The Orlando Magic were split into groups during training camp for five-on-five play: the black team consisting of the starters, the white team consisting of the bench, and finally, the green team consisting of the third stringers. This green team featured Anthony Black, Goga Bitadze, Chuma Okeke, Caleb Houstan and Jett Howard. To galvanize the group, Okeke came up with a nickname for the five of them: the Green Goblins. It was then a new, relentless style of play was born.
On Nov. 2, starting point guard Markelle Fultz missed the game due to left knee swelling which would become tendinitis and has played just once since. That same game, moments after Paolo Banchero hit the game-winning layup, starting center Wendell Carter went down with a fractured left hand while grabbing a rebound. In their places, Anthony Black and Goga Bitadze entered the starting lineup. They haven't looked back since.
Since the game against Utah, and before Wendell's return December 20th, the Magic went 13-7 with a franchise-record-tying nine-game win streak sprinkled in for good measure. Much of the credit should go to the forward tandem of Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner as well as head coach Jamahl Mosley. However, Black and Bitadze, who combined for just 15 total minutes before Nov. 2, have now started almost every game since then, and by going "goblin mode" have played beyond any fan's expectations.
Black, the sixth overall pick in the most recent draft, is a lanky 6-foot-7 guard coming out of Arkansas. The expectation was he wouldn't be gifted rotation minutes from the get-go like many recent Magic rookies have. President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman hinted at this in June.
"We're getting to a place where it becomes, you know, rookies have to earn their time," Weltman said during an introductory press conference for rookies Black and Howard.
While Black was forced into this role, his play in the absence of Fultz certainly has earned him playing time once the latter returns. The box score numbers won't tell you that. In fact, they might indicate he shouldn't play at all. But Black's not a guy who's going to put up flashy stat lines or "wow" you with a miraculous play seen the world over on social media. It's little things he does: the intensity with which he plays defense, being able to cut at just the right moment to find himself open under the hoop, getting out and finishing in transition when given the chance and letting the game come to him. You'll rarely see him force plays which aren't there. They all show a Norman Osborn-level of intelligence you don't see out of most 19-year-old players.
While he's done an admirable job holding the reins, Black isn't quite yet ready to be a starting point guard in the NBA. The experience has been a trial by fire of sorts for him, but any exposure is good exposure early in his career. "I'm definitely starting to feel more comfortable and starting to figure out my spots and different stuff like that," Black said of his season a quarter of the way through.
Most impressive is the hard work he's put in to get to where he is now, and to get to where he wants to be. Being a star receiver in high school, Black didn't fully commit to basketball until his senior season, and even then, only played 15 games his senior year due to eligibility issues before a full year at Arkansas. The fact he's as good as he is now with so little experience is amazing enough. What should intrigue fans most is how he always seems to be staying after practices to work on his game. Clips of him staying late circuclate more than similar clips of anyone else on the roster. In these videos, you can often find him practicing his jumper, a weakness coming into the season. Last Friday in Boston, he launched a career-high three pumpkin bombs through the net.
Admittedly, Goga Bitadze did not know the Green Goblins moniker was a Spider-Man reference. What he does know is how to fill his role within the starting lineup. Much in the same mold as Black, Goga Bitadze will not have eyes bulging out of heads when they take a peek at his box score numbers, and he's more than content to let the stars get their shine. Coming into the NBA, Goga Bitadze was hypothetically a three-point shooting big man who could protect the rim. For most of his career, he's got about as much attention as he did sitting next to Zion Williamson before the draft. While the outside stroke hasn't come around, the shot blocking has. As of this writing, the Republic of Georgia native is tied for 12th in the NBA for blocks per game with Evan Mobley (1.7bpg), and ahead of celebrated swatters such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Ivica Zubac, Mitchell Robinson and Jarrett Allen.
"I have to block shots, get rebounds, run the floor," Bitadze said to Dante Marchitelli, Brian Hill and Nick Anderson, following Orlando's home win over Detroit on Dec. 8. "It's what I'm bringing to the table right now for this team. It's been really valuable, really huge for this team helping us get wins and I just gotta keep doing that."
One thing Bitadze does need to work on is putting together consistent performances. Some nights he'll provide double-digit points, superhuman strength on the boards and will glide in for multiple blocks like he did against Cleveland and Detroit. On other nights, he's liable to make one, two, or no field goals at all like he did against Washington, Brooklyn or Chicago. Still, he's played in less career games than Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton or Tyrese Maxey, all of whom were drafted a year after Bitadze was selected 18th overall by the Indiana Pacers. The consistency will come with time.
Black and Bitadze's underdog story may be coming to an end soon. Carter is set to return against Miami, likely putting an end to Bitadze's minutes. Fultz's return is looming too but appears less iminent. The decision to keep Black and Bitadze in the lineup once Fultz and Carter return will be up to Coach Mosley, and whether they stay in the rotation or not, these Green Goblins have played an instrumental role in how the Magic's 35th anniversary season will play out.
"We did our job, man, Green Goblins, just dominating," Bitadze said. "I don't think anyone is better than [the] Green Goblins in this league. Shoutout to Green Goblins."
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