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Orlando Magic Season Review, Part III: Fultz returns, Harris recovers, Ross flames out

In this third installment we take a look at some of the veterans that the Magic were banking on in 2021/22

Minnesota Timberwolves v Orlando Magic Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

We’re here today with the third installment in our ongoing series, wherein we’ll be anointing another handful of winners and losers to emerge from the Orlando Magic’s 2021/22 campaign. In the rear-view already is a balance of both the good and the bad to be found on the ground floor of the franchise’s latest rebuild, and we’ll continue today with a similarly balanced ledger of Ws and Ls. Let’s jump in and dissect things!

Winner: Markelle Fultz

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Apparent again once he took the court at the end of February was the simple fact that Markelle Fultz’s presence makes the Magic a better team. His skills as an organizer and lead ball handler immediately injected some direction and poise into a side desperately seeking just such, with his exploratory dribble-drive game the sort that created both space and opportunities that weren’t previously available. He was able to add a general level of execution that prior to his return frequently felt lacking from Orlando’s offensive sets.

Fultz was deployed in a deliberately sheltered role, coming off the bench and only topping the 20-minute mark during the season’s last half-dozen games. Still, his production during these moments has to be a cause for optimism in Orlando, particularly when one factors in the context of his returning from injury. On a possession by possession basis this late-season cameo was the young guard’s most productive stretch in pinstripes, with per-100 averages of 26.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.7 steals and a whopping 13.3 assists courtesy of a gargantuan assist rate of 48.9%. That’s right, as the primary quarterback of the second unit Fultz registered a dime on basically every second basket that the Magic scored.

The individual scoring numbers he posted were also intriguing, with Fultz arriving at a career-best 47.4% from the field. It was an average boosted by a 77.5% conversion rate within three feet of the hoop, not to mention the 45.9% figure he posted on the pair of mid-range attempts (10-16 feet) he hoisted each night. This elevation in finishing helped to somewhat offset his diminutive three-point (.097) and free-throw rates (.177), nudging his true shooting percentage to .517, a rate as palatable as it has been at any other point in his short and interrupted career.

Although a bit of an oversimplification, it’s also worth considering Orlando’s record in any evaluation of Fultz’s campaign. The side went 6-12 across the games that the point guard was active for, certainly not an impressive mark but still notably better than the 25% win rate that the team stumbled to without him. It’s an observation that becomes a little weightier still when one notices that the Magic came out either tied or ahead in Fultz’s on-court minutes in 10 of the 18 contests in which he played, while on two other occasions his personal plus/minus tally was within a single basket. For a team that was as frequently non-competitive as the Magic, that’s an impressive shift.

Despite having been in the league for just five years, Fultz has already experienced one of the weirdest careers to date of any professional basketballer. Despite the various oddities and injury interruptions endured, he appears to have found a home in Orlando. His impressive return to play in the season’s closing quarter was just a timely reminder of that fact.

Loser: Jonathan Isaac

Atlanta Hawks v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

At this point it’s tough to know what to say about Jonathan Isaac. By the time next season rolls around it will have been more than two years since he last stepped onto an NBA court, the forward having suited up in just 141 of a possible 401 contests – a strike rate of just 35.2%. He was due to return from rehabilitation at some point this season right up until he wasn’t, the team’s detail-bereft announcement doing little to facilitate an understanding of exactly what is going on with the theoretical franchise pillar.

Isaac was the second-highest paid player on Orlando’s roster this season past, and he currently projects to be at the top of that list for the next three still to come. It should be an area of significant concern for the team moving forward, both in terms of whether or not he can still provide value commensurate to that cost after this latest interruption, along with the implications the figure will have as the team at some point pivots towards trying to put a winning product on the hardwood. As a player in this league, what can JI one day be? What can he offer the now rebuilding Magic?

Everyone in Central Florida is hoping that Isaac will eventually make a successful return to play, preferably looking much like the defensive menace he has, in flashes, already shown himself to be. While such an outcome is certainly still a possibility, the frequency, severity and now uncertainty of his personal injury history makes that circumstance feel progressively less likely. The second lost campaign of Isaac’s young career was, unfortunately, just another losing situation that the Magic endured this season.

Winner: Gary Harris

Orlando Magic v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

There was a time not long after his arrival in Orlando when it seemed fair to wonder if Gary Harris would ever hit another layup again. In 20 pinstriped contests last season he connected on an almost unfathomably miniscule 46.3% of shots when within three feet of the hoop, and no better than 36.8% from anywhere else inside the arc. For whatever reason he was also firing away from distance less frequently than ever before, a fact which likely exacerbated the poor finishing inside. Put it all together and he had seemingly arrived in Central Florida with the shot profile of a stranger.

Interestingly, all of those numbers now stand as either outliers or figures not seen since Harris’s rookie campaign, with the bounce back during this most recent season a substantial one. He bombed away from deep at a prodigious rate – 54.6% of all field goal attempts. His finishing at the hoop shot back up to 67.5%, giving him his strongest two-point field-goal accuracy since 2018. His floater and mid-range game also rose back to levels more in line with his career figures. Finally, he recovered his outside stroke, recording his best three-point shooting figures since the 2017/18 season.

Harris also finished stronger than he started, a fact which lends credit to the belief that he’s starting to leave behind the injuries that had ailed him in recent years. The veteran shooter was without a long-range make in 8 of his first 12 contests last season, going 5-27 (18.5%) across the stretch and making it look much like the wheels had fallen off his wagon. He then proceeded to knock down 111 of his next 275 three-pointers, a 40.4% strike rate that pushed his season average all the way to 38.4%, a mark comfortably above league average even despite the frigid start. In fact, that number would have been good for 22nd league-wide if it had played out over the entire season.

About a dozen points, a pair of rebounds, a couple of assists, and a steal each night doesn’t seem like much worth getting too excited about. However, that production represents a genuine revitalization for Harris, whose career as a meaningful contributor had been threatened by the ongoing impact of injury. Instead, this season he was genuinely valuable for the Magic, serving as a shooting threat and low-usage connector on offense and a generally reliable individual defender at the other end. Harris was exactly the type of veteran presence that the rebuilding team needed.

Loser: Terrence Ross

Orlando Magic v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

As one of Orlando’s most voluminous outside shooters – 8.8 attempts per-100 possessions and an individual three-point rate of .477 – the fact that Terrence Ross only converted an arctic 29.2% of his long-range attempts should cause some consternation when doling out season review grades. Also of note is the continuation of a trend of recent seasons, with just 77.9% of his three-point makes also registering an assist for a teammate in the boxscore. Before arriving in Orlando that number had never dipped below 93.1%. While it obviously speaks of systems and teammates, it also points to another truth about the Human Torch’s game; he’s a chucker by nature, with his veteran tenure (particularly on this offensively challenged rebuilding team) emboldening him to seek out his own shot with frequency.

Ross’ decline was evident really no matter where one chose to look. He played fewer minutes than any season since his rookie campaign. Along with the wonky shooting from the field, his point, rebound, steal and turnover numbers were all worse than his career averages. There wasn’t an advanced metric out there that rated him as even a mediocre on-court contributor. Did you know he hit just 9 of his final 51 three-point attempts (17.6%)? Well, he did, a grisly number that takes in every game he played in from Valentine’s Day onwards. And if his value instead was meant to be found in his veteran status, it’s difficult to make the argument that he graded out effectively by even that measure; T-Ross didn’t seem to exactly radiate effort, the circumstances of a 22-win team generally evident in his overall energy levels.

Make no mistake, The Human Torch will be fondly remembered for quite some time once he inevitably moves on from the Magic. He was frequently a flamethrower for a team that desperately needed that sort of shotmaking and swagger, a genuinely exciting contributor to a legitimate lower-seed playoff side. However, that reality is long gone for the Magic, still rebuilding and basically as far from contention as they have ever been. Ross’ play this season past – as well as his comments in the time since – suggests that all understand he’s better off playing elsewhere at this point in his career, hopefully in games with real stakes.

Three down, one to go. We’ve got a final installment in this series coming in the next few days, wherein we’ll unpack all manner of things Orlando Magic, including the rise (and fall) of Cole Anthony, a smattering of sputtering second-year performances, and the very nature of the rebuild itself. Until then, I’ll see you in the comments down below.