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2021 NBA Draft Notebook: Covering Orlando’s draft night from the Amway Center

Aaron’s observations, fan reactions, draft grades, and quotes galore

2021 NBA Draft Photo by Kostas Lymperopoulos/NBAE via Getty Images

For the first time in a number of years, the Orlando Magic organization hosted fans (in-person) Thursday night for a 2021 NBA Draft watch party inside the Amway Center.

The event was free for to attend, but inside the arena, Magic fans certainly weren’t free of things to enjoy. The 2009 Eastern Conference Finals trophy was on display, providing fans an opportunity to snap a photo as well as reminisce about better times (and better times ahead?). Young fans were able to partake in a basketball-themed tic-tac-toe game (not on the floor – which was just recently waxed – but right behind the visitor’s baseline), while older fans were able to throw some cornhole bags around to calm their nerves before Orlando made their two picks in the top-eight of this year’s draft.

And of course, plenty of cold beverages were readily available.

My personal favorite touch was the 360-degree camera the Magic provided fans an opportunity to experience, all in the spirit of firing up those in attendance who were ready to welcome two new players to Orlando’s roster.

As fans continued to roll-in and find a seat in the lower bowl of the Amway Center, anticipation started to build as the moment they all came to see crept closer and closer. The crowd collectively exclaimed when news broke that the Toronto Raptors (who picked one slot ahead of the Magic) were drafting Florida State forward Scottie Barnes, who had been slotted by many draft industry experts to be Orlando’s pick. Of course, this cleared the way for the Magic to take Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs – an outcome that few predicted at the start of the day would ever be possible.

Another ten minutes or so passed before Orlando made the second of their two lottery picks Thursday evening, this time opting for Michigan forward Franz Wagner (younger brother of former Magic big Moritz Wagner, who is currently an unrestricted free agent). The reaction to Wagner’s selection was admittedly less enthusiastic than the overjoyed Suggs explosion, but fans were still very positive and upbeat about the pick.

A couple fans I spoke with told me they would have preferred the Magic take Arkansas forward (and former Montverde Academy product) Moses Moody with the eighth pick.

But overall, the sheer joy of coming away with one of the top players in this class (from the fifth slot) was the main takeaway among Orlando fans who came out to celebrate a new chapter in Magic basketball. Even some of Orlando’s current players, namely RJ Hampton and Wendell Carter Jr., were on hand to share in the excitement with Magic fans (and Suggs).

Aaron’s Orlando Magic draft grades

Pick #5 - Jalen Suggs, guard (Gonzaga)
Grade: A+

2021 NBA Draft Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

Thinking back to NBA Draft Lottery night, it’s pretty hard to imagine that the Magic were able to come away with a player of Suggs’ caliber from the fifth overall spot. The narrative throughout the pre-draft process was that this year’s class was dominated by a “core four” of superstar players, and the Magic were in a really difficult spot sitting just outside of that range at number five.

But surprisingly, the Raptors opted for Barnes over Suggs with the fourth overall pick, and the Magic were the beneficiaries of a franchise cornerstone falling into their laps.

Yes, the Magic backcourt is now a little crowded with young players such as Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony, Hampton, and Suggs. But like I wrote in my Suggs scouting report from back in early July, “to hell with the depth chart, run that pick to the podium as fast as you can (if he’s available).”

ESPN’s draft expert Mike Schmitz had Suggs ranked fourth overall on his big board heading into Thursday night. Schmitz views Suggs as a “mature decision-maker on the court with a mature feel for the game”; a player who is unselfish in transition, poised as a pick-and-roll passer, and takes care of the ball at a “high-level”. Defensively, Schmitz considers Suggs a “tough defender who wants (to defend) the other team’s best player.” He thinks Suggs has “great feet on the ball, (he’s) dialed in off the ball, (has) excellent anticipation in passing lanes, (and) will mix it up for rebounds.”

Here is what Jonathan Givony (ESPN) said about the Suggs selection:

“When Toronto surprisingly decided to pass on Jalen Suggs in favor of Scottie Barnes, the Magic pounced. Their backcourt isn’t established enough to pass on a player like Suggs, with the competitive makeup, off-the-dribble shooting prowess, defensive intensity and a strong blend between scoring and facilitating he brings. Suggs will have no issue playing with, behind and in the same backcourt as Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton, as he’s capable of playing on or off the ball, guarding bigger and smaller perimeter players alike and doing the little things needed to help win games.

Perhaps most importantly for the Magic, he’s been a winner everywhere he’s played and has shown no problem sacrificing touches and stats for the good of the team, something that should pay significant dividends in the locker room in helping to avoid the type of long cycles of mediocrity and dysfunction that has plagued other rebuilding teams.”

Sam Vecenie of the Athletic, who had Suggs ranked second overall on his big board heading into Thursday night, was also a big fan of the Suggs selection. He wrote the following in his analysis of the pick:

“Few things are more valuable in the NBA than a star lead creator. Suggs has the potential to be just that given his athleticism, power, vision, and basketball IQ. It’s not easy to find players with his blend of tools who also have this much of a productive track record. He has an undeniable history of winning games, from high school to his run with Gonzaga. And that mentality showcases itself in his game too, with Suggs typically stepping up in a big way in the biggest moments.”

Pick #8 - Franz Wagner, forward (Michigan)
Grade: A-

2021 NBA Draft Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

A lot of Magic fans were surprised with this selection, but I really wasn’t.

I mean, I would have been. That is, until earlier this week when I was sitting in on Wagner’s pre-draft NBA media availability. The German-born forward was asked numerous times to share which teams he worked out for during the pre-draft process, and (politely) each time - Wagner declined to divulge that information. Wagner was one of the mysteries of the pre-draft process (where he had worked out, which teams liked him, who he had been talking to), and it had long been rumored that he had received a promise from a team in the top ten. Most draft pundits assumed that promise had come from the Sacramento Kings, who were rumored to be very interested in Wagner.

Well, at number nine, the Kings never got that opportunity. Wagner, who is listed at 6-9, told reporters earlier this week that he’ actually now 6-11 with a plus-7-0 wingspan. That’s a massive wing, even by NBA standards.

I was higher on Wagner through the pre-draft process than most. I just think he’s the kind of player that all winning teams have on their roster. He does all the little things. I can’t really pinpoint one area where Wagner is completely dominant, but he can contribute to winning in a number of ways (on-ball defense, off-ball defense, passing, shooting, rebounding, etc.). He reminds me a lot of both Otto Porter Jr. and Nicolas Batum.

Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, who ranked Wagner tenth on his final big board, feels that the Michigan product has “glue guy skills on offense (and rarely turns the ball over); keeps the ball moving, relocates, screens, and has innate timing on his cuts.” Defensively, O’Connor thinks Wagner will make a significant impact off-the ball throughout his career. He thinks Wagner has “a computer brain on defense”, someone who “reads plays instantly and disrupts actions by beating opponents to their spots.”

Here’s what O’Connor thought about the Magic selecting Wagner eighth:

“What a draft for Orlando. After landing Suggs at 5, the Magic go for a big man at 8 and land a special one. Wagner is an oversized playmaker who measured 6-foot-9 at Michigan but claims to have grown to nearly 6-foot-11 since college. That growth spurt only raises his potential. The Magic can utilize him in a variety of roles next to Suggs. Both are unselfish, high-IQ players who should fit together perfectly at the next level. Wagner can be utilized in a number of roles on offense, and is a good 3-point shooter, something the Magic have sorely lacked in recent years. But Wagner’s best trait might be his defense: He can defend wings and some guards, is excellent both on and off the ball, and will boost Orlando on both ends.”

John Hollinger (The Athletic) wrote that he would have picked Wagner or Turkish big Alperen Sengun eighth last night. He wrote:

“I was a bit surprised to see Orlando pass on Sengun here. That said, it’s hard to argue with Wagner, as he was easily the best non-center left on my board. He’s a combo forward who can defend, handle the ball, and score in transition. And his shooting ability should come around enough that the space-squeezed Magic won’t further suffer in this regard. The Magic likely pivoted here after Barnes wasn’t available for them, walking away with one guard and one wing (but in the opposite order that they expected).”

This pick didn’t receive an “A+” from me because ultimately I thought Moody was a better fit for the Magic, but I’m still very high on Wagner and (like Hollinger said above) can’t argue with the selection.

Pick #33 - Traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a future second round pick and cash considerations.
Grade: D

Sigh. Another draft, another second round pick punted down the road by Orlando’s front office.

This may seem like a minor occurrence, but the Magic have demonstrated too many times in the past five years an unwillingness to take advantage of second round selections. I asked Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman when he met via Zoom with reporters this past Monday about his plans for the 33rd pick (did he plan on using it, trading it, etc.).

“The truth is (every year) we figure out where that line is. There are players that we feel, ‘if this guy is there, then we will make that pick’,” Weltman told me. “If not, then we will look to move out. But I think you bring up a great point, we have three rookies on our team from last year, and we know we’re going to add two more this year. There does become a critical mass where you have to look at the big picture.”

“There comes a time where you have to keep the pathway clear for the young players that are already on your roster,” Weltman continued. “So as much as you may like someone, I think we have to be cognizant of the big picture as well.”

I don’t know where that line ultimately fell last night, but there were a ton of very promising prospects left on the board when Orlando’s 33rd pick came back around (Miles McBride, JT Thor, Jared Butler, Joe Wieskamp, Sharife Cooper, and Charles Bassey to name a few). The Magic are projected to be tight when it comes to guaranteed contracts heading into next season, but that doesn’t mean this pick couldn’t have been made with a two-way contract/G-League path in mind for whoever was taken.

I just don’t see kicking the can down the road with these second round picks as a solid option. You’re never going to turn these picks into something more valuable (in the future) than what they already had (with the third pick in the second round).

Quotes from Weltman, Mosley, Suggs, Wagner

“We added two talented, high-character, team-oriented players that we believe will grow very nicely into what we’re trying to build here. It’s not often that you get to add not one, but two of these guys in a single night.” ~ Weltman on Suggs and Wagner

“He has all the ingredients that you look for in a successful NBA player, both on and off the floor. He’s going to add to our group in many ways. What this is about is winning, and the first word that is often used to describe (Jalen) is winner.” ~ Weltman on Suggs

“I don’t really want to comment on that, because some of it is strategy on the agent’s side. But we were able to get a comfort level enough (obviously), where we would never draft a guy that we didn’t have enough information on (at whatever level). That can be through a variety of sources, but obviously we have a comfort level with both of those guys to where we feel they’re going to be very strong additions to our team. Beyond that, I really probably shouldn’t comment on what happened behind the process.” ~ Weltman when asked if the Magic were able to bring Suggs and/or Wagner in for workouts (that weren’t made public)

“We always talk about competitiveness. We want to make sure guys know how to compete (and learn how to win). These guys complement each other, and I think that’s going to be the one thing – they all complement each other. And they all believe in winning. Each person, I think if you ask them, they just want to find ways to win and make each other better.” ~ Coach Mosley on Orlando’s crowded backcourt

“He’s a special kid. Toughness, grit, defensive-minded, and he’s not afraid of the moment. With these young NBA players, you’re looking for them to have that.” ~ Mosley on Suggs

“It means the world (to me). Honestly, it makes me so excited to get there and give them my all. I’m going to do nothing less than that. I’m going to come in and work from day one (and embrace the fanbase).” ~ Suggs on Magic fans erupting when he was selected.

“With open arms and enthusiasm (and energy, bringing in the vibes that I bring and the leadership that I bring). And my work ethic and potential.” ~ Suggs on embracing the transition going from a winning program like Gonzaga to a rebuilding Orlando Magic organization.

“I think there’s a lot of young talent on this team. And I think we the addition of Jalen (and me), we’ve got to figure out how we can play with each other. But my skill set, I’m very versatile and I can play with a lot of types of players on the court. I think that’s going to help me connect with a bunch of these guys and (we can) form a good team then.” ~ Wagner on his impression of the Magic roster.

“I think I’ve learned a lot throughout my basketball journey. I think I’ve learned to play a lot of different styles of basketball. Growing up in Germany, I think it’s pretty different than playing in high school (in the U.S.). Then going to Michigan, I was able to get the college experience and it prepared me to learn different basketball styles. Also, having played against professional players before, I think it’s going to help me prepare for the next level.” ~ Wagner on his basketball journey

So, it was an inspired night at the Amway Center, filled with fan experiences, lots of cheers and smiles, and some serious “good vibes” moving forward. Magic fans will not have to wait very long to see Suggs and Wagner on the floor, as Orlando is scheduled to compete in the Las Vegas Summer League this upcoming month.

To perfectly sum up my evening covering the Orlando Magic 2021 Draft, I can think of no better words than those notoriously echoed whenever Jeff Weltman is in front of a microphone.

“It’s a really (really) great night for the Orlando Magic.”