With the working week winding to an end, let’s check the pulse of all things pinstriped.
Who won the week that was?
This is an absurdly obvious call, but any time a player goes out and drops a 38-point classic on the head of the defending champs – as a rookie, no less! – they’re going to earn themselves the ‘best of the week’ nod. Ladies and gentlemen, your genuine ‘Rookie of the Year’ contender and future star, Franz Wagner!
Wagner was electric in the week’s first game against Milwaukee, compiling an absurd 38 points on 12-20 shooting, including a deadly 4-8 from deep and a perfect 10-10 from the charity stripe. He scored the ball in all manner of ways, with his usual probing drives being supplemented by both some sweet catch-and-shoot sequences and even some pull-up work off the dribble. In addition to the scoring he also secured 7 rebounds, dished out 3 helpers, and racked up a steal and a block for good measure to ensure an impact at both ends of the floor.
It’s incredibly easy to forget that Franz is still just a rookie with less than half a season under his belt. He is composed beyond his years, with an already well-developed eye for how to navigate and ultimately bend opposing defenses when he’s working with the ball in hand. He seems to rarely, if ever, make inattentive mental mistakes, a factor which has undoubtedly contributed to his early deployment as a play-making forward on the wing. He’s also emerging as a solid one-on-one defender in a variety of sequences. All of these traits were on display against the Bucks.
Another week, another collection of impressive performances for the Magic’s impressive wing. So has his rookie campaign gone since day one, making it more than understandable that this was the week he seemed to take a leap into the national consciousness. The sky remains the limit for Wagner.
The upcoming slate
This week’s schedule: at Celtics (Sun); at Bulls (Mon); vs 76ers (Wed).
Another week, another triumvirate of games against Eastern Conference heavyweights (or at least those expecting to be). Chicago continues to hum along despite the chaos of Covid interruptions, riding the core they souped-up over the last ten months all the way to the current second seed. They’ll be an incredibly tough matchup, particularly with Vooch continuing to round into form and Zach Lavine and DeMar Derozan both returned and scorching nets.
Philadelphia and Boston, by comparison, aren’t enjoying the same level of success being seen in the Windy City to date. Both sides are hovering around the .500 mark, with key absences an ongoing conundrum that neither has been able to solve. For the Celtics, Jayson Tatum is the latest key cog to spend some time on the sidelines, while the 76ers appear no closer to figuring out what to do about the Ben Simmons-sized hole in their lineup. As is the case across the majority of the NBA at the moment, these teams will both be far from full strength.
Despite those disclaimers, all three opponents on the slate this week figure to be too good for the Magic. Remember, Orlando is similarly decimated by injury and illness, and currently relying on a number of Lakeland call-ups to play extended minutes just to get by. It’s not a recipe for success, a fact made evident recently by the back-to-back poundings they suffered at the hands of the defending champs and the ugly, dispiriting effort they produced against an under-manned Miami.
The crystal ball says …
Unless the Magic catch a break in regards to opposition absences, this feels like another winless week.
The next week is an important one for …
Jamahl Mosley. It’s been one of the more difficult head coaching initiations one could imagine, with the season throwing up a seemingly endless number of unique challenges the longer it rolls on. Long term injuries to key veterans? Check. One of the youngest rotations ever? Check. Health and safety protocols and the ensuing merry-go-round of personnel? Check. Figuring out how to balance development opportunities and meaningfully competitive games? Check. And we’re not even at the halfway point yet!
Still, despite these circumstances it’s important that the Magic are still demonstrably moving in the right direction, a responsibility which ultimately lands with the coach. He’s soon going to be tasked with re-integrating a number of returning players – Bamba, Okeke, Suggs, Anthony – as well as introducing to this new dynamic for the first time a theoretically key piece of the long-term foundation, Markelle Fultz (to say nothing of the horizon and JI). He’ll have to find ways to keep Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. improving. He’ll have to figure out what RJ Hampton currently is and potentially could be in this league, and where that fits in the context of Central Florida. He’ll likely have to juggle the rotation again after the trade deadline.
Most importantly, he’s got to continue to search for ways to put this team in genuinely competitive situations late in games. There’s obviously no mandate to win now, but for the health and viability of the rebuild this is a team that needs to be better. There have been some improvements evident in this regard – Orlando are no longer the league’s worst team by point differential (-9.6, 29th) – but there’s something worrying about the fact that, if we discard the odd two-game winning streak that looked more like summer league, the Magic have precisely one win since November 18. On the other side of the ledger, they’ve racked up eighteen losses in that time. Oof.
Despite the cuteness of the cliche, Mosley shouldn’t be expected to make lemonades out of lemons. Orlando’s roster is one that enters basically every contest at some sort of talent deficit, before even factoring in the faces missing from the lineup on any given night. Still, that’s the reality facing any senior coach in the NBA – figure out how to position your team to be competitive night in and night out, and to hopefully steal a win or two more than they should be entitled to. The Magic have seen what happens to a rebuild when that’s not the case. Let’s hope that Mosley can figure that out despite the chaos of the 2021/22 season, continuing to improve alongside his young charges.
A figure for thought
562 – the total number of minutes that hardship call-ups have played for the Magic this season, a figure that is more than double that of the second-placed side (Lakers, 244 minutes).