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Spark Plug Suggs: Igniting Orlando’s Future

Coming out of high school, Jalen Suggs’ future was anything but clear. He had just been named Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball AND Mr. Football, leaving him with a tough choice as to which love to pursue. Half a decade later, he finds himself as a pivotal piece of an up-and-coming NBA roster.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a logjam develop at the guard position for the Orlando Magic, as they hope to find their backcourt duo of the future. In one of their attempts to find a star, they selected Suggs, the guard out of Gonzaga, with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. After leading the Bulldogs on an electric run that saw them make the National Championship Game, Suggs was considered a lock to be a top four selection. This led to a draft night surprise where he slid to the Magic after the Raptors selected Scottie Barnes. Now, after a few slow years to kick off his career, we’ve started to see just how much of an impact Suggs can have.

Adapting at the Next Level

Once reaching the pros, it took Suggs more time than many expected for him to acclimate to NBA basketball. This left the media not only justifying his minor draft day drop, but saying he should’ve remained on the board even longer. Many outlets even suggested he wouldn't be worthy of a lottery pick if the draft was redone. With Barnes immediately posting impressive results and winning Rookie of the Year, this furthered the narrative that Suggs surely wasn’t top-five material.

He started in 45 of his 48 rookie year appearances, averaging 11.8 points in just over 27 minutes a game. The team struggled as a whole, going 22-60 en route to landing the first overall pick in the 2022 draft. Suggs saw even less playing time in his sophomore year, as he averaged 9.9 points in 23.5 minutes a game. He appeared in 53 games, but only started 19, mostly at the shooting guard position. Despite the underwhelming performances, one thing that never lacked was his heart and hustle. As his third season began, it became clear he used exactly that to transform his game. 

Defensive Anchor

Suggs has been noted as saying he'll work to be one of the best defenders in the entire NBA. His teammates expect the same from him, as he alluded to by saying this:

"Everybody said that that was something they needed from me ... I’ll do anything the boys ask me to do. I’ll try my hardest to get it done."

This came to fruition this season, as he’s become a disruptive force for opposing offenses. Playing with as high of a motor as he does, it comes as no surprise that he consistently makes a defensive impact. It doesn’t always show on the box score, but Suggs has helped the Magic hang on to a top-five defensive rating throughout the majority of the season.

Suggs currently sits in the top 10 in the entire league in steals per game, averaging 1.4. He also ranks in the top 15 amongst guards in blocks per game, averaging just over half a block. As for individual defensive rating, he ranks third on the team, trailing only Jonathan Isaac and Goga Bitazde. It should go without saying that when you stand out defensively on a team that rosters a player known as the “minister of defense,” it’s a good thing. One of his best attributes according to scouts was his elite instincts in defending passing lanes, and it’s carried over to the next level nicely. 

Three Point Improvement

One element of Suggs’ game that has noticeably blossomed is his ability to score, specifically from three-point range. Most scouting reports heading into the draft criticized his jumpshooting, as he shot in the 39th percentile on points per catch-and-shoot shot in the half-court while at Gonzaga. His mechanics were viewed as solid, but the numbers just weren’t there.

Initially, this continued at the NBA level, as he shot a disappointing 21.4% from three in his rookie season. He averaged 4.1 attempts per game, with only 0.9 makes. The catch-and-shoot numbers didn’t look much better, as he logged 22.2% shooting with 0.5 makes on 2.3 attempts per game. We saw an uptick in year two with a smaller sample size, as he averaged 1.2 makes on 3.8 attempts. That’s 32.7% from deep, which was bumped to 34.8% on catch-and-shoot threes.

Now in year three, we’ve seen the leap that most teams would hope for out of a potential starting shooting guard. He’s averaging two makes on 5.2 attempts, at an impressive 38% rate. The catch-and-shoot numbers are even better, as he’s shot over 40% despite doubling his attempts per game. Given how this team has lacked deep-range shooters in recent years, this has been a major boost for Orlando’s offense.

Heart and Soul

You don’t need to be a fly on the wall of the locker room to know that Suggs is the emotional core of this team. His passion for the game has been evident since his college days, and he’s a spark plug for the pace of the game anytime he’s on the floor. He’s also been a vocal leader, and open about just how much it means to be a part of this team. Back in November, he was quoted as saying “I’m so glad that God has placed me in this city with this group. I never take it for granted. I’m so grateful to be here.”

His teammates have been just as clear in stating what exactly he means to this group. After a 10-point win over the Cavaliers on December 11th, Paolo Banchero credited Suggs for the win in his postgame interview by saying “That’s the heart and soul, Jalen … I feel like that’s his game right there that he won for us with his defensive energy.” It may stick out in the NBA, but given his background, it’s no surprise he plays with such a high level of intensity. 

Football Background

After being named Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football in 2019, Suggs had to choose between two of his passions. He was a three-star dual-threat quarterback prospect and was recruited by several top football schools. Suggs even received offers from Georgia, Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan State, and Minnesota. He was versatile on the football field as well, as he also played defensive back in high school.

His outlook for basketball was even better though, ranking top 15 nationally as a five-star prospect. Thus he settled on pursuing his NBA dreams, despite throwing for 25 touchdowns and over 2,000 yards in his final football season. It’s clear now that he made the right choice, and his football background still shines through in the way he plays basketball. 

Unfazed by the Moment

Having played in a variety of huge moments across both sports, Suggs often displays that he remains steadfast no matter what is thrown his way. Sometimes, this is in the face of adversity created by his own poor performances. We’ve seen times where he goes completely cold, but continues to shoot the basketball. It may not seem ideal in the moment, but it’s a sign of a player who knows his capabilities. Rather than shying away from a big shot, he continues to fire away, knowing the difference he can make.

This confidence is backed by countless moments where he pulled through when his team needed him, including the 2021 NCAA Final Four. Tied at the end of overtime against UCLA, Suggs called his own number, banking in a near half-court shot to send Gonzaga to the National Championship Game, keeping their perfect season alive. He had a similar moment in his second year with the Magic, drilling a three with under five seconds left to defeat the Bulls on the road. It’s these clutch moments and many more that let Magic fans know they’re in good hands when Suggs has the ball with the game on the line.

Room for Improvement

As is true for any rising star in the NBA, there is still plenty of room for Suggs to grow moving forward. His limitless confidence is a great attribute in a team leader, but it can push him to take questionable shots. This often comes in the form of a difficult three-pointer, or a tough shot at the rim. These can end in electric moments but also can kill the team's momentum if executed poorly. As a result, his shooting numbers are still less than ideal, especially inside the arc. Patience and higher-quality shots could likely help with that. We’ve already seen his IQ increase as he’s progressed, especially when protecting the ball, as he’s significantly cut his turnover numbers.

Improvement on both sides of the fouling game could also take his play to another level. He averages the most personal fouls out of anyone on the team but rarely gets to the stripe himself. Suggs currently sits at two free throw attempts per game, good enough for sixth on the team, despite averaging the third most minutes. He could also stand to improve on his free throw percentage, as he currently converts at roughly a 75% rate. This isn’t terrible, but more efficiency from a starting shooting guard would be ideal. As he continues to grow accustomed to NBA basketball, these elements will be key to his growth. 

Future Outlook

While the future of the backcourt for the Orlando Magic may still be in question, it seems as though Suggs has cemented his role in one of those two slots. He’s started in every game he’s played this year, and trails only Banchero and Franz Wagner in minutes per game. Suggs has found his rhythm at shooting guard, suggesting that point guard is the position that remains up in the air.

With Cole Anthony settling in as the team’s sixth man, it looks as though the battle for the other backcourt spot is between Markelle Fultz and rookie Anthony Black. No matter who Suggs’ running mate is though, his spot in the starting lineup looks like a guarantee. Banchero and Wagner will likely continue on as the central pieces of the lineup, but Suggs has placed himself just below them on the totem pole.

A Piece of the Puzzle

It’s not always easy for a player to find their perfect role on an NBA team. It’s a trial and error process, where some learn they’re meant to be stars, and others simply provide some juice off the bench. Suggs was the man in every way before reaching the pros, even including a one-loss college career. It took some time to adjust, especially to the unfavorable environment around him, but things are starting to look up for both him and the organization.

It goes without saying that Suggs won’t be the Magic’s main guy on a nightly basis. For the foreseeable future, that will be Banchero and Wagner. This doesn’t make Suggs a non-factor, and it certainly doesn’t make him a bust. He’s developing as Orlando’s third option and provides consistent energy to keep the team going. If he continues to improve as a shooter, he’ll be a key part of this lineup for years to come. For now, he’s beginning to not only meet, but exceed expectations in a place he loves calling home.

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