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It’s (been) time to discuss how the Magic missed many 2018 NBA Draft opportunities

Aaron takes a deep dive into how poorly Orlando brass did improving the roster at the ‘18 draft

2018 Draft Picks Press Conference Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

I think it’s important to be upfront and transparent regarding when I decided to start putting this piece together.

It wasn’t in December, when the Magic started the year 4-0 for the first time in their 32-year existence. Nor was it when they began suffering through arguably the worst collective set of injuries in recent team history shortly thereafter.

It wasn’t after Orlando’s most recent west coast swing, a road trip that saw the team struggle to dress enough healthy players on multiple occasions. Not after the numerous (and loud) pleas on social media from fans calling to see more of their favorite young big man either.

No, the idea for this piece happened somewhat organically late last summer, while consuming on a daily basis one of the greatest feats in sports history – the successful execution of NBA basketball inside the “bubble” at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. The play on the court stayed at a high-level. The viewing experience was a memorable and enjoyable one. Anyone with even a passing interest in basketball could have (should have?) relaxed on the couch and simply enjoyed themselves while being entertained by the best players in the world.

Not me, I guess. All I kept noticing were the emerging young players showcasing their games inside the bubble, many of whom were passed over by Orlando in recent drafts. It was happening on a nightly basis (or so it seemed).

I know, what’s wrong with me. Seriously, I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped reading now – I get it.

Great, well…if you’re still here, this might also be a good time to let you know what this piece is not.

This is not a “Mo Bamba is a bust” piece. Nope, not in this space. I don’t believe in labeling anyone a bust who hasn’t been given an ample opportunity to showcase what they can do on the floor. Has Bamba’s contributions towards Orlando’s overall success over the last three seasons been somewhat lackluster or forgettable? Sure, I can get with that – depending upon what your initial expectations (of a raw 20 year-old big) were in the first place. Bamba is going to have a lengthy career in the NBA, developing over time into a really solid player. I truly believe that.

This is not a “Steve Clifford is a bum for not playing Bamba” piece either. Steve Clifford has forgotten more basketball than I can ever claim to have known (and that’s an ultimate compliment for anyone that isn’t familiar with the expression). Who am I to question who he thinks gives his team the best chance to win? Clifford has commented on multiple occasions how pleased he’s been with Khem Birch this season, Orlando’s other backup center who has played the majority of the minutes in 2020-21 behind starter Nikola Vucevic. Birch is a punishing screen-setter, he’s an intelligent team defender, and he’s been one of the most proficient offensive rebounders in the game this year.

And finally, this is absolutely not a “would have, should have, could have” piece. I mean, that’s exactly what this piece is ultimately going to sound like. What I mean is, I’m not attempting to be critical of the Magic over things that were out of their control in the first place. Orlando is set to host both the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks this coming week, two teams with young superstar players in Luka Doncic and Trae Young, both of whom were drafted in 2018 just ahead of where the Magic selected. One would not have to navigate the hinterlands of #MagicTwitter very far to find someone (if not multiple someones) still bitter about Orlando missing out on both Doncic and Young. Can’t fault anyone for that, not at all. However, I do fault the logic that the Orlando organization blew their chances at drafting either one of the two transcendent talents in ’18 due to “meaningless wins” at the end of the 2017-18 season (who could forget that season finale against the hapless Wizards).

It’s a lottery people, c’mon. Take the Sacramento Kings for example, a team that won 27 games in ’18 (two more than the Magic did that year). The Kings, who entered the ’18 NBA Draft Lottery with the seventh-best odds at landing a top pick, were fortunate enough to jump all the way to the second overall spot – effectively placing Orlando outside of the top-five. If anything, one could argue that the Magic should have won more games down the stretch in ’18 (I’m kidding of course). Again, it’s a lottery (better odds are better, but not the end all).

My point is, I don’t blame the Magic organization for not landing Donicic or Young. What I do intend to illuminate in this piece is the value and incredible talent that was still on the board for the Magic to choose from – both in the first and second rounds of the 2018 NBA Draft. To this point, it certainly looks like the organization may have missed a massive opportunity to inject their roster with young, projectable, and skilled players over the course of the ‘18 process.

One could certainly nitpick any team’s draft history (in any sport really), all teams have missed certain opportunities in past drafts – no question.

But for me, this particular draft stands out more than most.

Orlando’s pick at #6 in 2018: Mohamed Bamba

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

What could’ve been: Collin Sexton, Mikal Bridges, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Michael Porter Jr.

To my earlier point, Bamba has participated in 125 of a possible 188 games (66 percent) through his three-year stint with the Magic. To be even more precise, he’s been on the floor 1,793 of a possible 9,024 minutes (19.8 percent). It’s pretty difficult to be disappointed with someone who has been on the floor for such a limited amount of time.

If it weren’t for the bad luck Bamba has suffered through during his time in Orlando, then it would appear that he would seem to have no luck at all. It’s just been one bad break after another for the young big from Harlem, New York. After appearing in 47 games over his rookie season (16.3 minutes per game), Bamba missed the final three months of 2018-19 season (and five playoff games) due to a stress fracture of his left tibia. He returned in 2019-20, playing 14.2 minutes per contest (serving as the team’s back-up center) before suffering another serious setback as league play was suspended do to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

It was revealed in August of ‘20 that Bamba had contracted COVID-19 back in June. He was sent home from the ‘bubble’ at Disney for “comprehensive post-COVID-19 testing”. It wasn’t completely clear what particular symptoms Bamba was experiencing, but his conditioning during the NBA’s restart just wasn’t where he wanted it to be. The move resulted in Bamba missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year, but his health and well-being was of much greater concern at the time (and still continues to be).

Getting his ‘legs back’ and overall conditioning has continued to plague Bamba (9.3 minutes per game), and he’s found himself losing time at the back-up center position to Birch this season. It is worth noting that Bamba has outplayed Birch 26 minutes to just six minutes over Orlando’s last two games (did a directive or mandate come down from management?).

Yes, Bamba’s time on the floor has been severely interrupted, through no fault of his own. But if we’re being completely honest here, even if Bamba had never suffered through any of the set backs he has experienced in the NBA, how much more would he have played here in Orlando?

Vucevic, who was acquired by the Magic in the Dwight Howard deal back in 2012, was heading into his age-28 season in 2018. It also happened to be the final year of a four-year/$48 million-dollar deal he signed with Orlando - under a previous regime led by former general manager Rob Henningan.

So, Vucevic wasn’t necessarily a Jeff Weltman/John Hammond (Orlando’s current President of Basketball Operations and General Manager, respectively. Both hired in ‘17) guy. And both Weltman and Hammond were well-known, from long before either ever arrived in Orlando, for their obsession drafting players with length and positional size.

“I think I always assumed the Magic would be the team to take him because of Hammond’s obsession with length,” a well-respected NBA Draft industry expert told me on background. “I don’t think Bamba was an awful pick from a talent perspective.”

While I understand that sentiment, here’s where I think Orlando’s current management group went wrong. There’s no possible way Weltman and Hammond could have known that Vucevic would go on to have three of the best seasons of his career (two All-Star appearances) immediately after they drafted Bamba - no argument there. But they should have recognized that Vucevic was by far their best player, a big entering his late-prime that was happy playing in the city of Orlando and was more than enough to build around at the center position.

And then the other argument to be made is, was it worth it investing that much in the center position to begin with? With other pressing needs (playmaking, shooting, scoring), Orlando’s leadership team chose to stay true to their “best available” board, selecting the tantalizing prospect with the otherworldly wingspan. But it sure seemed like, while many teams around the league were moving towards going ‘small’ (utilizing more versatile multi-positional forwards as “bigs”), the Magic were pushing their chips all-in on a one-position defender. Then, Orlando essentially ‘doubled-down’ at the center position by re-signing Vucevic to a four-year, $100 million-dollar deal in July of 2019.

I asked Weltman about the team’s significant investments at the center position in late August of 2020, and here’s what he told me:

I was certainly appreciative that Weltman provided me with such an honest and thorough answer to my question. But I also distinctly remember how strange I found his response, considering he only responded to my question with details about his two centers’ offensive games, completely ignoring the fact that neither of the two can guard any other position on the floor at the defensive end (and thus, can’t play together on the floor). I may be (more than) partly responsible for the seemingly one-sided answer from Weltman, perhaps I framed the question in a way that he misinterpreted what I was asking? Still, it was a puzzling response.

“I don’t even necessarily think it’s about investing too much in the center position in general,” one NBA scout told me, speaking on a condition of anonymity. “They just already (have) an all-star center, and even at the time in 2018, it was clear that draft was going to be the best opportunity to get an elite creator and playmaker in about a five-year window (at minimum).”

“I wouldn’t totally write off Bamba yet,” that same draft expert told me. “He’s 22, he still has freaky length, and most importantly - his bout with COVID-19 sounds really scary (I’m hopeful he can find a role before this season is over). I can see how it feels like he’s already a bust though, given that Vucevic is playing like a stud, there are a ton of other 2018 lottery picks thriving right now, and there’s only so much value in the type of skill-set Bamba provides as a center.”

“I think the way they’ve made decisions (Orlando’s front office) is indicative of overvaluing perceived ‘versatility’ based on tools because that’s what people think wins in the playoffs,” that same scout told me. “When the prerequisite to defensive versatility even mattering is having a baseline level of offensive feel or scoring ability up and down the lineup that can get you to that point, regardless of whether you have a superstar or not.”

So that’s how we have arrived where we’re at with Bamba in Orlando. He plays the same position as their best player, and the team is significantly worse off when their best player (who they run their entire offense through) is not on the floor. I know Orlando’s front office still believes in Bamba, he hasn’t done a thing to make them think otherwise. But where does his opportunity come from to show more? They drafted the young center, but also decided to not trade Vucevic. They re-signed Vucevic to a four-year deal, but also chose to hang on to Bamba. All the while, some players that were taken in the lottery after Orlando selected in ‘18 are starting to explode on the NBA scene in a big way. Need I say more? How was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander not Orlando’s pick at number six in ‘18?

Gilgeous-Alexander seemed to fit the exact type of prospect Orlando’s front office covets. I mean, I realize Bamba had the record wingspan in the same class, but a lead guard with that kind of length was nothing to sneeze at either. The Canadian guard possessed positional size, defensive upside, and a projectable offensive game that had room to grow. The Toronto native started 73 games for the Los Angeles Clippers during his rookie season before heading to Oklahoma City as the main prize coming back to the Thunder in the Paul George blockbuster deal.

Over the last two seasons with the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 20.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists, bouncing between both backcourt positions. For me, he’s been the best non-Doncic/Young player from the ‘18 draft class. And while there’s no guarantee that Orlando would have made their trade for Markelle Fultz if Gilgeous-Alexander was already on the roster, I don’t see any reason why the two young guards wouldn’t have been able to theoretically coexist in the same backcourt.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge fan of “Collin Sexton to the Magic” during this process in 2018. The Georgia-native reminded me some of former Orlando lottery pick Elfrid Payton. All the passion and intensity he played with at Alabama aside, I had legitimate concerns about Sexton’s shot, his impact on a team’s success, as well as his ability to run an NBA offense.

While Sexton was a bit of a mess defensively through his first two NBA seasons, he showed an ability to score the basketball right away. And I was very wrong about his outside shot, as Sexton has connected on over 39 percent of his three-point attempts over his career. Sexton has increased his scoring average every season he’s been in the NBA (currently pouring in 23.3 points per game). If nothing else, the third-year guard’s ability to get a bucket has been enough in itself to make a legitimate argument that he should have been Orlando’s pick at six in ‘18.

Michael Porter Jr. was a name that was connected with the Magic quite a bit during the 2018 draft process. Orlando held the sixth pick in a draft where they seemingly were right on the periphery of where a team wanted to be that year, on the outside looking in at Young, Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr., etc.

At number six, the Magic appeared to be in a prime position to catch Porter Jr. falling to them. The 6-10 forward was a consensus top prospect in his class coming out of high school (ranked either #1 or #2 in his class by all major industry sites). However, a back injury he suffered early in his freshmen season limited Porter Jr. to just three games played at Missouri in 2017-18. During the pre-draft process, Porter Jr.’s representation group wasn’t exactly forthcoming with a lot of his medical/physical information. With rumors swirling that he might sit out his rookie campaign, Porter Jr. draft range was all over the board heading into the 2018 NBA Draft. But his tantalizing talent and potential upside was always there, so the only question was - how far would he fall? Well as it turns out, he fell past the Magic (and a good bit further after that, coming off the board at #14).

The Seattle high school basketball product did miss the entirety of his rookie season as he recovered from back surgery (microdiscectomy that repaired a herniated disc), but then returned to the Denver Nuggets in a reserve role in 2019 (16.4 minutes per game, 9.3 points per game). Porter Jr. exploded on the scene inside the NBA’s ‘bubble’ at Disney, scoring 117 points over a four-game span during seeding games that setup the Nuggets magical run to the Western Conference Finals. Through 78 career contests (24 starts), Porter Jr. has shot 50.1 percent from the field (41.2 percent on 3PTA’s), primarily playing the small forward position in Denver.

Phoenix Suns v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

After starting 88 games through his first two NBA seasons, Mikal Bridges (selected 10th overall in ‘18) has enjoyed a breakout year for the Phoenix Suns in 2020-21, averaging a career-high 13.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game (61% 2PT%, 42% 3PT%). The 6-6 swingman from Villanova has proven to be the prototypical NBA 3-and-D player that so many teams (including the Magic) are seeking in today’s position-less game.

Considering the issues with depth on the wing Orlando has suffered through this season (Fournier has missed time due to his back, Ennis has missed time due to hamstring and calf problems), you don’t think Coach Clifford would welcome a two-way talent like Bridges in his starting lineup?

Orlando’s pick at #35 in 2018: Melvin Frazier Jr.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What could’ve been: Mitchell Robinson, Gary Trent Jr., Bruce Brown, Hamidou Diallo, De’Anthony Melton, Svi Mykhailiuk, Shake Milton

If you examine the first ten picks (31-40) in the second round of the 2018 NBA Draft, eight of those ten players have appeared in over 100 NBA games. Eight have logged over 1,500+ minutes in their careers (through three seasons), and three of those players have even logged over 3,000 minutes (Jalen Brunson, Devonte Graham, and Mitchell Robinson). That’s pretty good value when you consider how ‘hit-or-miss’ the second round of the NBA Draft tends to be.

Of course, the Magic came away with the player of that group that has appeared in the least amount of games, and has logged the least amount of minutes.

Frazier Jr. appeared in just 29 games for the Magic from 2018-2020. He spent significant time with the Lakeland Magic as well, averaging 15.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.9 steals in 41 career games with Orlando’s G-League affiliate.

The Tulane product fit the Weltman/Hammond archetype to a tee. He was a LONG (6-6 with a 7-0 wingspan) and athletic wing who offered Orlando significant defensive upside. But Frazier Jr. could never breakthrough Orlando’s wing-rotation, seeing the floor sporadically and always when the game had long been decided (career average: 1.9 points per game). The most prominent role Frazier enjoyed for the Magic occurred over the last three seeding games inside the “bubble” at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. Frazier scored 22 points in 70 combined minutes against the Celtics, Nets, and Pelicans.

The final year of Frazier’s rookie contract was non-guaranteed, and somewhat surprisingly, the Magic chose this past offseason not to exercise their team option. Currently, the New Orleans-native is set to head back to Disney, this time to play for Oklahoma City’s G-League affiliate (the OKC Blue) during the four-week G-League season.

Robinson, who has started 27 games at the center position this season for Tom Thibodeau’s New York Knicks, was selected with the 27th pick in ‘18 (one spot directly after Frazier). The Pensacola, FL native has averaged 8.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in 154 games over his three-year career (23.1 minutes per game).

Robinson has played twice as many minutes as Bamba since their respective careers began. But if you extrapolate their numbers to “per-36 minutes”, Bamba’s counting statistics compare favorably to Robinson’s. The clear difference between the two is obvious when examining their offensive efficiency, because Robinson rarely strays away from the paint on offense, while Bamba tends to drift to the perimeter (Robinson sports a career 71 percent field goal percentage, career offensive rating of 140). Also, Bamba’s career production has primarily come against bench players (compared to the starting-caliber players that Robinson has been paired against).

Basketball Reference

Gary Trent Jr. spent just one year at Duke University, but he more than proved in those 37 games that he was a weapon from beyond the arc (40.2 percent his freshmen season, on 6.5 three-point attempts per game). I had the Ohio-native pegged as one of the top shooters in the ‘18 class after sporting a true shooting percentage of just under 57 percent (while attempting over 56 percent of his attempts from long-range) at the collegiate-level.

At 6-6/210, Trent Jr. had the size, the NBA lineage (father Gary was a nine-year NBA veteran), and the scoring upside that should have fully compelled an offensively challenged team like Orlando. However, the Magic ultimately chose to pass on the sniper (how was he even still available?), who went on to be selected by the Portland Trail Blazers two picks after Frazier Jr.

Well, 100-plus games into his NBA career, Trent Jr. has more than lived-up to his billing as a shooter (career 41 percent on 4.9 three-point attempts per game). After playing sparingly as a rookie, Trent Jr. emerged over his sophomore NBA season, particularly during Portland’s run late last season inside the NBA ‘bubble’ (scored 16 or more points in six of eight regular season games at Disney World). Thee 22 year-old wing is averaging a career-high 15.4 points (42 percent from beyond the arc, 30.9 minutes per game) in 2020-21.

Portland Trail Blazers v Orlando Magic Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

And that brings us to the ultimate “one who got away” second round prospect of the 2018 NBA Draft - guard Shake Milton (selected 54th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers). For the record, I loved Milton during the pre-draft process in ‘18, and I have the receipts to prove it. I often get a kick out of going back and reviewing draft profiles I wrote as players establish themselves further in the NBA, but this one particularly stings.

For me, Milton was everything Orlando’s front office looks for in a prospect. Milton had positional size, incredible length (6-6 with a reported 7-0 wingspan), and offered the team potential defensive versatility. At SMU, Milton also bounced between multiple positions in the back-court, flashed legitimate shooting acumen, and improved as a ball-handler each year he was in Dallas. What wasn’t to like?

What hurts about the Magic passing on Milton was the fact that they did it TWICE, electing to go in a different direction at both picks number 35 (Frazier Jr.) and number 41 (Jared Vanderbilt, who was later traded for Justin Jackson. Jackson has yet to appear in an NBA contest). Milton has averaged 9.5 points per game (20.0 minutes, 37.2 percent 3PT%) through 86 career games for the Sixers. The Oklahoma-native started 24 of Philadelphia’s final 28 games of the 2019-20 season, scoring in double-digits in sixteen of those contests.

The misses in the ‘18 second round for the Magic don’t stop there. Bruce Brown (career 6.6 points, 3.7 rebounds per game), Hamidou Diallo (career 6.9 points per game), De’Anthony Melton (career: 6.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists), and Svi Mykhailiuk (6.5 points, 37.0 percent 3PT%) have all carved out roles for themselves in NBA rotations through the first three seasons of their respective careers.

2018 Draft Picks Press Conference Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

Draft Lottery odds spring eternal faith, I get that. There’s something about enduring countless losses, only to see that lone ping pong ball bounce the right way, that can reenergize a fan base like few other occurrences can.

I would argue that drafting well is just as important as a team’s lottery luck, if not more so. Odds may not always be in a team’s favor; balls may not always bounce a team’s way.

But making quality selections in the draft (regardless of the slot), picks that provide value and help lift teams to better positions than they previously found themselves in, that should be the goal of any front office – in any sport (in any draft).

That’s the problem with Orlando’s draft in 2018. Too many quality players selected all around where the Magic picked, in both the first and the second rounds. Significant amounts of value throughout the first and second rounds, players to be had regardless of where a team was drafting from.

And with two picks in the top-35 selections on that particular night, it’s time to come to the realization that the Magic may have come away with very little to speak of moving forward.

Just a lot of missed opportunities.

Aaron Goldstone has been writing for Orlando Pinstriped Post since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @AaronGoldstone.