After two seasons of conducting player, coaching staff, and front office interviews solely on Zoom due to COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines, the Orlando Magic gladly welcomed local members of the media back inside the conference room inside the Amway Center Monday afternoon.
Media Day unofficially kicks-off the start of the NBA season. Teams around the league will begin their respective training camps tomorrow (Tuesday), and from there the 2021-22 season will be upon us before we realize it.
For the Magic, two themes seemed to be ever present inside the facility Monday: change and development.
Orlando is not expected by many around the league to win a whole lot this upcoming season. The Magic possess one of the youngest rosters in the entire league, and the primary focus for many within the organization seems to be alignment and developing young players the right way.
“The right way is focusing on work, understanding what work is applied to winning, and understanding that in this league - serving your role (and being the star within your role) - if everyone does that, that’s how teams win in this league,” Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman told reporters Monday when asked about developing players ‘the right way’.
Not only do the Magic have ten players on their roster 25 years-old or younger, but they will also be led by a new head coach in 2021-22 - Jamahl Mosley, who comes to the organization after spending 13 seasons as an NBA assistant coach (Denver, Cleveland, Dallas).
“That’s the exciting part of it for me,” the first-year head coach told reporters. “We all get to do this, it’s our first run. And just building a foundation from there, it’s really exciting to just get things going.”
“So much is said of his ability to connect (with players), that I don’t want to undermine his talent and ability to coach,” Weltman told reporters of Mosley. “I see it all, it’s (been) evident from the day he stepped on the court here. He’s authentic - he cares, he connects, and he spends a lot of time talking about expectations, roles, and how we win (with our players individually). He invests time with our players on the court, off the court, and he’s a good coach.”
Magic fourth-year center Mo Bamba echoed Weltman’s sentiments regarding Mosley. Bamba noted Monday during Media Day that in his experience, college coaches are the ones who get to know you on more of a personal level (because they are recruiting you), but in the NBA he described coaches as more transactional. But not with Mosley.
“His ability to connect with players, and just understand who you are (and what you want), it’s great. And just how hands-on he is - he’s on the court, he’s playing defense, he’s trying to go at you and get you better,” Bamba added.
Fellow center Wendell Carter Jr. noted that from Mosley’s time in Dallas, he “understands what it takes to win,” and added that he (Mosley) has a drive about him that will help him handle how challenging things will be for him moving forward.
I was able to spend all day with members of the Magic organization Monday, and the following is the first of a two-part series highlighting some of the talking points at 2021 Orlando Magic Media Day.
Rookie Jalen Suggs is here addressing the media. pic.twitter.com/zI3ZYIt4ND— Orlando Pinstriped Post (@OPPMagicBlog) September 27, 2021
When you look at the Orlando Magic roster, one of the first things one likely notices is - all of a sudden - how much depth the team possesses in the backcourt.
The Magic traded for point guard Markelle Fultz at the trade deadline in 2019, and signed the Washington, D.C. product to a rookie contract extension prior to the start of last season. Fultz served as Orlando’s starting point guard throughout the 2019-2020 season, helping lead the organization to a second consecutive playoff appearance.
Orlando then drafted lead guard Cole Anthony with the 15th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft just a couple of months later. Anthony was widely expected to be brought along slowly over his rookie season, considering players from his draft class weren’t able to learn through an NBA Summer League schedule (nor a regular off-season). But those plans were lost when Fultz suffered an ACL injury to his left knee in the first week of January, vaulting Anthony into a starting point guard role he served for most of this past season (outside of a couple months of action he missed due to a rib injury).
The organization also traded for rookie combo-guard R.J. Hampton at the trade deadline this past season (he was part of the Aaron Gordon deal with the Denver Nuggets). Hampton, who is probably best served at this point of his career to play as an off-ball back-court mate, was named the NBA Rookie of the Month in May after averaging 16.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 5.6 assists to close out his first NBA campaign.
And to compound matters even further (much further), the Orlando Magic were blessed with the opportunity to draft Gonzaga freshmen lead guard Jalen Suggs with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, making him one of the new “faces of the franchise” and cementing his place in the organization’s future plans.
That rundown fails to even mention veteran guards on Orlando’s roster, such as Gary Harris, Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams, and E’twaun Moore, who all (well, some) will be vying for a role on the floor in the Magic backcourt as well.
To me, the roster seems to be stacked with lead guards, combo-guards, and shooting guards, but it severely lacks wing players who would fit more of a traditional “small forward” label.
So I asked Mosley about the possibility of his coaching staff utilizing more non-traditional lineups this season: two point-guard lineups, three-guard lineups, etc.
“You hit in right on the head. In such an age of position-less basketball, you have to look at different combinations that are very unique,” Mosley told me. “Things that some defenses can’t cover, and offenses that force teams to figure out what you are doing. So, there will be different looks that we throw out there. It’s probably too early to tell exactly what those lineups will look like, but we have options to see which ones we can (ultimately) throw out there.”
It may not be clear at this particular moment if Suggs will begin his career on or off the ball, playing either the point guard or shooting guard position for the Magic. And Mosley was non-committal when asked about the likelihood of Suggs starting on opening night (versus coming off the bench). But one thing is for certain: the former football star is going to be smack in the center of any and all future plans the organization has for this roster.
“I’m a little jealous of everyone playing football right now, I’m not going to lie. The guys joke around with me all the time, ‘you’re such a football player’. You don’t have to run through every screen, but that’s just who I am, that’s the mentality that I embrace – to ‘hit or get hit’. That’s just a mindset that I bring,” Suggs told me when I asked about his first offseason as a professional, being able to focus solely on basketball rather than playing football in the fall season. “Football definitely plays a role in that kind of physicality for sure (in how I play on the floor).”
“Really, I’m just working my body in preparation for basketball (and not football). It’s a different lift, a different regimen, a different routine,” Suggs added. “I’m really trying to hone-in my craft; one big thing I can tell is (I’m) really starting to see all the little things that go into my jump-shot. Being able to get into a consistent rhythm so when something is off, I’m able to correct that (right away).”
We got to see a preview of what a three-guard lineup could look like for the Magic this past summer in Las Vegas, as Suggs, Anthony, and Hampton all shared the floor with very mixed results. Suggs enjoyed success over his first Summer League stint, but Anthony appeared to still be adjusting to playing alongside another lead guard on the court.
“It wouldn’t be the first time in this league you’ve seen two lead guards share the ball,” second-year guard Anthony told me when asked about his comfort-level playing alongside other lead guards such as Suggs. “You’ve got Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, you’ve got Dame (Lillard) and C.J. (McCollum). The best teams have those two lead guards, it’s never just one guard (it’s hard for one guard to carry that weight). I’m super excited to play with Jalen (Suggs). These last couple of weeks we’ve been running up and down (and scrimmaging) on the same team, we’ve had a really nice connection.”
Big years for Orlando’s young centers
Wendell Carter Jr. now on the podium addressing the media. pic.twitter.com/5BGQo3YeH7— Orlando Pinstriped Post (@OPPMagicBlog) September 27, 2021
When the Magic decided to trade All-Star center Nikola Vucevic at last season’s trade deadline, effectively taking the organization down a completely new path, they were also creating extended (and new) opportunities for two young big men on their roster: former sixth overall selection from the ‘18 NBA Draft Bamba, and seventh overall pick (from ‘18) Carter Jr.
Both big men had shown flashes of ability over the first three years of their respective careers, but both players also suffered through their fair share of time off the court due to injury.
Bamba and Carter Jr. are both entering a critical season in their NBA journeys, the fourth and final year of their rookie contracts. Staying healthy, being available for as many games as possible, taking advantage of an extended role within the team concept, and playing at a high-level will be more important than it has been at any point in their careers.
Bamba has played in just 155 games (out of 227 possible contests) over his three seasons in Orlando, but he’s approaching this upcoming season with an entirely new outlook on things.
“This summer I focused on a couple of things,” Bamba told reporters Monday. “I wanted to work on my conditioning, I wanted to work on my finishing around the rim. And something that I think just comes along with the time I’ve spent playing in the NBA is my (basketball) I.Q. - being able to see plays happen before they happen, be able to make reads. I think that’s something I’m excited to get out there and show this year.”
Bamba also mentioned how important it’s been for him to be able to focus on different aspects of his game this offseason without the extra burden of worrying about his health and/or recovering from various injuries.
“I definitely want to come into this next season with the same kind of fire that I had (when I was traded to Orlando),” Carter Jr. told reporters Monday. “At the end of the day, I just want to help this team win. When we win, and we get this city behind us, that just opens up opportunities for this whole team. It’s going to take care of everything else.”
One of those things that still needs to be taken care of for Carter Jr. is his next contract. The NBA deadline for rookies heading into the final year of their rookie deals is October 17th, but Carter Jr. and the Magic have yet to reach any kind of agreement on an extension (there were rumors and rumblings earlier this summer that an agreement could be reached before the season).
“I’m kind of letting my agency and the front office deal with that right now. (Focusing on that) can take me off of what’s the most important thing, which starts tomorrow (training camp),” Carter Jr. told me when asked about the possibility of signing a rookie contract extension with the Magic. “So that’s where my main focus currently is. I would love to be here for a long time. I love Orlando, I love the city, my teammates, and the weather…everything. I would love to be here, but right now I’m just focused on training camp.”
Another interesting note related to Carter Jr. that came out of Media Day was the big man insinuating that the coaching staff may have plans to utilize him more at power forward this upcoming season. When asked about areas within his game that have been a focus of his, Carter Jr. mentioned being more aggressive on the offensive end, improving his shooting, and being able to guard “both stretch-fours as well as fives”.
Getting by with Carter Jr. at the ‘four’ could also be something temporary that provides the team with additional depth at the position, as starting power forward Jonathan Isaac continues his rehab en route to an eventual return from his knee injury (keep reading below...).
Markelle Fultz is in the building, addressing the media. pic.twitter.com/iQkM5JpZkB— Orlando Pinstriped Post (@OPPMagicBlog) September 27, 2021
The Magic stayed consistent Monday afternoon with their organizational approach in not disclosing an overwhelming amount of information when it comes to players returning from injury, choosing instead to reinforce that the most important thing in Fultz and Isaac’s returns to the court is for both of those guys to avoid any kind of setbacks.
“Both of those guys have been relentless in their approach. They been working daily - grinding - and they both look really good,” Weltman said when asked about Fultz and Isaac.
Weltman declined, like he usually does, to provide a specific timeline regarding when either player will be ready to get back on the floor. It’s a foregone conclusion that both guys will be out for the entirety of training camp, and it’s a very safe assumption that neither player will be available when the Magic begin the regular season against the San Antonio Spurs on October 20th.
Isaac suffered both an ACL and meniscus injury to his left knee inside the NBA ‘bubble’ in August of 2020, over 13 months ago. Fultz also suffered a devastating injury to his left knee, tearing his ACL in early January of this year (just under nine months ago).
Isaac mentioned to reporters Monday how he and Fultz have been together during their respective rehab efforts “each and every day”, and that he’s really pleased with where his body is at (not just his knee, but with his body weight, his weightlifting, etc.).
“I think what this injury has done is given me an opportunity to work on all the other things that I wouldn’t have had the time to work on if I was playing,” Fultz said Monday.
“They have not only cleared every hurdle (from a timeline perspective), but they’ve improved, they are better. I credit them and our staff (both performance and coaching),” Weltman added.
Veteran guard Michael Carter-Williams shared that he is progressing nicely following the surgery he had done late in the offseason to his remove a bone fragment and repair a ligament in his left ankle.
And Orlando’s President of Basketball Operations (Weltman) also shared that second-year forward Chuma Okeke has a right hip bruise that he recently suffered during off-season voluntary workouts, which will limit him at the beginning of training camp (and likely cause him to miss some on-court activities until he is cleared).
As the season unfolds, clearly one of the most critical things still to play out during the 2021-22 season will be how quickly (and successfully) the Magic can integrate players back into the mix as they recover from their respective injuries.
Obviously, there is a lot of excitement around the Magic organization heading into this upcoming season. And why shouldn’t there be, with so many young players, a new coaching staff, and a renewed focus on doing things the right way?
Growth, development, learning,” Weltman answered when asked about what a successful season in 2021-22 will look like for his team. “I’m really excited about this group. We have a very talented, eager, smart, and focused group of players. And it’s our job(s), our responsibility, to get them through the early phase of their careers successfully.”
Still, many questions remain as the new season begins to unfold; questions related to the health of some of their star players, questions about lineup groupings with a somewhat unbalanced roster, and questions about the future of two of their young and emerging centers.
In part two of this series highlighting Orlando Magic Media Day, I will be featuring the camaraderie and bonds that exists inside the locker room between this new group of players, the veterans who will be relied upon heavily this season to provide leadership, and the incredibleness that is the Wagner brothers.
Aaron Goldstone has been writing for Orlando Pinstriped Post since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @AaronGoldstone.