By: David Bernauer
The Orlando Magic sit 3.5 games out of a play-in spot while simultaneously having the fifth best lottery odds. With only 18 games remaining in the season, creeping up towards the play-in tournament, or having a worse enough record to ensure positive lottery odds is paramount. But within those two desired outcomes, there's five things the Magic should be doing to finish the season strong regardless of wins and losses.
1. Paolo Banchero finds his three-point stroke
Paolo Banchero's struggles behind the three-point line have been well documented, dating back to his days at Duke where he shot just 33.8% behind a closer college three-point line. They've also been analyzed by our Fawzan Amer. In February the presumptive Rookie of the Year went an abysmal 1-33 from downtown after shooting at a quasi-respectable 31.5% clip from there to start his career. December was his best month, shooting 33.8%, highlighted by a career high in threes made in a game (6) as part of a two-game sweep of the Celtics. Coincidentally, his career high in threes happens to match All-NBA guard and Three-Point Contest champion Devin Booker's. As of late Banchero's looked better from three, hitting 9 of 24 from deep, one of those misses being a half court shot. The main difference I've seen between Banchero's shot in December versus now, is he seemed to have a little more lift on his shot before, which is similar to how he gets in the midrange over pesky defenders (can we talk about how he ate Matisse Thybulle alive against Portland?). Banchero seems to have gotten more lift on his shot this month, and it will play a key role in maintaining his 37.5% shooting from there in March.
2. Make a decision on Jonathan Isaac's future with the team
On January 23, Jonathan Isaac returned to an NBA court for the fist time in 904 days. He's going to have to wait at least another 200 (or more) days before returning again after the Magic announced Friday he'd miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn left adductor muscle. The team had been uber patient with their defensive superstar, but after yet another injury, is it time to move on from the Minister of Defense? Since being drafted 6th overall in 2016, Isaac has only played 147 of a possible 458 games and counting. For comparison, Franz Wagner has played in 146 of a possible 150 career games. To add, he suffered the adductor injury despite being on a tight minutes restriction and being held out of games for classic load management a-la Kawhi Leonard. My heart says keep him around, but my brain says the team should move on from him. Yes, it's hard to find players of his defensive caliber. But it's also a lot easier to find guys who'll touch the hardwood. The Magic have invested so much time into our longest tenured player. At some point though, it may be wise to cut your losses and open a roster spot. Orlando has done all it can for Isaac.
3. Get Caleb Houstan some playing time
Houstan was drafted with the 32nd pick in last year's draft to little fanfare. A 6-8 forward out of Michigan, he came in a bit raw without any discernible skill aside from three-point shooting, which remains mostly true. His shot diet almost exclusively consists of threes and little dinkers and dumpers around the hoop. What has proven itself though, is a strong effort on defense and willingness to do the simple things like box out and play to his strengths. Much to the chagrin of fans, Houstan has hopped between Orlando and Lakeland like hot oil in a frying pan. As the season draws to a close, it's time for the Magic to give him consistent minutes and see what they have in him. With his quick, effortless release, I can see him developing into one of the premier 3&D players of the 2020's and early 2030's. He just needs the reps.
4. Test out Jalen Suggs in the starting lineup
Gary Harris has been the starting two-guard when healthy, and he's done great in the role. He'd be sitting 16th in league three-point percentage had he played enough games to qualify. Harris is great and all, but he's not likely to be future of this team with so many youngin's on the roster; he's the second oldest player on the team. Enter Jalen Suggs. A former sleepover buddy of Chet Holmgren, Suggs has faced his own fair share of injuries in a short career, but when available, runs around like a chicken with its head cut off (in a good way). His generic box score numbers may not say so, but like a Draymond Green, Ben Wallace or Dennis Rodman-type, the impact Suggs has goes beyond the boxscore. Among combo guards, he ranks in the 90th percentile in block percentage, 91st percentile in steal percentage, and 92nd percentile in offensive rebound percentage according to Cleaning the Glass. To offensive players, Suggs is Disney World and they are Lake Buena Vista: absolutely enveloped by him. Suggs got the start at shooting guard against Portland and Milwaukee with Harris nursing an injury, so we got a glimmer of this possibility. His heroics off the bench against the team down south let everyone know it's time to begin the Jalen Rashon Suggs experiment.
5. Identify a point guard of the future
The Orlando Magic have a plethora of talent at the guard spots with Markelle Fultz, Cole Anthony and the aforementioned Suggs. Fultz has established himself as the best of the bunch for now, but questions remain his viability as a respected threat from downtown. Anthony hasn't found a permanent role, oscillating between the starting lineup and the bench. Suggs has Marcus Smart-like defensive potential and has shown flashes of the playmaking chops which could make him the point guard of the future, but his 3.2 assists per game this year are a downgrade on his 4.8 from last year. Though not to the same degree, Suggs also shares the three-point limitations Fultz does. RJ Hampton was a casualty of finding the right guard to build around, and these remaining games give Fultz, Anthony and Suggs opportunity to firmly establish themselves as "the guy" at point guard. If they can't, it may be time to start looking elsewhere for a floor general.
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