. At this stage Markelle Fultz is fully entrenched as the team’s starter and one of the franchise pillars, with an increased responsibility reflective of the contract he secured during the truncated offseason. Orlando’s development is now irrevocably entwined with his own.

It was a blistering start to the season for Fultz, who quickly delivered a handful of performances that seemingly justified the team’s faith in him. He opened with 15, 5 and 4 against Miami, which he followed up with 21 and 7 against the Wizards in a game that he dominated late. He dropped a career high 26 in a return date against Washington before securing his first double-double of the season, an 11 point and 10 assist effort on a cold shooting night. His output has tapered off since, but it’s still added up to healthy averages of 15.7 points and 5.8 assists, with what are improving figures in PER (14.3) and win shares per-48 (.047). He’s increased his usage (up to 25.8% of all possessions) while significantly decreasing his turnover rate (11.5%, a 3.4% improvement over last season), an all-important measure of the effectiveness of play from the point guard position.

Shooting is still the most obvious aspect of Fultz’s game that requires improvement, and how this develops in the years to come will go some way towards determining his ceiling as a player. Despite some pre-season promises his three point stroke looks just as wonky as it did last season, and worryingly this inaccuracy and lack of fluency has extended to his mid-range game (which was solid in 2019/20). The good news is that he’s finishing at the hoop more efficiently than ever — with improved percentages within 10 feet of the rim benefiting the full half of his shot profile that comes from this distance — and that his free-throw stroke looks smooth, with a near-perfect accuracy of 88.9% on 18 total attempts so far through six games.

Fultz has also obviously been instrumental to the team’s increased pace, displaying a penchant for downhill attacks when he senses the defense backpedaling or caught out in cross-matches. He’s making a concerted effort to get into the painted area before kicking out into newly created space, a necessary component of offensive gameplay for a team whose outside shooting doesn’t usually stretch the defense thin enough. He’s also had some nice defensive flashes, although these have tended to be of the kind generated by his physicality and instincts as opposed to his dependable execution of the scheme;

Still, despite some of the more obvious flaws it’s hard to see this start for Fultz as anything but a clear victory. For the incredibly young guard who at one point looked to be on his way out of the league. For the team that took the renewed gamble on his potential and put him in a position to succeed the way he needed to. And for a fanbase who is steadily growing in their collective belief that they could be witnessing the emergence of a special player.

Khem Birch

Philadelphia 76ers v Orlando Magic Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

Khem Birch is rarely, if ever, going to be one of the Magic’s most celebrated players. He’s a deep rotation guy, carving out small pockets of minutes behind both entrenched starters and younger projects. He plays a grinding style in a position that’s gone out of fashion, with a heavy focus on elements of the game considered to be hard work. That being said, he has seized the opportunity that has come his way during this early stretch, putting up 6.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 stocks (combined steals and blocks) in a shade over 17 minutes each night. He’s been a dependable backup center, flashing small glimpses of a more well-rounded and generally effective game.

Although the numbers are noisy at the moment, Birch has been able to demonstrate a number of incremental improvements to his game. His screens have seemingly grown in width over the offseason, particularly in terms of pindowns and off-ball picks set for shooters like Ross; much of his success starts with the separation Birch is often able to help create for his teammate. He’s also displayed more nous for the roll part of the equation, with some strong and-one finishes at the hoop and even a few easy baskets created by a timely slip to the rim when the defense turned their head. Greater fluidity and rhythm is needed when working the two-man game with his bench partner, Cole Anthony, but the hope is that will come in time once they become more acclimated with each other. Hell, he’s even attempted a couple of mid-range jumpers!

Birch has nudged up both his PER and his win shares per-48 minutes mark over last season, decent measures of individual progress for a limited reserve. Importantly, particularly considering his position and role, the team’s defensive performance has broadly improved in his time on the court in 2020/21; a defensive rating of 105 points allowed per-100 possession compared to the 111 given up in his time on the court last year. The team offense hasn’t really clicked just yet for the bench mob, but that’s largely to be expected considering the players further down the rotation who are being called up into active service. The coaching staff have also largely avoided the catastrophic pairing of Birch at power forward with Vucevic at the five, allowing him to shine in the role he is best suited for.

Coming into the season, the Big Maple was largely a luxury for the Magic as the third-string center on a team that had invested a lot of time and resources into the position. In a perfect world he probably wouldn’t have actually played that much at all, but he’s done well with the chances provided. Well enough, in fact, that the eventual return of Mo Bamba now promises to bring with it an extra level of intrigue - will Birch maintain his spot in the rotation? If he continues to elevate his level of play he may leave the coaching staff without a choice.

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 tomorrow as we uncover what has been trending down in Part Two.