A lot has changed for the Magic since the last time we checked in on this exercise. Gone are the wonky pillars of the franchise’s last seven years, and in their place are building blocks that promise something potentially greater. It’s nothing but prognostications and hope at the moment, sure, but the team seems to have picked a direction and committed to it — even if the road ahead is long and the trip late to start.
So, at the initial reset point of the ongoing rebuild, what exactly can we find if we’re looking on the bright side? 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.
Okeke’s ascent technically began in the game before the deadline bombs, when the rookie set a then-career high of 17 on a perfect six of six from the field, including four smooth makes from beyond the arc. It was, however, but a cameo, with the unexpected win over the ascendant Suns being powered primarily by the outgoing veteran trio of Vucevic, Fournier and Gordon.
Look what the rookie has done in the six games since: second on the team with 15.0 points per game on 48.7% shooting from the field. 38.5% accuracy from deep on 4.3 attempts per game. 6.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists. A combined 2.3 stocks. Just 9 turnovers total. Heck he hasn’t missed a free throw. The NBA’s PIE or Player Impact Estimate rating — a measure that aims to aggregate all on-court contributions — also loves him, ranking him second on the team with a score of 12.9, behind only Wendell Carter Jr’s eye-popping 16.2.
Interestingly, of the 54 players across the league to have played at least 33 minutes per game over the last six contests Okeke ranks 28th in PIE, ahead of significantly bigger names like De’Aaron Fox, Trae Young, Gordon Hayward and Khris Middleton (among others). It’s not exactly a perfect measure of winning basketball contributions, but it does go some way towards demonstrating how composed, fluent and just plain noticeable the Magic’s young forward has been during the best stretch of his career to date.
Okeke has experienced an unusual start to his career, with early injury contributing to an initial fluctuation in draft stock, a red-shirted season in 2020, and now a rookie campaign that has opened up wide in terms of personal opportunity. Pleasingly, his play during the ten days post-deadline has proven an early validation of the team’s trust in his potential. There’s undoubtedly a long way to go yet, but Okeke is already showing flashes of being a very important part of the Magic’s latest rebuild.
Wendell Carter Jr.
Considering that much of Wendell Carter Jr.’s original shine had worn off after being selected 7th overall in 2018 — coincidentally, one pick behind his new teammate, Mo Bamba — the former Bulls big man was almost an afterthought in the trade that triggered the Magic’s latest rebuild. Chicago won the talent equation by nabbing an All-Star, while Orlando’s sights were set firmly on the future with the addition of two first round picks over the next three years and some sizable cap relief in the form of Otto Porter Jr’s expiring contract. Any other pieces were largely about making the math work.
In the small handful of games since it’s starting to look more and more like WCJ is the third first rounder — and a guaranteed lottery pick, at that! — that the Magic accumulated in the deal. He’s already gone from 20 minutes and 3 shot attempts during his debut in pinstripes to a 35 minute starter using closer to 20 possessions per contest. He recently put up back to back double-doubles for the first time since February, cleaning the glass and playing solid defense while also working the offensive boards and bullying his way to the free throw line. It’s a different look at the center position than Orlando has become accustomed to, and at the moment it seems to be working.
It’s not yet clear if Carter Jr. can keep this sort of pace up, but the Magic will provide him with every opportunity to do just that. Since joining the team he’s averaging a tidy 15.0 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 59.6% from the floor and getting to the line 4.6 times per night. Although he’s a completely different player from Nikola Vucevic — who was more comfortable triggering action from the top of the key, bombing from deep and relying on finesse around the basket — he’s doing a heck of a job at replacing his All-Star level counting stats.
The intriguing potential of RJ Hampton
Another piece that has emerged as ‘something worth keeping an eye on’ since the Magic’s deadline bonanza is RJ Hampton, the 20 year old guard that Denver selected with the 24th pick last year. Like WCJ he was but one part of the deal that shipped Aaron Gordon out west, while also making some eye-catching contributions in his brief time in Central Florida. It’s not entirely apparent what Orlando has in the livewire backcourt blur, but it’s already clear that they’ll give him a serious look over the next couple of seasons.
The on-court averages for Hampton have been relatively modest so far: 10.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists. He hasn’t exactly been a dynamite play-maker from the backcourt, with almost as many turnovers (6) as assists (8) as a member of the Magic. He’s had only a few disruptive defensive contributions — 5 steals and a block — while his accuracy from the floor, specifically the figures of 60.0% from the free throw line and 27.3% from deep, raise some concerns. He has the awkward habit of picking up his dribble (sometimes even getting airborne) without a clear idea of what needs to happen next.
These rough edges, however, can be rationalized away like so: he’s incredibly young, and still learning both what it takes to succeed in the NBA and the particulars of his own body. Hampton is also very clearly possessed of a talent that simply cannot be taught: white hot speed. He gets downhill about as quickly as anyone in the league, while his accelerative first step often gets him on the outside of his direct opponent’s hip before they can even realize what’s happening. The kid is lightning fast.
Nowhere was this more illustrative than in the recent tilt against the Jazz. Although a blowout of titanic proportions, Hampton inspired some collective gasps of incredulous appreciation on a handful of occasions. To begin he left Jordan Clarkson flailing in his dust when the veteran had the audacity to turn his head towards an incoming screen for a second, burning right by him for an uncontested layup at the rim. He got the better of him again only a few possessions later with a blistering first step that moved him from the high wing to the rim in the blink of an eye. Hampton punctuated the stretch of speed by weaving through all five Utah players in finishing a coast-to-coast layup effort that took less than the 4.9 seconds that remained in the half.
At the moment, like many of the young players on the Magic roster, Hampton is more promise than polish. Still, there’s something undeniable about the raw attributes the youngster possesses. Even with the expectation of plenty of bumps in the games to come, right now it feels like the final destination could make it all worth it in the end.
The recent pair of consecutive road wins over the Clippers and the Pelicans was a cause of serious concern for some in the community of Magic fandom, evidence of the fact that the franchise was already botching the latest chapter of this interminable rebuild. The belief was that Orlando should be racking up L after L after L, lest they again turn the potential future of Embiid, Porzingis and Doncic into the crushing reality of Gordon, Hezonja and Bamba. When one puts it like that, it’s somewhat understandable.
Look, I certainly don’t disagree with the sentiment. The Magic are going nowhere this year, and the best chance the team has of going somewhere significant in the future is through the accumulation of talent in the drafts to come. However, a couple of feel-good wins during an acclimating stretch for the new faces is ultimately a positive thing, establishing a culture of meaningfully competitive basketball and generating some optimistic buzz within a fanbase that has every right to throw in the towel.
The losses, as the Jazz and Nuggets so clearly demonstrated, are coming for Orlando regardless. Of their remaining 22 games, only 4 will be against the teams currently equal with or below them in the standings. It’s likely that only 2 other games total will feature opponents who genuinely aren’t fighting for a play-in spot. The Magic figure to be the side most incentivized to lose in basically 75% of their remaining games, and that’s before we even begin to factor in things like the team’s general talent discrepancy and shooting inefficiency. They’ll fight hard and Steve Clifford will coach up a storm, but they’ll be packing knives for a shoot out more often than not.
Let’s just make sure not to win too many more, hey?
And with that we’ve arrived at the end of the first installment. We’ve taken a deep dive into a number of upward trajectories experienced by the team recently, but what else is there that might be lurking just beneath the surface that should keep us up at night? Be sure to come back in the days to come as we uncover what has been trending down in Part Two.