With the working week winding to an end, let’s check the pulse of all things pinstriped.
Who won the week that was?
A few days ago the NBA formally acknowledged the on-court contributions of Orlando’s Paolo Banchero, announcing the dynamic forward as the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December. It was an award well-deserved, with the freshman continuing to impress with his scoring exploits, evidenced most recently in the trio of 20+ point games he posted last week. He was again the offensive focal point for an oft understrength Magic side, creating his own shots with ball in hand, getting back to the free-throw line with dominant regularity, tying a career-best with 7 assists against OKC, and punctuating it all with a 20 point third-quarter explosion against the Grizzlies.
Banchero’s total of 19.1 points per-game in December was actually a little down on his season average of 21.0, and he’s also been more impressive in the couple of recent January dates than he was for the majority of December. However, his claiming of this most recent rookie nod – and his recognition here in this very space! – speaks to the overall quality of the campaign that he’s putting together, and sets right the fact that he was passed over in the opening month (likely because of his seven-game absence). There’s a reason that he is comfortably, and rightfully, the frontrunner for the end of year award for first-year players.
Perhaps the more relevant question now, however, is whether Paolo can also muscle his way into the All-Star debate.
The upcoming slate
This week’s schedule: at Warriors (Sat); at Kings (Mon); at Blazers (Tues)
It’s the start of a five-game road trip for the Magic, with showdowns against the Western Conference sides currently ranked ninth, fifth and seventh. It makes for a daunting trio of games, particularly when you factor in the defending champion status and impressive home record – 17 and 3! – of what is theoretically the most forgiving matchup on the schedule. Adding to the degree of difficulty is the fact that the games against both Golden State and Sacramento fall in the midst of lengthy homestands for each of those opponents, which means they’ll be rested and rehearsed when the pinstripes come to town. The good news for the Magic, however, is that they continue to inch closer towards full strength – the suspended cavalry have returned, Jalen Suggs is back in the lineup, Bol Bol should clear protocols soon, and even JI (!) is back and practicing with the squad. If you believe in this current roster, you’re about to have evidence of just how well you placed your faith.
The crystal ball says …
I like the Magic to topple Portland, even if they’ll struggle to stop the Kings from lighting the beam and the Warriors from rectifying the wrongs of their last start.
It’s time to keep an eye on …
Jonathan Isaac. The nature of Isaac’s injury recovery and rehabilitation has been such that getting excited about any updates – when such updates can even be extracted from the team – has been a bit of a foolish exercise. It’s now been more than two years since the stretchy forward has suited up for a game, and every time there’s been a reasonable expectation of progress since, that marker has passed with nary a skerrick of information to explain the current reality. Is he getting better? Has there been a setback? Should we be bracing for medical retirement?!
Well, the latest update is one that seems to have a little more metaphorical meat on the figurative bone. Word out of Orlando is that Isaac has been “full-go” at practice recently, a descriptor that likely means genuine five-on-five action for the first time since he first received clearance to train without restriction. It’s a circumstance which points to a return on the near horizon; certainly not this week, but definitely in an eventual capacity that should provide plenty of opportunity for meaningful evaluation before the season is done and dusted.
It’s been an incredibly difficult and exhausting road back to basketball for Isaac since his awful injury. However, for the first time in a long time the pinstriped faithful can once again begin thinking about him as an on-court contributor as opposed to an unfortunate casualty of the game. When he finally does take that last step back onto the court it will be a well-earned moment of celebration.
Three from downtown
- The Magic have lost the battle of three-point accuracy in each of their last six losses, a streak which continues a seemingly interminable trend for the franchise. On the season, Orlando is converting 38.7% of their looks from long range during victories, a rate which would rank third if carried over the whole season. In losses? That number plummets to 31.8%, a mark worse than the currently dead-last Hornets. The Magic kingdom remains in desperate need of shooters.
- In the game against the Grizzlies, Franz Wagner didn’t have a single shot attempt in either the first or third quarters. Considering his overall importance to the team, that doesn’t seem like an ideal recipe for success.
- The going continues to be tough for RJ Hampton at the moment, who the day after his best performance of the season was again assigned to the Magic’s G League affiliate. The third year guard is clearly out of both the team’s preferred rotation and future plans, but it’s good to see that he’s keeping himself ready to contribute should the circumstances call for it.
A figure for thought
3. The total number of rookies in NBA history to rack up more than 600 points, 200 rebounds and 120 assists in their first 31 games – Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Paolo Banchero.