After two straight trips to the NBA playoffs, each of which ended in a quick first-round exit, the Orlando Magic started off with four straight wins last season and looked like they would be in the postseason mix again. Instead, they soon collapsed and later made the decision to tear everything down and go full rebuilding mode.
The Magic traded Aaron Gordon to the Denver Nuggets, Nikola Vucevic to the Chicago Bulls and Evan Fournier to the Boston Celtics. In return they acquired a number of interesting young players and picks, including R.J. Hampton, Wendell Carter Jr. and the pick that they used to take Franz Wagner in this year’s draft.
As a result they now have 14 former first-round picks and one of the youngest rosters in the league with an average age of 25.1 years. There’s no question there’s plenty of talent, but at the same time there’s plenty of questions. So many of these young players — Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Wendell Carter Jr. and Chuma Okeke — have been injury prone to start their careers, and the roster is not well balanced.
The one thing that does seem certain is the Magic are not going to be very good in 2021-22. Other than that, we’ll see. Here’s a look at the Magic’s roster along with four reasons to pay attention to Orlando this season.
Orlando Magic roster
Guards: Cole Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Jeff Dowtin, Markelle Fultz, Hassani Gravett, R.J. Hampton, Gary Harris, E’Twaun Moore, Terrence Ross, Admiral Schofield, Jalen Suggs, Sindarius Thornwell
Forwards: Ignas Brazdeikis, James Ennis, Jonathan Isaac, Chuma Okeke, Franz Wagner
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1. Suggs’ chance to prove he’s among best in rookie class
Heading into the 2021 NBA Draft, the top four picks seemed pretty much locked in. And then the Toronto Raptors decided to swerve the consensus and took Scottie Barnes with the No. 4 overall pick. That was great news for the Magic, who immediately took advantage of their unexpected opportunity to take Jalen Suggs.
Most casual fans will be familiar with Suggs because of his incredible half-court buzzer-beater in the Final Four to beat UCLA earlier this year. When he wasn’t hitting clutch shots, Suggs developed a reputation for being one of the most well-rounded guards in the country. At various points throughout the year, he was expected to go as high as No. 2 overall, so for the Magic to end up with him was an absolute steal.
While he is capable of filling it up when he needs to, as he showed at times during Summer League, Suggs is not a score-first guard. Cliche as it may sound, he truly is a floor general. He’s patient, has a great feel for the game and loves to get his teammates involved with splendid playmaking abilities. On the defensive end, Suggs should be able to guard multiple positions and projects as an above-average defender.
But while Suggs has plenty of skills, his leadership is perhaps his most important quality. On a young, rebuilding team without an identity, Suggs has the talent and desire to take command. Though he doesn’t have the buzz or name recognition of a Cade Cunningham or Jalen Green, Suggs will be able to contribute right away and has a chance to be one of the best players in this class.
2. Isaac’s anticipated return from knee injury
The last time we saw Jonathan Isaac, he was being taken off the court in a wheelchair after suffering a devastating knee injury in the bubble in August of 2020. Now, more than a year after he needed surgery to repair a torn ACL and meniscus, Isaac is making good progress on his recovery and should return to action soon.
Exactly when that will be remains unknown. Earlier this month, David Aldridge of The Athletic reported that Isaac will not be ready for full participation when training camp opens up, though he will be able to take part in some drills. In any case, it’s clear that Isaac will be on the court again for the Magic this season, and that’s great news for him and everyone in Orlando.
Isaac is one of the most fascinating players in the league because of his rare combination of size, athleticism and defensive instincts. Though he was limited to just 34 games in the 2019-20 season due to multiple knee injuries, he averaged 1.6 steals and 2.3 blocks. Though he didn’t play enough games to qualify for the league leaders, those numbers would have been good for fifth in steals and third in blocks.
While stats don’t always tell the truth when it comes to defense, the fact that Isaac would have been the only player in the top five in both categories gives you a pretty good indication of the level he was reaching. With the obvious caveat that we have to see how he responds from this layoff and surgery, Isaac has the tools to be an All-Defensive player.
The offensive side of the ball is more of a work in progress, but Isaac was showing strides before getting hurt. Perhaps most importantly, he was shooting 34 percent from 3-point land that season. If he can hit shots from the perimeter consistently, it will open up so much for both him and the Magic in terms of lineup flexibility.
There are a number of big-name players out with injuries who will be returning at some point this season, and Isaac won’t draw the same level of attention as the likes of Klay Thompson or Jamal Murray. However, he might just be the most interesting player on the way back.
3. Carter’s second shot at fulfilling his potential
The No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Wendell Carter Jr. entered the league with a lot of promise. Unfortunately, injuries have prevented him from really ever getting off the ground. The sheer amount of ailments he’s dealt with is bordering on absurd, and in three season he’s played just 141 games.
His injury history and the chance to acquire Nikola Vucevic convinced the Chicago Bulls to move on last season, and he was dealt to the Magic at the trade deadline. Now, after an abbreviated debut with his new team last season, he’ll get a second shot at making good on his potential.
The good news for Carter and the Magic is that if he can stay healthy, there are definitely some positive signs. In both Chicago and Orlando, coaches have praised his defensive effort, awareness and understanding. Even in just 22 games, he made an impression on former Magic coach Steve Clifford, who noted that the team was able to adjust their defensive coverages mid-game because of Carter. To earn that level of trust as such a young player is quite impressive.
On the offensive side of the ball, Carter is probably never going to be a huge scorer, and he needs to improve his outside shot — something that he said was a priority for him this offseason. But he crashes the offensive glass well — 18th in the league at 2.4 per game last season — and is a very strong passing big man because much like on the defensive end, he has a great feel for the game.
This is a big season for Carter, who is set to hit restricted free agency next summer. After all of his injury problems, he’ll need to convince the Magic — or another team — that he’s worth investing in long term.
4. Okeke’s development after tough stretch of injuries
In the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the Auburn Tigers advanced to the Final Four for the first time in program history. Unfortunately, Chuma Okeke did not get to play on that stage due to a torn ACL he suffered in the Sweet 16. That injury had further consequences, as Okeke dropped out of the lottery, where he was selected No. 16 overall by the Magic, and missed all of what would have been his rookie season.
Though he finally made his NBA debut last season, Okeke was again hampered by injury; a bone bruise in his knee and an ankle problem limited him to just 45 games. When he was able to get on the court, however, there were some encouraging signs, especially toward the end of the season, and he averaged 7.8 points, four rebounds and 2.2 assists, while shooting 34.8 percent from 3-point land.
Because of his injuries and the fact that he plays for the Magic, Okeke is largely overlooked in terms of young prospects. And to some extent, that’s fair. But if he can stay healthy there’s a lot to like about Okeke’s game, and he’s a player people should be keeping an eye on this season.
For one, his teammates and coaches last season took note of his work ethic and feel for the game. That doesn’t guarantee success, but it does give you a good base to build from, especially when you have the skills to go along with it. Okeke has a lot of promise on the defensive end, thanks to his size, strength and versatility. Meanwhile, he knocked down 34.8 percent of his 3-point attempts as a floor-spacing forward.
He may not have star potential, but Okeke has all the tools to become a really solid rotation guy. If you aren’t familiar with him just yet, you probably will be soon.