With opening night just around the corner, the time has come to start unpacking some of the stories that figure to emerge over the course of the next 82 games. Even with a team ceiling that figures to be tremendously short of the playoff picture, there are still a number of things that Magic fans should be keeping a close eye on as the rebuild gets underway in earnest. Some of those things, believe it or not, actually have the possibility of skewing towards the positive end of the spectrum! That’s right, as I do around this time every year, I’m once again rolling out a series of optimism-fueled projections that envision a world where the cookie crumbles definitively in Orlando’s favor.
With that in mind, settle in with a glass half-full of your favorite beverage and an appropriately smile-inducing snack or three as we optimistically envision how this season might play out in Central Florida!
Can he save the Magic?
It’s a lot to ask of any single player, let alone one who is just 20 years old and has yet to step onto an NBA court. But such is the potential attached to Jalen Suggs, the impeccably credentialed and versatile guard who unexpectedly fell to Orlando on Draft night. With a history of success at the high school and college levels, the expectation now is that he’ll be able to transition those same winning values to the professional landscape of the NBA.
Suggs comes to the Magic with a reputation as a play-making combo guard, adept at running the point in the whir of transition as well as in more measured pick-and-roll sets. He’s demonstrated a knack for both getting to and finishing at the rim, while his jump shot looks passable even when extending to range. He’s an athletic defender with the physical strength and size to switch across the backcourt slots, aided by visceral competitive instincts and a strong feel for the game.
In fact, it’s this intensity and effort in his approach to the game that might be his most universally lauded talent — Suggs is evidently and obviously a basketballer. For a team in the opening stage of their latest rebuilding phase, that’s an incredibly valuable component of the overall package. And while it almost certainly won’t be enough to lift the Magic to any great heights this season, there’s every chance that it catapults the young guard into the thick of the Rookie of the Year race while also building confidence in the franchise’s future. It’s easy enough to envision an outcome where, by the end of the season, it’s been made apparent that Orlando has one of their long-term pillars firmly in place.
Suggs won’t save the Magic from lottery participation this season. However, there’s every chance that he establishes a platform from which he can do just that in the years to come. As long as his play serves as a glimpse of a positive future it will count as a win for the franchise.
Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz
Orlando has a lot tied up in the future success of both Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. Last season’s mid-campaign teardown pivoted the team into a hard rebuild, only a few months after the pair had been substantially re-upped (despite the unfortunately still lingering specter of injury concerns). Almost every semblance of the old core was jettisoned, leaving JI and ‘Kelle as the best paid, long-term secured pieces remaining on the roster. For two players only just starting their rookie contract extensions it’s a continued showing of faith predicated on the hope that their stars aren’t yet finished ascending.
So what would a definitively positive campaign look like in 2021/22 for Orlando’s pair of returning talents? Honestly, at this point it should simply be good health and a relative recapturing of previous form. If they can both eventually get back on the court and get through the campaign unscathed, finishing at a point of performance similar to where they left off pre-injury, that has to be considered a significant victory for the Magic franchise. There’s no pressure to win now, which means the focus can be placed purely on continued rehabilitation and re-acclimation.
Isaac and Fultz both playing alongside each other again at some point this season will be a welcome sight for fans of the Magic. That they’re both still doing so come Game 82 will be the thing that puts a genuine smile on the collective fandom’s dial.
Last season the Magic actually asked a fair bit of their 2019 first rounder, particularly post-trade deadline when he became one of the more dependable players remaining on the team. While Chuma Okeke’s per-game averages weren’t mind-blowing — a modest 7.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals — his 25.2 minutes per night did stand out, as did his composed decision-making and readily apparent feel for the game. Even as a rookie it was clear he’ll long have a place in this league.
For Year Two to be considered as successful, however, Orlando will need to see something beyond ‘more of the same’. Thankfully, Okeke seems positioned to be able to deliver on that. He reads the game state effectively, with an already well-developed sense of when and where to pass and when to settle for his own shot. On that front, he’s possessed of a smooth outside stroke and a burgeoning mid-range game, both of which can be put to good use on a team that will desperately require scoring. He also stands to improve as a defender, with already solid awareness and communication suggesting the sophomore forward can make steady gains at that end of the floor.
Okeke seemingly knows intrinsically how to play in a complementary manner, a fact which came to define the 3-and-D style of deployment he provided the Magic with in his rookie campaign. The hope now will be that he can step into a slightly larger role, boosting both his scoring and the secondary play-making his composed decision-making can provide. 12, 5 and 4 with greater efficiency and the same disruptive defensive numbers certainly doesn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility.
In terms of rookie years, Cole Anthony’s was often the flash of fire to Okeke’s cool and collected ice. Brash and bold, the young point guard stepped into the starting lineup when early opportunity presented itself and immediately established himself as a key cog for the team. He hit some game winners, gave some memorable interviews, and ended up logging almost 12 shot attempts and 4.1 assists each night on a 24.3% usage rate. Efficiency rightfully should never have been expected of a rookie in his role, but the confidence and scoring nous he routinely displayed spoke of his fit in the league.
Anthony actually now steps into a more complex situation in his second year, with the addition of Suggs and the return of Fultz crowding a point guard slot that was largely his and his alone last season. Considering his play style, however, it might actually be a positive turn of events; he’ll spend more time quarterbacking second units that will need his scoring punch, a circumstance which will simultaneously minimize some of his defensive limitations by matching him up against opposing reserves. It’s shockingly easy to envision him thriving as a bench spark plug.
The best news for Anthony is that the key to unlocking this game lies largely in achieving an amalgamation of things he’s already proven he can do. He must maintain the improved long-range accuracy he displayed in the back half of last season. He must get back to protecting the ball like he did across his first twenty-five games. He must continue to aggressively attack the hoop and seek out the type of contact that gets a guard to the free throw line. If he can routinely harness those elements of his game expect Anthony to sizzle in his second year.
I made the exact same joke last year, but Bamba’s ‘Positivity Projection’ could be cut and pasted from any previous entry. Now entering his fourth season, the big man simply needs to demonstrate a consistent effectiveness that has largely eluded him to this point of his professional career. With a decision on the extension of his rookie contract looming — as well as a legitimate battle with his draft class peer, Wendell Carter Jr., for the affections of the team moving forward — the immediate present is the point where his performance has to serve as a demand for regular minutes.
Bamba should be looking to make his name as a rim protector, where his enormous wingspan and already prodigious block rate must equate to a more positive impact on the team’s defensive performance. Offensively he needs to embrace life as a stout screen-setter, refining his ability to finish on the roll and accentuating this with his burgeoning ability to make the opposition pay with a well-timed pop to the perimeter. 14 and 10 with a pair of blocks should be the baseline when it comes to expectations, along with improved efficiency and incremental gains in his underlying advanced metrics.
The time has come for Bamba to turn up or get traded out. With a new coaching staff, the absence of any All-star impediments, and the pressure of a decision deadline he’s got all the opportunity and motivation one could possibly need to thrive.
It would appear that RJ Hampton has grown somewhere in the vicinity of two inches since the start of last season, which puts him in the 6-6 range. If he could add another inch or two and a little more bulk it would be pretty easy to envision him playing the wing as a two-way irritant, with speed to kill in transition and the athleticism required to provide meaningful defensive resistance on the perimeter. Sure to make this work he would still need to significantly improve both his outside stroke and his general decision-making, but at this point in time on a team now filled to the brim with point guards, the potential that a refined physicality provides would be enough to get the team believing they may have found a long-term piece.
Terrence Ross and Gary Harris
Terrence Ross and Gary Harris are both handy veterans to have around, but their greatest contribution to the Magic this coming season likely lies in the trade market. They’ll be called on to provide mentorship throughout the season for what is a very young team, as well as being some of the few outside shooting threats that the side has to space the floor. But while the duo undoubtedly provide tangible basketball benefits, the fact remains that they’re better suited to a side looking to win now — a status the Magic won’t even begin to aspire to until some point in the future.
As such, the primary positivity that Ross and Harris project to provide will come in the form of trade return, whether it’s draft capital, a flawed-but-intriguing prospect that the team can take a shot at developing, or the coveted superstar that shakes free. The Magic won’t flip either of the pair for peanuts or simply for the sake of it, but if a suitably commensurate offer comes in, expect them to use either one or both to swing a deal. Let’s just hope that it’s one to be happy about.
Rapid fire! Wendell Carter Jr. continues his Central Floridian bounce back, positioning himself either as a solid option for the franchise moving forward or a trade chip that can return some value. Franz Wagner flashes both a smooth shooting stroke and the capacity to defend opposing threes without getting torched. Wagner the Elder hits a decent clip of his outside shots when called upon, showing the ability to toggle between stretch five and four designations as necessary. Michael Carter-Williams buys into a reduced role, displaying in limited minutes the same defensive fervor and aggressive transition play that the Magic faithful have come to appreciate. E’Twaun Moore rediscovers the three-point proficiency that escaped him in the desert. Robin Lopez provides us with some truly memorable mascot interactions. Jamahl Mosley finds a way to maintain meaningful development amidst the losses. Orlando gets lucky in the lottery.
A fan in October can talk themselves into just about anything. A career year for a favorite player. A deep playoff run. A title. And although it’s absurdly unlikely that Orlando needs to start planning parade routes there’s still plenty to be said for looking on the bright side. Sports are meant to be fun! They’re meant to inspire awe and aspiration, but instead we — the collective basketball fanatics — seem to spend most of our time worrying about how things could be better. We’ll undoubtedly hit that point of the season, but for now I’m just happy to put my unfiltered optimism front and center. Magic above all!