‘Year two’ has multiple meanings within the Orlando Magic organization as the 2022-23 NBA season quickly approaches.
The upcoming year marks the second season since the organization traded away veteran cornerstone players Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, and Aaron Gordon at the deadline in March of 2021. These moves corresponded with former head coach Steve Clifford and the organization agreeing to part-ways, and the front office leading the team into a second ‘re-build’ since former All-Star Dwight Howard was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 2022-23 season will also mark the second-year in the careers of two of Orlando’s foundational pieces the organization has opted to build around, guard Jalen Suggs and forward Franz Wagner.
When top Orlando front office executives opted to steer the organization in a different direction during the 2020-21 season (post-injuries to Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz), the 2021 NBA Draft became the primary focus of the organization. Suggs and Wagner emerged from that draft, two top-eight picks headed to City Beautiful to help build something new in a city ready for some ‘magic’.
Looking back, it was Suggs who fans were most excited about, following his successful freshmen campaign at Gonzaga that saw the former two-sport prep star lead his collegiate team to a number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament (and a national runner-up finish). And it was Wagner who fans were a little more unsure about, with many preferring that the team would have opted for Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody, or even James Bouknight instead.
But as the year played out, it was Wagner who developed into the ‘can’t miss’ rookie that impressed opposing head coaches across the league, and Suggs who left fans often wanting more.
Playing in 79 of the team’s 82 games, Wagner averaged 15.2 points (47% FG%, 35% 3PT%), 4.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists. The 6-10 forward scored 25 or more points in a single contest eight times last season, including a 38-point outburst against former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks.
On the other hand, Suggs missed 34 games in 2021-22, shooting 36 percent (21% on 3PTA’s) in the games he did play. The former fifth-overall pick averaged 11.8 points, 4.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 3.0 turnover per contest.
“I think for me, it was exactly what I needed,” the second-year guard told reporters Monday when asked about his rookie season. “It was a perfect (rookie) experience, I wouldn’t trade last year for nothing. It was hard not really ever being able to get in a rhythm. I was playing, I would feel good then I (would get) hurt. I wouldn’t change that, because I learned so much about myself, about where I had to be to perform at the highest-level, and about going through adversity. If everything is perfect and goes according to plans, you don’t really grow. It’s hard to gain learning experiences from that.”
To compound matters, the Magic announced early in the offseason that Suggs would be undergoing a ‘minor’ surgery to clean up a stress fracture he has been dealing with in his right ankle.
“Started with a lot of rehab,” Suggs said, when asked about what he did in the offseason to continue to work on his game. “Trying to get my ankle back 100%. While we were doing that, we were working on the rest of my body (upper body, hamstrings, hips, quads, my stability, my core). All of that was being worked on, each and every day. I didn’t really leave, I was in Orlando the whole summer (I think I went home once). I really got to be here and put in some work.”
While many NBA players travel the globe in the offseason, vacationing with family and trying to soak up as much sun as they can on some tropical island, Orlando’s young nucleus of players stayed in town and spent countless hours working together on their games. Suggs was no different.
“I feel great, I feel confident,” Suggs reiterated when asked about his mindset heading into the upcoming season. “Body feels good. Mind is great, sharp, and ready to go. This is a big year coming up, not only for myself, but for us as a team. I want to be a part of that. I want to be able to affect the game and our success in every way possible. It’s something that I worked on all summer to get to that point, and I feel really good heading into it.
One of the area’s of Suggs repertoire that came under the most scrutiny in 2021-22 was his perimeter shooting. Rest assured, this is a part of the 6-4 guard’s game that will be a focus of his in year two.
“The biggest issue with me last year was just being consistent with everything I do, and it led into my shot,” Suggs said Monday. “Doing the same thing each and every time I put the ball up is part of it. And then the belief in it (my shot). Understanding and having the confidence that every time I shoot it, I know this ball is going to go in the basket.”
Wagner, who enjoyed a very different rookie experience in Orlando, also thrived under a different spotlight in the offseason. The former Michigan Wolverine led his German national team on the world stage to a bronze medal and semi-final appearance at the EuroBasket 2022 tournament. Wagner averaged 15.0 points and 4.0 rebounds over nine games in the tournament, scoring 32 points against Lithuania in the Group Phase and chipping-in 19 points in a quarterfinal win over Greece.
“Every game (in EuroBasket) was important. The games were really competitive. Every possession was important. Hopefully, I can bring that focus that’s required in those moments to our games here.”
Coming off being named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team, as well as a successful summer playing overseas, many fans are ready for Wagner to take another leap further in his career. But the lanky and uber-talented forward is staying humble and focused heading into his second professional season in the NBA.
“My goal is to get better every day,” Wagner responded when asked about any personal goals he may have this upcoming season. “Progress, and to keep working on what I’ve been working on already (in my career), and hopefully apply some of those things I’ve done this summer (playing for his national team).”
With Wendell Carter Jr. locked up on a long-term deal, and recently nabbed first overall pick Paolo Banchero set to join the group, the Magic have successfully formed a new cornerstone of young and exciting players. But how successful the organization becomes in the future will ultimately have a lot to do with the progression of Suggs and Wagner.
“I’m really excited about the group that we have,” Wagner said Monday. “It’s our versatility at literally every position that is going to help us (especially on defense). I’m very excited to get to play with all of these guys.”
And the Orlando Magic organization is very excited to see what Suggs and Wagner have in store for “Year two”.
-Anthony & Hampton, kids at heart
Kids will be kids. The Magic have undoubtedly one of the youngest rosters in the NBA. And while the rookies inside Orlando’s locker room may be vertical giants, a few of them are still very much kids at heart.
Two of Orlando’s group of young players, guards Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton, both recently gave back to their communities by participating in youth camps. Anthony hosted a youth clinic in Tavares, FL last week, while Hampton returned to his former high school in Little Elm, Texas to work with young players.
“It was great for me to work that camp, it was something I wanted to do for a long time,” Hampton told me when asked about the camp he recently participated in. “Even when I was in high school, just dreaming about going to the NBA (and being able to give back to my community). A lot of the kids that were at the camp were elementary school (level), middle school, high school. Guys that watched me when I was in high school. It was a surreal moment, and it felt good to be able to give back to the community.”
And for Anthony, his youth clinic wasn’t the only time this offseason he worked closely with kids. Earlier in the summer, Orlando’s third-year guard also paired alongside two young children in a hilarious ride-along commercial for Cars.com.
“I think that’s up to (Cars.com), we will have to see,” Anthony told me, when asked about his future shooting commercials and showing basketball fans his personality. “Me personally, I have four younger siblings. I’ve got an eight year old sister, a nine year old brother, a ten year old brother, and a twenty year old sister. Personally, I love kids. I just did a camp, I did some stuff up in New York (for kids). Whatever I can do to make kids happy, spend time with them (whatever it is). I personally enjoy that. And (about commercials), I think I have a pretty decent personality, it’s always cool to show it off.”
-’Spec’tacular Carter Jr.
Anyone that watched the Orlando Magic closely last year will remember how many times Wendell Carter Jr. had is protective glasses knocked off his face. It was visible to many that the glasses were at times something of an annoyance to Orlando’s starting center. who tried various different options, styles, and brands of ‘specs’ in 2021-22.
“I’ve got a little style going on now,” Carter Jr. told me when I asked him about anything eye-wear related he may have planned for the 2022-23 season. “I’ve got a couple of new pairs of goggles I’m going to wear this year. I kind of just took it on as a fashion statement I’m going to use for the rest of my career. That’s kind of where I’m at with it.”
Carter Jr. suffered an eye-abrasion stemming from a scratch to his left eye which occurred late in the 2020-2021 season.
-New kids on the block?
There was a national report from The Athletic’s Shams Charania that came out last week detailing an expected rule change pertaining to the NBA’s minimum age limit. The NBA and the NBPA will need to agree upon the change before approving the next collective bargaining agreement. Charania reported that it is very likely the NBA will lower their age 19 minimum limit down to 18 years-old. !9 years-old has been the minimum age limit since 2005.
I asked Paolo Banchero, a former top prospect in his class, about the report (and his thoughts regarding the NBA’s age limit being lowered:
At Media Day today, I asked former Duke forward and recent number one overall pick Paolo Banchero about his thoughts regarding the NBA potentially lowering the age limit: https://t.co/euXyuwWlIa pic.twitter.com/vkIPXjxGDH— Aaron Goldstone (@AaronGoldstone) September 26, 2022
Banchero, already a Seattle prep legend who was a sturdy 230 pounds at 18 years-old, was ranked #4 in ESPN’s 2021 Top 100 players.
Third-year Orlando guard R.J. Hampton, who was ranked #5 in ESPN’s 2019 Top 100 players, obviously took a much different route to the NBA than Banchero’s, opting to play in New Zealand after starring as a prep prospect in the state of Texas.
“I think it’s good. Every other sport (a lot of other sports), kids are allowed to go pro at a young age,” Hampton told me Monday when asked about the age limit proposal. “I think if you’re ready for it, you should take that leap.
Hampton shared that if the NBA age limit would have been 18 when he was finishing high school, he would have ‘probably’ opted to enter the draft right away.
“I think it’s good, but I also think people should be smart about what they’re doing (when they do it),” Hampton added. “Not everyone is ready for the NBA at eighteen years old. But if someone is physically ready - I don’t think anyone is every mentally ready for the NBA at that age - but physically ready, then sure. It’s good for them.”
PSA: Chuma Okeke tells the media his last name is actually pronounced “Oh-Kay-Kay”.— Aaron Goldstone (@AaronGoldstone) September 26, 2022
Chuma Okeke has been hearing from teammates of Nigerian descent since back in his AAU days that the way he was pronouncing his last name was incorrect. But it wasn’t until recently that Orlando’s third-year forward had seriously considered how he (and others) pronounced his surname.
Okeke told media members Monday afternoon that the correct pronunciation of his last name is actually ‘Oh-Kay-Kay’ (not ‘oh-kee-kee’).
“I’ve met a lot of Nigerians, and just a lot of people from Africa,” Okeke said. “(They) just be telling me, ‘no, no’. This is how you pronounce your name.”
Okeke’s father, Chuka, is from Nigeria.
Some good news on the injury front came Monday afternoon from Orlando big man Moritz Wagner. Wagner suffered an ankle injury in early August that forced him to miss EuroBasket 2022.
“I feel great,” Wagner said Monday. “It was frustrating that I couldn’t do that, that I couldn’t play. Because it means a lot to me, and I had been looking forward to that for a long time.”
Last summer, Wagner served as a centerpiece for the German national team as they qualified for the 2020/2021 Olympic Games. This summer, due to the sprained ankle, the older Wagner brother missed an opportunity to play alongside his younger brother Franz.
“It was a frustrating couple of weeks, but the good news is that I’m (physically) ready now,” Wagner said.
Of course, Franz ended up starring for his national team, helping lead Germany to a third place finish at EuroBasket 2022.
This is the second in a two-part series stemming from Orlando Magic Media Day. You can read Part I here.
Aaron Goldstone has been covering the Orlando Magic for Orlando Pinstriped Post since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @AaronGoldstone.