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!
Here are the numbers you’ll want to know to assist in an evaluation of Banchero’s impact on the Magic: 30, 29, 23, 22, 25, 29, 21, 27, 29 and 27.
Those are the season-end ranks of Orlando’s offense over the last ten years (per Basketball Reference). It’s been a full decade since Orlando was an even league-average outfit at putting the ball in the basket, a seemingly interminable stretch of time that represents the entirety of the post-Dwight – and, perhaps more importantly in this context, post-SVG – landscape in Central Florida. It’s been a long time since the Magic have suited up an individual scorer who could be counted on.
That’s why it’s so important that Paolo Banchero, Orlando’s newly-minted head-of-his-class draft selection, eventually develop into a bona fide offensive threat. There might not be any team in the league more desperately in need of a versatile, efficient, and dangerous scorer than the Magic. A player who, when the situation demands it, can take the ball into his hands and generate offense out of an individual match up. A player who can both break down opposing defenses as a ballhandler and demand attention when navigating off ball. A player who can get buckets.
The good news for the pinstriped faithful is that Banchero’s early projections are precisely in that mold. Scouting reports have him pegged as a jumbo-sized playmaker with above average handles at the four, a pick-and-roll threat as either a screener or initiator, with a quick mid-range release and an emerging proclivity for crafty passing. The Magic could use literally every one of those attributes! His selection by Orlando also happens to represent the first time that the team has prioritized offensive ability with their top lottery pick in a given year since … Mario Hezonja in 2015? JJ Redick in 2006?! Considering the moribund nature of the franchise’s offense in recent memory it’s a shocking realization.
Even in a best-case scenario it’s highly unlikely that Banchero’s arrival signifies Orlando’s elevation to the playoff race this season. However, as long as his talents as a scorer translate at the professional level the Magic will be thrilled with their latest rookie addition. And, in years to come sooner rather than later, it’s Paolo’s points that project to pull the Magic out of this neverending rebuild.
Franz Wagner has arrived.
Fresh from a head-turning performance at EuroBasket during the offseason, Orlando’s scintillating sophomore forward figures to follow up what was a truly impressive rookie campaign with an even better second season. Even accounting for the ‘it’s just preseason disclaimer’, Franz Wagner has looked even more comfortable, even more composed, and even more effective across the last couple of weeks than he did as a freshman. It’s been genuinely aw-inspiring!
With baseline expectations set at 15.2 points, 4.5 rebound, 2.9 assists, a combined 1.3 stocks, and 46.8% shooting from the field – his numbers in year number one – the question now becomes by how much Wagner can increase his on-court contributions in his second season. The nature of his game is such that noticeable growth seems likely. He’s a cerebral player able to make quick and incisive reads all over the court, evident in his efficient shot profile, his dangerous off-ball movement, and his burgeoning playmaking talents. He scored at a good clip last season without any majorly favorable outliers evident in the underlying numbers, and it stands to reason that twelve extra months of experience will even better equip him on a night-to-night basis.
If it weren’t already clear after his rookie campaign, watching the side ramp back up during this recent stretch has crystallized this as an indisputable fact: Franz is Orlando’s best player. We’re still a long way from knowing exactly what he’ll become in this league, but 18, 5 and 5 as a genuine two-way impact player feels like it may actually be under-selling his second year potential. Expect Wagner to continue his ascension this season.
Wendell Carter Jr.
Mistaken by many as simply a salary cap-balancing component of the Nikola Vucevic trade, Wendell Carter Jr. quickly established himself as much more than that after arriving in Central Florida. The Bulls’ former lottery pick had fallen out of favor in Chicago, but through a combination of opportunity and confidence he completely turned around the course that his career seemed to be on. Now heading into the first season of a new four-year pact with the team, WCJ is undoubtedly the Magic’s center of the future.
Carter Jr. was a dependable rock for Orlando last season, with averages of 15.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 stocks and 52.5% shooting from the field combining to lead the big man to the most impactful play of his career by basically every advanced metric – PER, VORP, win shares, box plus/minus, on-off rating … pick your favorite analytical figure that measures on-court contributions and you’ll find Wendell at the top of Orlando’s leaderboard last year. Since donning the pinstripes, Carter Jr. on a play-to-play basis has been more likely to score a bucket, nab a rebound, tally an assist and avoid a turnover, all while developing a three-point shot and remodelling his game for the modern basketball landscape. It’s been impressive.
As a result, a positive outcome in 2023 for Orlando’s starting center is really a matter of refinement and consolidation. Carter Jr. just needs to lock in the gains that he has made to this point while continuing to develop the extra layers that have been added. Nudging his long-range accuracy up a couple of points from last year’s 32.7% will bring it almost in line with league average and go a long way towards providing the type of spacing threat this team so desperately requires. His improved feel for playmaking could continue to expand, particularly in terms of the dynamic that is already emerging between himself and Banchero as the pair cut and cross-screen their way to clean looks. There’s also the wonderful two-man game that is blossoming with Wagner, a duo that are already seemingly more in sync and deadly than they were even last year.
Carter Jr. may not possess a ceiling as giddyingly high as a couple of his other teammates. But what he has already demonstrated is that he’s perhaps the player on the roster closest to reaching that roof. Hopefully this season sees the big man take another incremental step towards that reality.
Season number two for Orlando’s top lottery selection last year has to be about the rebuilding of confidence. The tenacious guard endured an incredibly rough rookie campaign, suffering through a variety of rhythm-sapping injuries that impeded his transition to the pros and that ultimately resulted in one of the most ineffectual shooting seasons on record for a touted prospect.
The good news is that despite the jump-shot horror show, Suggs was already very clearly a defensive ace, the type of player that could lock up direct opponents on the perimeter and simply deny them the space and types of shots that they would normally seek. Even with his offensive contributions abandoning him he was able to find ways to impact a game, leaning further into this ruggedness and the terror of transition to establish some gains in the season’s latter stages.
It’s a blueprint for success that Suggs would do well to subscribe to in the 2022/23 season. When he eventually returns from injury he will need to embrace the role of defensive menace, while also working through the shooting struggles that will invariably surface at some point. If he can demonstrate that last year’s woebegone accuracy, particularly from deep, was more about the unfortunate confluence of variance and injury than any mechanical hitch, he’ll experience an offensive bounce-back that could re-set his trajectory in the league. From the Magic’s perspective that would be a win.
In his half-decade in the league since being picked at the top of his draft class in 2017, Markelle Fultz has enjoyed just one season of injury-free basketball. In nearly every way, that 2019/20 campaign featured the most promising performances of his career, the young point guard carving out a niche as the starter on a playoff-bound Orlando side and proving he wasn’t going to be the washout that his absence-plagued Philadelphia years suggested.
Unfortunately, Fultz hasn’t been able to build on the foundation he laid during that season, a torn ACL limiting him to just 21 games since. And while it’s basically a certainty that he won’t ever meet the pre-draft projections that he carried coming out of college, he’s peppered his resume with enough high-impact games to suggest that he still has the capacity to establish himself as an above-average starter at the position. What he needs this campaign is just modicum of continuity, and the boost in confidence that would come along with that.
Last season’s entry for Cole Anthony in the Positivity Projections resonates here again: he needs to keep doing the things that he’s already proven he can do, just with a greater dash of consistency. The Magic’s swaggering backcourt scorer got off to a blistering start last season, showcasing exactly what is possible should he execute with precision his natural on-court tendencies. Improvements to his off-the-dribble shooting, particularly from deep, fueled his early run as an effective isolation scorer, in turn adding an extra dimension to his playmaking capacity courtesy of the pressure he was exerting on opposing defenses. It might be that he’s still ultimately best-suited to a sixth man role in this league, but this season Anthony will again get a genuine chance to press his case as a starter-level talent. A Magic team desperately seeking an impact guard would love for the solution to that problem to emerge internally.
Prior to training camp I spent some time trying to figure out both who was best-suited and who would ultimately emerge as the Magic’s starter at the shooting guard slot. Although the reasoning felt sound at the time, injury has already forced a recalibration of the thinking aligned to this question. Could Terrence Ross, a name I didn’t even initially consider, have been the answer all along?
It is, of course, only preseason, but across a smattering of games this last week The Human Torch has looked both comfortable and effective sliding into a starting role for the Magic. For a long time the thinking has been that the threat of his outside shooting was needed to prop up offensively impotent bench units, the green light to fire away casting him as a scoring-focused chucker who got by more on volume than efficiency. However, once the veteran joined the starting five the team rattled off three consecutive victories, Ross averaging almost 13 points per contest and hitting 13-21 shots from the field (61.9%) and 5-9 from deep (55.6%).
That level of accuracy obviously wouldn’t hold up over an entire season, but watching him alongside the starters still felt relatively instructive, even despite the low stakes of the basketball being played. Opposing teams respected the threat of Ross’ outside shot, a fact which drew defenders out of the paint and created space in which the Magic’s jumbo-sized playmaking forwards could operate. It also seemed to instill Ross with a level of enthusiasm and energy that was noticeably lacking last season, evident in the frequency and incisiveness of his off-ball movements and the intensity of his defensive efforts.
Despite a sixth-man status defining his tenure in Orlando, preseason performances suggest that this season could actually involve a change in role for the Magic’s veteran wing. Earning that distinction would represent a clear win for both team and player in 2023.
Please let this be the season that we see Jonathan Isaac back on the court and free from the looming specter of injury. It’s unlikely that he’ll once again resemble the all-world defensive presence he appeared to be back in 2019 – either this year or, if we’re being honest, maybe ever again – but the team needs to establish some idea of what type of player he can be for the franchise moving forward. With some luck, we’ll see a JI that again reminds us of the tantalizing potential he flashed before the cruelties of fate intervened.
Rapid fire! RJ Hampton turns his broad promise into productive basketball, earning an increased minutes load courtesy of positive contributions. Chuma Okeke overcomes his sophomore slump and looks more like the two-way connector he teased as a rookie. Gary Harris returns sooner rather than later and immediately fills the role of stabilizing force for a young squad. Moe Wagner gets the chance to cook as a heart-on-sleeve, instant-offense big off the bench. Mo Bamba plays with visible energy and effort. Bol Bol stakes a claim to Bamba’s spot in the rotation. Even in limited opportunities, Caleb Houstan finishes the season as the Magic’s best three-point rookie threat in more than a decade. Jamahl Mosley showcases a more nuanced Xs and Os game. The Magic look like a more cohesive unit as the team’s on-court play begins to inch away from the designation of ‘rebuilding’. Orlando witnesses lightning striking twice by getting lucky one last time 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 together in 2023!