Fresh off their most successful season since the Dwight Howard era—albeit a 42-40 record, 7th-place finish and five-game first-round ouster—the Orlando Magic are largely running back the same group.
They re-signed All-Star center Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross and signed forward Al-Farouq Aminu in free agency, but they otherwise valued continuity after their first playoff berth in seven years.
Markelle Fultz, the 2017 No. 1 overall pick, may be the deciding factor in whether they can build upon that progress or get caught in the NBA’s dreaded middle ground this coming season.
Fultz infamously played only 33 games for the Philadelphia 76ers over his first season-and-a-half in the league, as a mysterious shoulder ailment sent his shooting stroke into disarray. The Sixers, feeling the urgency to win now with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, could no longer afford to wait for Fultz to regain the form that made him the top overall prospect in his draft class.
The Magic wisely bought low on Fultz at the February trade deadline, sending Jonathon Simmons, a 2019 second-round pick and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s top-20-protected 2020 first-round pick to the Sixers. It was a low-risk, high-upside gamble, even though Fultz never suited up for them last season as he continued to recover from his shoulder issue.
After months of relative radio silence, Fultz is now about to be back in the spotlight.
The early reviews should have Magic fans feeling giddy.
“He did a good job,” head coach Steve Clifford told reporters after the first day of training camp (via Mike Cali of Orlando Pinstriped Post). “His defense was very good. He had a lot of good possessions. He’s hard to keep out of the paint. He’s so good with the ball. He doesn’t need a lot of room. And he’s very, very clever. … The more you watch him, he knows basketball. He has high IQ.”
“I thought he looked fantastic,” Magic forward Jonathan Isaac added (via Cali). “Got a couple of pull-up jumpers to go. But just outside of that, I think his ability to get into the lane, his ability to just be crafty, and already able to manipulate the offense in the way that he wants and when, he is just learning it. I definitely saw that, and I enjoyed being on his team.”
“He played very well,” Vucevic said (via Cali). “He looked comfortable out there. He was pushing the ball, getting into the paint, scoring. Hit a couple of mid-range jumpers. Making plays. He’s a guy that can really make plays for himself and others. Big body. Get to the hoop. He has a size advantage over many guards. He can definitely be great for us.”
Notably absent in those comments is any mention of Fultz’s three-point stroke, which is the biggest question hanging over him heading into the season. However, he doesn’t need to transform into Stephen Curry overnight to make an impact for the Magic this season.
As Vucevic noted, the 6’4″ Fultz will have a built-in advantage over smaller floor generals such as Chris Paul, Trae Young and Kemba Walker. Even if he isn’t a 40-plus percent three-point shooter right away, he can assert himself as a high-pressure defender and an off-the-dribble shot-creator on offense.
The Magic ranked 22nd in offensive efficiency last season and struggled to generate easy looks in the playoffs after their Game 1 upset win over the eventual champion Toronto Raptors. Starting point guard D.J. Augustin had a turn-the-clock-back 25-point night on 9-of-13 shooting in Game 1, but he mustered only 39 points on 11-of-28 shooting over the ensuing four games.
Most importantly, while a journeyman veteran (and mostly career backup) like Augustin did a fine job of getting the team into its offense on a nightly basis, he possesses very little ability to actually create it for himself or others. The lack of penetration ability at the point guard level often kept the Magic dependent on Vucevic-built actions and/or coach Steve Clifford’s setpieces.
Both are fine to an extent, but having the ability to create on the fly in a pinch is what keeps good offenses from stagnating down the stretch.
Orlando was also dead last in both free throws (15.0) and free-throw attempts (19.2) per game last season, as no Magic player averaged more than Aaron Gordon’s 3.2 freebies. Houston Rockets All-Star guard James Harden almost single-handedly outpaced Orlando from the charity stripe (11.0 per game).
Fultz’s shoulder issue also affected his free-throw stroke in Philly, so his willingness to drive and draw contact will be heavily scrutinized early in the season. He might not bomb away from deep right away, but he could add significant value to the Magic by being reliable from the charity stripe.
Just getting into the lane and making things happen will be so important in creating open looks for teammates, especially high-fliers like Gordon, Isaac and Mo Bamba from the short corners and on rolls—not to mention the ranged shooting of Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Vucevic.
Early-career Derrick Rose may be the template for Fultz to emulate as he regains confidence in his long-range shooting stroke.
Rose was never a strong three-point shooter, but he averaged 6.9 free-throw attempts per game during his MVP campaign in 2010-11, as he routinely attacked the basket with reckless abandon and used his 6’3″ frame to muscle his way for close-range shots or to draw fouls.
During Rose’s first two seasons in Chicago, he attempted 34.4 percent of his field-goal attempts from between 16 feet away from the basket and the free-throw line (aka, the dreaded long two-pointer) and drilled 44.0 percent of such shots. Over the following two seasons, he reallocated his shot selection by attempting nearly a quarter of his shots behind the three-point line and only 18.5 percent from 16 feet and beyond.
Although long twos have become frowned upon given the low expected points per shot relative to layups and three-pointers, the mid-range game was one of Fultz’s strengths coming out of college. The mental benefit to seeing jumpers go through the hoop may be worth the price of taking them from an inefficient area, particularly if he isn’t ready to test his three-point range just yet.
In the meantime, Fultz can give the Magic a much-needed offensive boost by serving as the aforementioned on-ball creator who can drive-and-kick to open teammates.
The Magic figure to build their identity around defense this year after finishing eighth in defensive rating last season. But their next step will revolve around the ability to actually keep pace on offense.
Even if Vucevic takes a step back following his career year in 2018-19, young players such as Gordon, Isaac and Bamba should offset that with their respective internal improvement.
Regardless of what (if anything) the Magic get out of Fultz this season, they should have the inside track for one of the Eastern Conference’s final few playoff seeds. Returning largely the same rotation should allow them to hit the ground running, particularly considering how many other teams made radical personnel changes during the offseason.
While it may take time for rival teams to adjust to new rotation members, Orlando could go on an early-season tear in large part because of its continuity from last year.
Once the playoffs roll around, though, the Magic will need an on-ball spark to prevent the cold spells their offense experienced against the Raptors last year. And no player currently on the roster is better suited to address that need than Fultz. If his shoulder issue is finally behind him and he begins to resemble the player who convinced the Sixers to trade up ahead of the 2017 draft, he could make Orlando a dark-horse in the East.
Maybe not as a “contender” yet, but certainly one that has the upside to build on something special.