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It’s time for the Orlando Magic to turn to Jalen Suggs

With only 22 games remaining, it’s time for the Magic to turn to their rookie guard. Here’s why...

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Orlando Magic Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t exactly been the smoothest of rookie campaigns for Jalen Suggs.

Coming in as the fifth overall pick and the higher of the Magic’s two 2021 lottery selections, expectations were suitably high. And while it wouldn’t be accurate to stamp his season a disappointment, it is fair to say that he’s frequently left the pinstriped fanbase wanting more. When an injury in late November temporarily halted play for the youngster, it appeared that his rookie report card would likely remain frustratingly incomplete.

His return less than six weeks later, however, almost immediately shifted those perceptions.

A string of strong performances reignited hope, particularly when considered alongside the early and unexpected emergence of Franz Wagner as an impact rookie. With Suggs surging it looked like the Magic might finish the year with a pair of freshmen ready to drag the team towards a brighter future.

The inevitable regression was not unexpected, but it did serve as a reminder that player development rarely follows a linear trajectory. Suggs came back to earth some, with wayward shooting and ball security issues undermining his efforts. However, he has steadily pushed things back in the right direction after the lowest point of his mini-slump, culminating in a handful of impressive performances right as the All-Star break hit.

What might a close inspection of the 500 minutes Suggs’ has played since returning reveal about the state of his game and his path moving forward? Let’s find out.

Sonic boom

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Orlando Magic Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

When Suggs first made it back onto the floor it was with a bang, the twenty game absence soon forgotten behind a slew of impressive performances. He scored in double-figures in seven straight games, the first such stretch of his career. He set what was then a personal best for assists in his fifth game back, the same night that he also racked up 10 free-throw attempts (also a career high). Two nights prior he hauled in more rebounds (9) in a game than he ever had before. He soared in a chest-thumping victory over the Bulls, sparking the team to an enormous upset win over the Conference’s top-seed. It was a two-week stretch befitting a selection from the upper echelon of an increasingly well-regarded draft class.

The most striking part of the revisions to his game, however, have been evident not in the box score but in the manner in which he tackles the hardwood. Always a physical presence, Suggs has seemingly found a way to channel even further that natural advantage, playing with a velocity and ferocity that wasn’t always unthrottled in the season’s earliest stages. Simply watching the games makes it obvious that he is hunting out transition chances, whether that’s on the fastbreak after receiving an outlet or after turning on the jets and probing for inattentiveness when bringing the ball over half court. He attacks any visible seams in the defense with straight line drives, intent on muscling by any similarly physiqued opponents on his way to the basket.

Speaking of this downhill intent, another factor seemingly helping Suggs in this regard recently is the increased likelihood of him simply getting a step on his immediate defender and turning one of his bustling driving sequences into a blow-by. He’s frequently looked explosive since returning, and it has helped to unlock an element of his scoring repertoire that many scouts predicted pre-draft. He’s not a deft or nuanced dribbler at this point in his career, so having the jets to get by opponents facilitates all sorts of benefits that add up to a more effective offensive game: namely, cleaner looks at the hoop and wider passing lanes as defenses rotate to help.

It makes for a stark contrast when compared to the other rookie on Orlando’s roster, Franz Wagner. The silky German forward is similarly focused when it comes to getting into the painted area, but he relies on a staccato fluidity accentuated by loping steps and long limbs. Suggs, by comparison, is a wrecking ball more likely to hurl himself through any obstacle than weave around it. There’s an intoxicating duality to the pairing, even if they haven’t yet learned how to best combine forces.

Insert coin

NBA: Orlando Magic at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It would be remiss not to point out that Suggs’ play has dipped some since the giddiest of those early post-return heights. The primary reason for this lull is relatively simple and all too familiar – he’s still struggling with his shot. After converting from the field at 40.0% or more in five of his first seven contests after returning, the rookie guard has reached that relatively low bar just three times in the eleven games since, going a combined 47-133 (35.3%) in that time. The numbers are even grislier from deep, with a 6-41 (14.6%) mark blighting his personal boxscores. He’s also been about twice as likely to settle for a mid-range jumper during the stretch, an area of the floor from which he has produced with little efficiency all season long (25.0%).

More worryingly, this stretch featured a significant spell during which Suggs failed to supplement those ice cold shooting numbers with other individual scoring contributions, at one point going five games and more than 157 minutes without generating a single free-throw attempt. It brings to mind a basketball adage (almost) as old as Naismith’s first peach basket – if your shot isn’t falling, get to the line. Suggs, somehow, basically inverted that advice entirely. It’s no surprise that his individual box score looked healthier in recent contests against the Grizzlies, Suns and Nuggets after he was able to get back to this basic tenet.

On a more positive note, the recent improvements to Suggs’ playmaking have stuck even as his shooting stroke has wobbled. He’s averaged 6.1 assists across his last eight games, more regularly finding teammates in advantageous positions either in two-man sequences or out in transition after pushing the pace. If we break the season down into ten game chunks we can see that his assist ratio – the measure of all possessions that end in a helper – has climbed steadily, starting at 15.9% after 10, rising to 20.0% just before he suffered his injury, and ascending all the way to 25.1% across his ten most recent outings.

Unsurprisingly, a tempering of turnovers is a key contributor to the elevation of Suggs’ playmaking efficiency. Remember, he has coughed the ball up at a pretty prodigious rate at many points in his rookie campaign, averaging 3.0 giveaways per night and logging a turnover percentage of 18.2%; Suggs bobbles the ball away on almost one out of every five possessions that he’s involved in! Of late, however, he’s had some of his safest performances with the ball in hand, including the first turnover free game of his young career and three total outings that featured 7 or more assists alongside 1 or fewer turnovers. In fact, in the four games prior to his six-turnover dud against Boston, Suggs logged a turnover ratio of just 7.1%, racking up 4.17 assists for each of the six turnovers committed in the span, a rate almost four times better than the mark he’s currently at on the season.

This was just one small, isolated stretch of his rookie season – genuinely the only four consecutive game sample with fewer than 8 giveaways! – but it is, at the least, evidence of improved ball security and better decision making being a legitimate possibility. There have also been individual moments that shine brightly in these contests: pocket passes that add some variety and unpredictability to his dribble-drive game; crisp dimes to a diving big out of two-man pick-and-roll action; timely kick-outs to trailing shooters in transition. He’s making mistakes when called on as a playmaker, but there’s at least some evidence accumulating that speaks to improved court reads and decision making.

To this point, Suggs has shown immense offensive promise in the sense that he’s physically capable of doing a number of things that contribute to winning basketball. There are games on his resume in which he has finished at the rim. Generated free throws. Hit outside shots. Scored efficiently. Passed with precision. Quarterbacked half-court sets. Hypercharged the team’s transition attack. Played with composure and reliability. There are games in which he’s combined many of these!

The problem, however, is not one of capability but consistency. Like the vast majority of rookies, particularly those tasked with the duty of significant ball-handling, Suggs has been up and down in campaign number one. As such, any next step for the Magic’s young guard becomes reliant on his ability to minimize the valleys while ascending to the peaks with regularity. We know there’s a possibility of him being a difference maker in this league – we’ve seen bursts of that already. What he’s ultimately capable of as an offensive force, however, will eventually be determined by just how consistent he can be.

Combo breaker

Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets Photo by Ethan Mito/Clarkson Creative/Getty Images

To only consider offensive contributions in any evaluation of Suggs’ rookie campaign would be a disservice to the two-way nature of the young guard’s game. Part of his allure as a prospect was not the promise of a polished scoring repertoire, but the physical competitiveness of his play at both ends of the floor. Pleasingly, through 39 professional contests that projection has proven to be right on the money.

1.3 steals each night to go along with 0.4 blocks from the guard position is a solid start when considering Suggs’ defensive contributions. The 1.7 combined ‘stocks’ place him third on the team, trailing only Mo Bamba (2.4 stocks) and his elite block rate and the rangy limbs of Chuma Okeke (2.0). As another measure of defensive activity and disruptive potential, Suggs currently leads the Magic in deflections, with 2.6 per game and 4.5 per 48 minutes. Those averages place him 24th and 30th league-wide (minimum 500 minutes played), comfortably the highest-placed player from Central Florida by either measure this season. In terms of defensive resistance that involves getting hand to ball, Suggs is already just about the best bet the Magic have.

Suggs falls within the 77th percentile league-wide when defending the ball handler coming out of pick-and-roll sequences, yielding just 0.76 points per possession on 35.9% opposition shooting. Those are excellent numbers that rank, respectively, second and first on the team among rotation regulars. He’s also been surprisingly stout when called on to defend in the post, giving up just 0.81 points per possession on the 21 post-ups he’s handled this season. It’s a small sample size, sure, but not all that far behind his teammates in terms of volume (with 57 it’s Wendell Carter Jr. who has been called on to defend that play-type the most), so the second-place rank on the team and the league-wide 73rd percentile mark are both worth noting.

Now, not all of the individual defensive numbers are similarly rosy. Suggs has clearly found it difficult matching up in isolation against some of the league’s most potent scorers; he hasn’t been asked to do it all that often (just 23 times – a sign of respect?), but when he has the opposition has poured in buckets at a rate of 1.17 points per possession, a mark that places him in just the 13th percentile league-wide. For all of his obvious physical talents, defending against top flight NBA guards is always going to be a battle for those still learning the ropes. The Magic’s rookie hasn’t been great when forced into isolation, but it’s also fair to figure that he’ll improve considerably at this as he gets more reps under his belt.

Suggs already has the look of a significantly positive defensive presence, even in the earliest stages of his career. Among those on Orlando’s roster, he simply stands out as a different breed of defender – engaged, sticky, and tenacious.

‘Here comes a new challenger’

2022 NBA All-Star - Media Circuit Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

So what exactly do the Magic have in their recent fifth overall draft pick?

While Suggs’ ultimate place in this league is a long way from sorted, there’s a growing collection of evidence that suggests he could one day emerge as a well above-average level starter. He’s already figuring out how to be a defensive difference maker, while with the ball in hand there are numerous flashes evident of a tempo-dictating and bucket-earning play-maker.

Down the stretch it is imperative that Orlando’s decision makers do what they can to both maximize the developmental reps that Suggs receives, while also ensuring a meaningful assessment of his performance as the team’s key backcourt cog. With Markelle Fultz and RJ Hampton both nearing a return and Cole Anthony still being trusted with starter-level minutes, opportunities for the guards are about to become significantly more contested, a circumstance which cannot be allowed to eat into the evaluation of their rookie.

Of all of the young guards currently on the Magic’s roster, Suggs is the one with the greatest chance of shifting the side’s fortunes in the years to come. His evaluation and success has to be a priority. Noticeably, Suggs actually hasn’t spent all that much time so far in configurations that peg him as the lead playmaker, let alone in line-ups that best accentuate his natural talents and play style preferences. However, there are some numbers that indicate what is perhaps possible should the team find a way to facilitate this.

Specifically of interest is the five-man unit that places him alongside Gary Harris, F. Wagner, Okeke and Carter Jr, a configuration currently sporting a team-best 18.2 net rating in just 30 minutes of total court time (minimum 30 minutes). A closer look reveals that this grouping is one of just three five-man Magic line-ups with a positive net rating all season (again, a minimum of 30 minutes), and it has been far and away the most successful of these despite the limited run.

It makes sense, right? Suggs loves to play hard-nosed defense and run when the opportunity presents itself, and these are the other players on the roster who best fit that profile. It’s a unit replete with disruptive limbs, stout match-ups, active cutters, willing shooters, secondary ball handlers, and even an effective pick-and-roll dance partner. The collective defense is solid (107.6 defensive rating). The offense is Orlando’s best (125.8 offensive rating). The pace ranks comfortably among the team’s quickest outfits (106.9). Down the stretch can we see more of this five-man group? And can we see it in some of the team’s more high intensity moments?

(Of note, switching Okeke out for Mo Bamba also produces a quintet with a positive net rating, this time of 2.1. It really appears that there’s some value to be found in deploying Suggs in a featured role alongside the team’s other versatile defenders and youthful legs.)

Jalen Suggs is not yet a finished basketball product. However, his post-injury performance suggests a ceiling that, while still out of reach at this moment, could eventually elevate the Magic in a meaningful way. But for that to happen, we have to start figuring out what a team in his image really looks like.

It’s time for this season’s closing stretch to be turned over to Suggs.