How the Magic will look when they eventually open the 2022/23 season in October already feels like a pretty clear picture. Well, mostly.
As the justifiably exciting new face in town, Paolo Banchero will slide straight into one of the starting front court positions, envisioned as the offensive game-changer that the team has long hungered for. In this role he’ll be flanked on one side by the jewel of last year’s draft haul, Franz Wagner, and on the other by the improved Wendell Carter Jr., entering the first season of his team-friendly extension. This trio will almost certainly be quarterbacked by Markelle Fultz, fully healthy at the beginning of a campaign for one of the only times in his career.
However, even a cursory crunching of those numbers reveals that such an arrangement still leaves one starting slot up for grabs. The only debate appears to be over who will fill the second backcourt role, with a trio of potential options in the mix. Between them, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs and Gary Harris combined to fill a starting guard role for the Magic 140 times last season, and based on the current depth chart they’re the only three with a realistic claim to the position this coming year. Join me as we dive in and unpack the case for each.
Let’s get the easiest one out of the way first – of the triumvirate of potential applicants, Anthony seems to be the one with the slimmest chance. The biggest knock against the third-year player is that he’s not a shooting guard, despite the score-first proclivities of his game. At just 6-2 and 185 he’d be cruelly undersized against some of the league’s more dynamic twos – and criss-crossing matchups would just ensure life was similarly difficult for Fultz – while on offense he makes for a slightly awkward pairing alongside the other projected starters. Although he could theoretically fill the role of off-ball spot-up threat, Anthony remains more comfortable hunting his own offense with the rock in hand, a circumstance which would necessarily take it out of the grasps of Fultz, Wagner and even Banchero. Without a multi-ball mode that’s too many mouths to feed.
The trickiest element of this outcome is likely a human one; to this point of his career, Anthony has almost exclusively been a starter. He was thrust into the role early as a rookie due to necessity, while last season’s injury-marred tankathon basically positioned him as the face and heartbeat of Orlando’s on-court product. In fact, Cole has entered a game from the bench just 13 times, a genuinely surprising number for a player drafted where he was and with his projections. Because of this – and as a player with his level of confidence – Anthony almost certainly perceives himself as a starter.
However, it’s those early projections that are once again relevant. Anthony’s predisposition towards offense comfortably aligns with the notion of a microwave bench scorer, injected into games with the reins of the second unit firmly in their grip. It’s likely the role that the Magic envisioned when they drafted him back in 2020, and it now makes sense to utilize him in that specific fashion. There will undoubtedly be some bruising of ego in asking him to handle the demotion in status, but that’s life on a rebuilding side. Once the games are underway expect Cole to settle in as the team’s second unit spark plug.
Our own Jorie Mickens already gave some thought to this orientation of the team’s starting unit, identifying it as an honorable mention in his column looking at some of the more interesting lineups that the Magic might roll out next season. In the context of the team’s rebuild it makes sense; Orlando has plenty invested in the development of Suggs over the next few years, and if he were to emerge as a genuine difference-maker it would likely cement the core of the side moving forward. This is almost certainly the reality of any best-case scenario for the Magic.
However, plugging Suggs in as a starter and calling it a day isn’t as straightforward as one could make it seem. As a rookie, the livewire guard struggled immensely when asked to contribute offensively, ultimately putting together a scoring campaign that was one of the worst league-wide. He couldn’t shoot, failed to protect the ball as a playmaker, and ultimately found it difficult to carve out a niche on offense. Placing him alongside Fultz and Franz would theoretically alleviate some of that by simplifying his responsibilities in an off-ball role, although his alarming inaccuracy from deep seemingly sinks that plan as the Magic simply won’t be able to afford having a second (or even third, depending on how you measure Carter Jr.’s long-range profile) non-shooter among the starting five.
Now, there are arguments for Suggs as a starter that extend beyond simply wanting to hit on a high lottery pick. In the back half of last season he proved damaging in transition, a bulldozer who hunted out opportunities on the break and was successful in doing so. There’s also a downhill element to his play that should be welcomed by a Magic side that has often struggled to accrue free throw attempts. Add to that his physicality and tenacity on defense – he’s already undoubtedly Orlando’s most effective perimeter stopper – and you can see why the team might want him on the court to line up against the opposition’s best.
It’s not yet clear what on-court role, or even backcourt position, that Suggs is ultimately best-suited to long term. Can he develop into a genuine point guard capable of quarterbacking a competitive team? Or could he get his radar right and establish himself as a physical wing scoring threat? The defense will obviously take care of itself, but he’s got to find a way to contribute on the other side of the ball. Orlando’s rebuild almost certainly needs Suggs to emerge as a starter-level talent, but do the current circumstances make for a comfortable fit alongside the other presumptive starters?
Back in pinstripes after re-signing on a good value, $26 million two-year pact, Harris finds himself as the elder statesman in the jostle for the Magic’s final starting slot. A bumpy start to life in Central Florida eventually gave way to a genuine rejuvenation, with the veteran two-guard rediscovering his outside stroke and emerging as the team’s most dependable long-rang threat and a valued mentor to play alongside the roster’s youth. He ended up starting in about half of his games across 2021/22, the team generally performing better for his presence.
On offense, Harris would represent a connective figure in the starting unit, a fifth option with a deflated usage rate but a dependable jumper, a wing presence who knows how to keep the ball movement flowing. Defensively he would also hold his own, solid in most one-on-one matchups and reliable in the team-wide scheme. Last season’s renaissance feels like the ceiling, but it’s also highly unlikely that the floor is anywhere too far below that should the wheels start to wobble some. With a number of young players requiring development reps, Harris’ sort of low maintenance, steady veteran presence may well be just what the Magic need to round out their first five.
The heart may be yearning for Suggs to seal the deal, but the head says that Harris – at least in this current moment – is the one to commit to. With the frontcourt essentially settled and Fultz the team’s most effective floor general, it’s the skillset of the veteran two-guard that appears to sit most comfortably alongside the entrenched quartet. Harris would provide needed shooting, dependable defense, and veteran poise, all while requiring little in the way of the on-ball opportunities that the team’s development demands are distributed elsewhere. Such an arrangement would also open up more on-ball minutes for Suggs, a welcomed circumstance
Make no mistake, the Magic will be desperately keen for Jalen Suggs to stake his claim as a long term answer in the backcourt. However, an evaluation of the current circumstances suggests that it’s actually Gary Harris who offers more in terms of stability and cohesion as the rebuild enters its next phase.
With training camp and the season opener just over the looming horizon, we’ll have our answer soon enough. But at this stage, Harris appears primed to distinguish himself as the necessary solution.