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What we learned about the Orlando Magic this week

Some final takeaways following the conclusion of the preseason

Boston Celtics v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

With preseason now in the books and game one of the regular season looming on the near horizon, it’s time to take stock of what we’ve seen to this point. Our own Editor-in-Pinstripes, Mike Cali, shared some observations after the first week of games, which I’ll add to here with four of my own. Sit back, relax, and let me walk you through the basketball week that was in Central Florida.

Mo Bamba looks much better

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Even accounting for the standard ‘it’s only preseason’ reminder, it’s fair to say that something looks different regarding Mo Bamba. Specifically, we’re talking about a positive type of difference. Bamba looks … good! He’s been noticeably more energetic and engaged, as well as more animated and communicative while on the floor. In fact, one sequence against the Spurs basically produced more intensity than Bamba has totaled in three years in pinstripes: he recovers in transition to be the lone defender back, authoritatively swats a shot at the rim, exuberantly pumps his fist in celebration, and then gets up the floor like a rim-runner possessed. When talent and effort combines like that it’s a reminder of what the front office saw in him coming into the 2018 draft.

Across four preseason games the fourth-year big flashed a ton of potential, arriving at averages of 11.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and and a whopping 3.8 blocks in just 20.7 minutes of court time each night. In these warm-up contests he converted from the floor at a rate of 54.5%, including a very healthy 41.7% from beyond the arc while averaging 3.0 long range attempts per game. Bamba also kept both his turnovers and fouls under control, with averages of just 1.2 and 2.2 respectively, rates that figure to keep him on the floor should he maintain them once the real games start.

We’ve been teased by the prospect of a Bamba leap before, but with the motivation of a new contract, the removal of an All-Star impediment, and a new coaching staff seemingly more willing to extend his leash than to confine him to Clifford’s (big red) doghouse, the fourth-year center might just be ready to pop for real.

Wendell Carter Jr. ain’t no slouch either

NBA: Preseason-San Antonio Spurs at Orlando Magic Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

In trading away Nikola Vucevic one of the primary concerns was that the team didn’t have anyone ready to step in and helm the center position on a long-term basis. Bamba had been frustratingly inconsistent to that point, Khem Birch was a certainty to be moved himself, and Wendell Carter Jr., returned in the Vooch deal itself, was a distressed asset who had fallen so firmly out of favor at his previous spot that they were giving up on him while he was still on his rookie contract. There was little that inspired confidence.

Preseason play, however, has added a new wrinkle to the Bamba vs WCJ debate. The evaluative question seems to have subtly shifted from ‘are either of the pair any good?’ to ‘which of the pair is the best?’, a nuance that speaks to the impression the duo have left behind. We detailed Bamba above, but Carter Jr.’s haul from the last ten days might be equally as impressive: the team leader in points (12.5), rebounds (8.8) field goal percentage (64.3%) and minutes (25.6), with 2.0 assists and a combined 1.5 stocks each night for good measure. He’s largely anchored the team’s play at both ends of the floor.

More importantly, he also flashed some tantalizing additions to his game, most notably a 44.4% conversion rate from beyond the arc on 2.2 attempts per night. The big man showed a willingness to extend his range, firing away largely without hesitation when the opportunity presented itself and demonstrating at least some capacity to stretch opposing rim protectors away from the hoop. Tweaks were also evident at the other end of the floor, with WCJ indicating the potential to play alongside Bamba for stretches, toggling positions and defending on the perimeter for limited sequences when the situation called for it. If these evolutions to his game stick they significantly improve his chances of being a legitimate difference maker in the modern NBA.

Through four preseason games Bamba’s contributions have rightfully grabbed the majority of Magic headlines. But Carter Jr. also showed enough to suggest that his stint in Central Florida won’t be ending any time soon.

Ball security might be a problem

Orlando Magic Vs. Boston Celtics Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

While it’s certainly possible to explain the fact away — they’re still establishing familiarity; the team is trying new things; it’s preseason, dude! — there’s some rightful concern regarding the Magic’s ball security heading into the regular season. The team coughed up a total of 73 turnovers across the four contests, a figure that represents a pace well beyond the 12.8 the side averaged last year.

The number will almost certainly come down once the real games start, as they will for most teams once rotations settle and trusted playmakers start monopolizing the rock. Therein, however, lies some of the problem for the Magic: their preferred point guard remains on the shelf, while those picking up the playmaking slack were either uncharacteristically sloppy (Carter Jr., who averaged a whopping 3.5 turnovers for the preseason) or are young and still figuring things out (Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs, both of whom posted uninspiring assist/turnover ratios). It’s a tough look.

The Magic already project to be a team that will struggle to generate points in the half court, whether that’s because of poor outside shooting or a general absence of talent who can create their own shot. As such, maintaining control of the ball becomes an even greater priority, with the turnover battle being one they simply cannot afford to lose. Let’s hope that they heed the lessons of the preseason and start preaching the benefits of better ball safety.

Regardless of the record, the Magic figure to be a fun hang this season

Boston Celtics v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

As you’ve probably already garnered from my series of season preview columns, I don’t think the Magic are going to be a good basketball team this coming season. In fact, I expect the side to be firmly entrenched at the wrong end of the standings, duking it out for the lottery odds and number combinations that will improve their standing at the 2022 NBA Draft. Still, even with that likely reality a known and accepted quantity, the Magic should still provide an engaging viewing experience over the next 82 games.

First and foremost, this is a young team with oodles of potential, and the thrill of watching a well-regarded prospect blossom into a contributor, or starter, or even a fully-fledged star is a thoroughly engrossing experience. The good news for Orlando is that the roster is littered with players who could make just such a leap, a result which would garner goodwill for seasons to come. The front office also appears to have assembled a collection of talents who largely share a healthy vibe of positivity and energy; this is a team that looks like they’re having fun working their tails off together, whether it’s on the court, in the lab, or when fronting the media.

I mean, just look at the individual components. Terrence Ross is a living heat check. Cole Anthony has an unshakable belief that he’s the best player on the court. RJ Hampton is mercury given the form of flesh. Jalen Suggs is a terrier on the hardwood. Bamba blocks shots like a rare few ever have before. Gary ‘Gary Harris’ Harris has a really fun nickname. The Wagner Bros. have major potential as an unintentional comedy duo. Robin Lopez is finally united with his soul mate, Stuff. Coach Mosley appears to be the kind of guy you’d go to war for. And we haven’t even seen JI, ‘Kelle or the Chumdog Millionaire yet!

To conclude, I present one final piece of undeniably compelling and simply irrefutable evidence that points towards the Magic being super fun this coming season:

I rest my case.