Passing the season’s mid-point sees the Magic almost perfectly balanced between two outcomes, the juiciest of lottery odds only a couple of games behind them in the standings while the lure of the Play-In Tournament sits only a couple of games ahead.
While the team’s final destination remains unknown for now, the halfway marker represents a chance for us to draw on what we’ve seen to this point to facilitate predictions about how things will ultimately play out for the Magic.
At the quarter-mark we doled out the NBA’s traditional silverware to our pinstriped pals, figuring out who exactly would claim each of the various trophies if they were awarded exclusively to players in Orlando.
This time round we’re again handing out awards, but instead of presenting them in recognition of the job already done we’re going to use them to project forward. Channeling the love for high school yearbooks that resides in all of us (right?), let’s whip up some Orlando Magic nominations for those ‘most likely to…’ across the remaining 2022/23 schedule.
Most likely to make the All-Star Game
Amidst the hype of his historically impressive early-season scoring, Paolo Banchero became a trendy name to sneak into the All-Star discourse. And with good reason! It became apparent incredibly quickly that he was a 20+ point scoring threat on a nightly basis, with a deadly first-step, magnetic foul-drawing capacity, and a developing bag of tricks in the lane. There’s been the occasional swoon since, but Banchero’s rookie campaign remains electric. He’s going to be very good in this league for a very long time.
As strong as the rookie’s play has been through the campaign’s first half, he may actually not even have the most compelling All-Star case on his own team. Second year forward Franz Wagner has been similarly dynamite, particularly after overcoming a slightly sluggish start to the season. Like Banchero he has settled as a 20 point per-night threat, drawing on an advanced ability to deconstruct an opposing defense to generate scoring chances for both himself and his teammates. Wagner has also improved his efficiency in year number two, with elite finishing touch in the driving game fueling his emergence as Fourth Quarter Franz, a bona fide closer trusted to guide the Magic through any contest’s final frame. Much like his rookie partner in the frontcourt, he is also going to be very good in this league for a very long time.
Unfortunately, the biggest roadblock between the pinstriped pair and this year’s mid-season showcase is the absurd depth of talent currently on display across the NBA. In the Eastern Conference there are about 10 automatic selections to the All-Star team, with a long list of deserving players behind them hoping to snag one of the final two spots. Just look at the list of those with varying degrees of claims to the frontcourt: Giannis, KD, Embiid, Tatum, Siakam, Butler, Randle, Porzingis, Adebayo, Turner … both Franz and Paolo belong in there somewhere, but how many are they realistically ahead of?
The Magic are a team on the rise. Exactly how bright that future is remains to be seen, but it’s safe to assume that Wagner and Banchero will be two of the key drivers of any success the franchise experiences. When that happens, expect both to eventually turn their growing cases for greater recognition into well-deserved All-Star nods.
Most likely to be considered for an end-of-season (non-rookie) award
Barring either a catastrophe or the divine intervention of Dr. James Naismith being spiritually resurrected in the body of another candidate, this year’s Rookie of the Year award is eventually going to end up residing in Paolo Banchero’s trophy cabinet. But if one decides not to unpack that largely forgone conclusion and instead evaluate Orlando’s chances of claiming other silverware, an interesting possibility emerges. Specifically, that this could once again be the year that the race to be recognised as the league’s Most Improved receives an injection of pinstripes.
Bol Bol has been a revelation for the Magic through the first half of the season, a physically and athletically unique player with a penchant for routinely unleashing unicorn-like sequences on an unsuspecting NBA universe. It’s no longer a jaw-dropping shock to see him uncork a move that has rarely, if ever, been seen on the hardwood before, whether that’s a loping coast-to-coast attack that seemingly defies the laws of physics with its step count, or a 7-2 killer crossover out of an isolation setup that is punctuated by the softest of drops into the bucket. He’s making such moves feel commonplace!
In his most sublime moments, making sense of what Bol is achieving on a basketball court feels like trying to untangle a paradox. He leads the Magic in blocks per game while also being one of the team’s most accurate outside shooters. He barely misses at the hoop but is also incredibly comfortable for a player of his size when dribbling on the perimeter. He has frequently been asked to defend on the perimeter but still sports the side’s best defensive rebounding percentage. Zero in on certain highlights and Bol’s play seems to completely upend what was thought to be collectively known about the sport.
There’s also the fact that, relatively speaking, Bol’s statistical contributions are through the roof in season number four. He’s gone from being a part-time player in Denver to a consistent starter in Orlando, pushing his per-game stats to 12.0 points on 58.8% shooting from the floor, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks in 26.1 minutes each night. His previous highs? 5.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.9 blocks, with just nine games total in which he even logged double-figure minutes. He’s gone from being an end-of-the-bench afterthought to an eye-popping, above-average contributor, all in the space of 37 games.
There are currently a number of strong candidates for this award across the league. However, if Bol can continue his impressive trajectory down the stretch, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him stride his way into the conversation for Most Improved.
Most likely to have a bandwagon constructed in their honor
The nomination that makes sense here is less about acknowledging who is already on their way to a level of stardom – for players like Franz and Paolo the cheer squad assembled long ago! – but instead figuring out who has the best chance to shift some perceptions about their future path in this league. An examination of the Magic’s roster reveals a likely candidate for this sort of optimism-driven, late-season hype – Jalen Suggs.
Limited by injury to just 461 minutes so far, Suggs is recently returned and immediately reminding everyone of the intangibles that factored so favorably into his pre-draft projections. Even as he eases back into the rotation he’s showing little regard for his own physical wellbeing, an almost manic level of intensity, effort and hustle evident in his play at both ends of the court. He’s tenacious on defense, a seemingly coiled spring just waiting to pounce on errant passes, loose dribbles or weak shot attempts. On offense he’s a ball of energy, particularly when he’s provided the opportunity to hunt out a transition chance.
Assuming Suggs can find a way to successfully channel these traits into winning basketball plays with greater frequency, then there’s no reason to believe that he can’t take a step towards fulfilling a greater chunk of the potential that his draft slot promised. At the moment his sophomore and freshman numbers are almost interchangeable, although one doesn’t have to squint too much to see the outline of improvement. His finishing is a little better. His outside shooting is a little more accurate. He’s nudged the frequency of both his assists and disruption stats in the right direction.
The combination of draft pedigree and highlight moments means that it’s easy enough to envision a scenario in which Suggs begins to evolve into the best version of himself. If there’s any sense of that coming together in the season’s back half, expect the Suggs bandwagon to begin chugging along with newfound momentum.
Most likely to suffer a blow in the court of public opinion
It may seem a little unfair to single anyone out in this manner, particularly given the manner in which the season’s back half figures to be influenced by the rebuilding context and the youthful nature of the roster. Still, if there’s any player in pinstripes who might see their approval rating drop some as we careen towards the finish line, it may just be Cole Anthony.
It’s already been a campaign of fluctuating fortunes for the Magic’s third-year point guard, with injury interruptions, a shift from the starting unit to the bench, and some uneven individual performances sprinkled across the first forty-two games. On some nights he’s been the team’s most impactful player. On others, however – like his 0 for 9, 1 assist clunker against the Bucks or the 0 for 8 (with 2 assists) donut against the Grizzlies – he’s been essentially invisible.
At this particular juncture, Anthony’s play also happens to be trending in the wrong direction. He’s scored in double-figures only once in his last seven games, something that happened just four times total prior to this fallow stretch. The shooting splits emphasize just how wonky his stroke has been during the recent slide, with his overall rate of 31.1% (19-61) from the floor breaking down further to 43.6% inside the arc and an arctic 9.1% (2-22) from deep – all numbers which have sunk well-below his season averages.
Also fair to worry about is the general notion of fit. We know that Cole conceives of himself as a starter, and with the Magic being all-in on jumbo playmakers his preference to hunt his own shot makes for an awkward fit. He’s got some of the skill set necessary to line-up alongside such players, but his preferred style of point guard play doesn’t naturally align. He also has to contend for backcourt opportunities with the ever-more-comfortable Markelle Fultz and the uber-intense Jalen Suggs, a fact which threatens to limit his court time to some degree; it’s no surprise that his minutes have been on a slight decline since the season’s opening week.
Anthony has taken major developmental strides since joining the Magic, and he figures to have a significant role in this league for many years to come. However, there are enough circumstances beginning to coalesce in Central Florida that could depress his production in what remains of Orlando’s season. If that turns out to be the case, how favorable will the view of him still be when the offseason hits and he becomes extension eligible?
Most likely to turn in their pinstripes
Orlando’s current reality means that it’s reasonable to expect the franchise’s front office to again be an active participant in the looming mid-season trade market. This is a Magic team that is looking to shift to a winning focus soon(ish), with a roster packed in such a way that will necessitate consolidation, and that features some players on deals that have basically been purpose-built to be dealt. As such, we’ll almost certainly be saying goodbye to some of the current troops come February 9.
At the moment it feels like Terrence Ross and RJ Hampton are the most likely candidates to exit at the deadline, with Mo Bamba lurking not too far behind and Gary Harris just keeping an eye on the situation from a distance. The Human Torch is a veteran shooter on an expiring contract, a trio of qualities that ensure all manner of contenders could talk themselves into his value in a prospective deal. For reasons that remain a little unclear Hampton has already been excised from any future plans of the franchise, which means a separation would be mutually beneficial for both team and player. Finally, the fact that both Bamba and Harris have nothing in the way of guaranteed money beyond this season increases the number of scenarios in which it might make sense to move either one or both.
The return in a trade for any of these players would only be minimal for the Magic, the focus more on consolidation and future flexibility than immediate roster improvement. Still, that’s an important step that needs to be taken, and one that seems to align with the current temperature around the league. Although a lot can happen in the space of a month in the NBA, it doesn’t yet appear that any major stars will be on the move at this year’s deadline, so the notion of the Magic even trying to make an all-in move for a ceiling-raising talent right now is very unlikely. The extended core will remain in pinstriped place a little while longer yet.
Instead, the Magic are most likely to simply tinker around the edges of the roster, adjusting the pieces and their positioning to better suit the long-term vision.