By: Ryan Brock
The excitement is palpable as the Magic head into the upcoming NBA season. Let’s examine the most important questions for this Magic team as opening night approaches.
All stats come from Cleaning The Glass, unless stated otherwise.
1. Can the Magic finish the season as a top 12 defense?
If this young Magic team has any aspiration of competing for a play-in spot, they’re going to have to consistently show up on the defensive side of the ball. The Magic made immense strides in this department post all-star break last season, and they’ll need to carry over that momentum if they plan to take a significant jump this year. With young, versatile defenders all over the court, a top 12 finish isn’t out of the question, and typically, teams with a top 12 defense are right in the thick of the playoff race come the final months of the season.
The Magic finished 17th in Defensive Rating last season, surrendering 113 points per 100 possessions. But if you look at how the team performed after the all-star break, the Magic surged up the rankings all the way to 6th in the league. During that span, Orlando also improved their defensive eFG%, going from 22nd (53.6) in the league to 8th (53.1). On top of that, they boosted their ranking in opponents Free Throw Rate and Offensive Rebounding %, going from 22nd to 14th and 17th to 2nd in those respective categories. The numbers suggest the Magic are trending up defensively, as Jamahl Mosley and this young Magic squad are starting to form a cohesive identity that can keep them competing in a tough Eastern Conference.
This team has a lot of size, a lot of length, and a lot of youth. That should make it difficult on opponents to get into the paint and finish at the rim, where teams shot only 64.5% last season, placing the Magic 8th in the league for shots defended at the basket. Adding Paolo Banchero to the line-up may give some cause for concern defensively, but he’s already shown that the defensive worries that were aimed at him during the pre-draft process may have been a bit overblown. Of course, the x-factor here is Jonathan Isaac, who would give this Magic team a potential DPOY type defender and possible game changer for their overall defensive potential.
2. Will the Magic finally crack the top 20 on offense?
It would be understatement to say the Magic have struggled mightily on offense since the day Dwight Howard left. As documented quite frequently by the national media, the Magic haven’t finished in the top 20 of league offensive rating in a decade, a streak they hope to finally extinguish after the drafting of 6’10, 250lb Paolo Banchero. The number one overall pick in this year's draft gives the Magic something they haven’t had since the days of T-Mac; A bonafide alpha, number one option and go-to scorer.
Paolo, along with his front-court mates Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr., give the Magic a healthy trio of playmaking giants that should wreak havoc on opposing defenses for years to come.
Here’s a taste of what to expect this season.
Sprinkle in a healthy Markelle Fultz and the Magic should have one the better passing teams in the league this year. So what would be the concern? Shooting, of course. An area that has plagued this team for what seems like forever is still a worrisome factor for a team that finished 27th in the league last season from beyond the arc at 33.6%. The Magic will need to see some of their key players take a shooting leap this season, as improvements from players like Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, and the aforementioned WCJ would go a long way in breaking this dismal offensive streak for the Magic.
3. Will the Magic have an All-Star?
This may seem far-fetched, but I believe this team has two players that could viably contend for all-star spots this season. Wendell Carter Jr. and Franz Wagner were easily the Magic’s two best players over the course of last season, and there’s no reason both shouldn’t take another step forward this year. They rarely get the credit they deserve from anyone outside the fanbase, but with the drafting of Paolo, more people are starting to take notice of the talent Orlando already possessed prior to his selection.
An impressive Eurobasket run finally put Franz on the map this summer. Now, people are beginning to realize what Magic fans already knew; Franz Wagner is really freaking good at basketball. Yes, he earned recognition by being selected to First Team All-Rookie last season, but the gap in which he’s talked about compared to other young players in his draft class such as Scottie Barnes, Jalen Green, and Josh Giddey is far, far too wide.
If preseason is any indication, the ball will be in Wagner’s hands a lot this season, as “Point Franz'' looks like it could be a consistent part of the game plan for a Magic team that may shift any guard not named Markelle Fultz as primarily off-ball players. If he can remain efficient in conjunction with his added usage, Franz could lead the team in scoring and make his case a back-up wing selection in the East.
Especially if he keeps doing things like this.
As good as Franz can be this season, perhaps the better case to garner some all-star buzz rests with Wendell, who seems to show improvements in his game every time he steps on the court. With the talent in the front-court combined with the playmaking chops of Fultz, he should get three or four easy baskets a game just from lobs off pick and roll and drop-offs at the rim.
Ticking up his 3P% will be crucial for him to level up and could result in a potential 20/10 season. Barring health, Joel Embiid seems like the only lock at center in the Eastern Conference. WCJ will be competing with players such as Nikoka Vucevic, Evan Mobely, Jarret Allen, and Bam Adebayo. It’s not crazy to think he could have better numbers than all of those players and make a strong play as a back-up center in this year's all-star game, but people outside Orlando will need to actually be paying attention. If the Magic can stay afloat and win some games in the first half of the season, they could have their first all-star of this new era of Magic basketball.
4. Is the Point Guard of the future on this team?
I’m a huge fan of Markelle Fultz. But this seems like a make or break year for the former number one overall pick. Fultz has only had one healthy season with the Magic since being traded from Philly, and another year on the shelf could sadly be the beginning of the end for his Magic tenure. Markelle is a wizard with the ball in hands and makes everyone on the floor better, but his lack of a shot from three ultimately limits his ceiling. The hope that his shot will ever return to form has all but evaporated, but Fultz still brings tremendous value as the conductor of this Magic offense. He seems primed to have the best year of his career, but once he returns from a fractured toe injury, he’s going to have to prove he can stay on the court.
Cole Anthony would be another candidate to take the reins as the point guard of the future. Headed into his third year, Cole is looking for another hot start to the season. A pre-season injury to Fultz provides ample opportunity for him to stake his claim. Anthony will have to prove he can become a more efficient player if he wants to avoid the “chucker” label. He hit the weight room this summer to gain strength, hoping it will help with his ability to take hits and finish at the rim at a higher rate.
Cole’s 3-ball will have to take a jump, as he’s shot 34 and 36% in his first two seasons, respectively. Inching that number closer to 38-39% would go a long way in helping his case. With all the high-level passing surrounding him, Cole should be the benefactor of wide open looks from beyond the arc this season. He’ll need to show he can consistently knock them down early to lock down his spot in the starting lineup.
Jalen Suggs was supposed to be the 2021 draft pick that changed the franchise, but one year in, concerns are starting to creep in on his potential future as an NBA player. I’m not panicking yet, but it’s impossible to ignore that Suggs had an abysmal rookie year, at least on the offensive side of the ball. He never seemed to be fully healthy, even when he was on the court after returning from thumb and ankle injuries. He posted a historically dismal shooting season, had trouble with his handle, and virtually had the worst turnover percentage in the league at 17.4%.
All that to say, I'm keeping all of my Jalen Suggs stock. He’s going to become one of the best defensive guards in the league and the flashes on the offensive side of the ball have been present in his play. The key for Jalen, much like Markelle, is to stay healthy and gain those invaluable in-game reps. Suggs was lucky to avoid serious injury in the pre-season and will be available to start the season. Jalen will need to show gradual improvement in practically every aspect of his game to solidify his place as a key member of this young Magic core.
5. Will the Magic tank in the second half of the season?
I know. This is not what you want to hear. But the possibility exists, nonetheless. The Magic will certainly start the season trying to win games. In fact, the players on this team will never stop trying to win. But that may not stop the front office from stepping in, calling an audible, and trying to secure higher odds for the number one pick, providing themselves a chance to land the most hyped prospect since Lebron James in French phenom, Victor Wembanyama.
Even this year's consolation prize and projected number two pick, Scoot Henderson from the G-League Ignite, has the potential to become a franchise altering player. With that reality staring them in the face, the fact remains that if things don’t go according to plan, the Magic could pivot toward the latter half of the season. Based on the show that Wembanyama and Scoot recently put on in their one-on-one matchup earlier this month in Vegas, I can’t say I would blame them.
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