On January 2nd 2022, the league standings initially make for bleak reading for Magic fans. A 7 and 29 record and a bowling shoe ugly loss to state rivals, Miami, fresh in the mind can dampen the optimism of the most hardcore of fans. Since the play-off series with the Toronto Raptors, it feels like the Magic have been cursed by the Ghost of Christmas past with Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac yet to see court-time in Orlando this season.
However, as frustrating as this season has been at points, putting on the ‘optimistic optics’ shows that that Magic fans across the globe can look forward to brighter times. Below are the five reasons to toast in 2022 with style:
As mentioned, the Magic have been cursed by injuries. As a franchise, this is a familiar story. Penny Hardaway looked every inch the Magic Johnson of the 90s and if playing today would have seen similar adulation as Lamelo Ball and Ja Morant. Meanwhile, the signing of Grant Hill was meant to beckon in a new era in Orlando. Hill was on track to be face of the NBA and one can only rue what a Hill and McGrady pair would have looked like in the City Beautiful.
Currently, eyebrows are raised and online chatter rightly asks when will the Magic see Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz return? Isaac is fast closing in on 18 months out and the return of Fultz would appear to be imminent. With Klay Thompson likely to return before either in Golden State, Magic fans are rightly asking where the pair are and why there are no updates. However, unless there is something nobody knows, the key message is both are slated to return.
Adding Fultz and Isaac to the Magic changes the game in Orlando. Whilst it would be naïve to think either will hit the ground running, Isaac is a potential defensive player of the year and Fultz, prior to injury last year, was flouring as the point-guard in Orlando. There are many games this season when Fultz’s ability to drive and dish has been sorely lacking and oh how we could have used the presence of ‘The Minister of Defence’ for the recent back-to-back against Giannis and his Bucks.
But…the key here…they will both return soon.
For the many of us who sat through the Rob Hennigan rebuild, the scars are still there. Comparisons were often drawn with the also rebuilding Philadelphia Seventy Sixers. Whilst the Sixers landed Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, the Magic experienced bad luck in the lottery. Fans in Orlando waited for the Aaron Gordon breakout that never arrived and saw talented Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Mario Hezonja, amongst others, come and go.
Frustrating? Yes! But this is not Hennigan…
Jeff Weltman and John Hammond arrived with the agenda to clear up the mess and get the Magic back to playoffs. Assisted by Steve Clifford, this occurred. However, with the Magic seemingly stuck in ‘the worst place’ of a lower end playoff team with limited room to move, the front-office, fuelled by injuries, pulled the trigger and shipped out fan favourite Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon. The Magic got back the ever-consistent and still young Wendell Carter Jr, talented RJ Hampton, veteran Gary Harris and draft stock.
Crucially, this is where Hammond and Weltman are to be trusted and where Hennigan was not. Mid-first round picks were turned into Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony. After sitting his rookie year to rehab injury (there’s that word again), Okeke blossomed last season. Missing pre-season damaged Chuma but he seems to be playing his way back to form. Meanwhile, Anthony has been a revelation and is at the front of any future plans whilst being a legitimate name in the hat for Most Improved Player this season.
The 2021 draft brought Jalen Suggs (more on him in a moment) but it is the pick of Franz Wagner that should give the real hope on draft preparation that the Magic do. Nobody expected Suggs to be available at the fifth pick and reports had the Magic leaning towards now Raptors forward Scottie Barnes, only for draft night to swing a surprise which will likely benefit both teams.
Magic fans were expecting a guard at eight and the Wagner pick did not generate the enthusiasm that Suggs did. However, Wagner has been a revelation in Orlando and the pre-draft talk of being a ‘Robert Covington’ is long gone. Wagner has shown himself capable of scoring, creating, slashing, defending and even playing the point guard. Not even at the halfway mark of his rookie season, Wagner is looking like the player Magic fans hoped Aaron Gordon would become. Any doubters of Franz should check out the recent back-to-back with Milwaukee!
With a likely lottery pick coming this year, who would bet against Hammond and Weltman? Not me!
Suggs came to Orlando with high expectation of being the franchise game changer. Currently injured (this could be a drinking game) with a fractured thumb, Suggs has been unfairly maligned in some areas.
Magic analyst and legend, Jeff Turner, drew the recent comparison between Suggs and Darius Garland. Eerily, their stats and criticisms are similar. However, Garland now is being spoken of as a dark horse for the All-Star game. Would you bet against Suggs? That might not be wise. Firstly, if Suggs looks and sounds the part, it’s probably because he is. Suggs is a student of the game. Cole Anthony came back ‘levelled up’ following injury last season, using his time out to observe and learn. Suggs has been doing the same.
Secondly, whilst the offensive side of the game has not always clicked for Suggs, point guard is notoriously a nightmare position for a rookie. Add in that the odds stack further against you when you factor in young backcourt and then add young team with a new coach, it is a learning process for the Gonzaga product. Ask Garland and further back in NBA history, Chauncey Billups, how this plays out.
Garland was paired with Collin Sexton on a Cleveland Cavaliers team and Billups and Ron Mercer had the hopes of Boston on their shoulders. Neither dazzled initially but Garland is surging now and whilst it took some moves for Billups, look at how it ended for Billups and come back to me.
Finally, defence. If you watched Magic games this season, Suggs is already elite in this category. Comparisons of Marcus Smart floor and Jrue Holiday can easily be seen. Never a popular word, especially for a long-suffering fandom…but patience will likely pay-off by investing in this blue-chip prospect.
Orlando are one of the youngest teams in the NBA. Suggs and Wagner are the rookies. But there’s been strong development in Cole Anthony, making a case for Most Improved and Wendell Carter Jr, who’s 3-point game has flourished this season.
Add to this Chuma Okeke, who seemingly has some of the fastest hands in basketball and the explosive RJ Hampton, who plays the game at the speed of the Road Runner. If Chuma can get healthy and RJ can slow down slightly, both are legitimate prospects to add to the expanding young core.
The forgotten man here is Mo Bamba. However, Bamba got his first real shot this season and has displayed real potential. Bamba is somewhat of a unicorn, arms which resemble Stretch Armstrong and swat shots with the best of them the ability to shoot at range whilst averaging a double-double. Bamba may be in his fourth season but in terms of games, he is not. Time is needed for the former Longhorn but it is still on his side. If Suggs is a blue-chip stock, think of Bamba as a big name crypto-currency. If this busts, it happens but don’t give up yet and the rewards could be eye-watering.
This was always going to be a development season. If the Magic do make the play-in, superb. Youth has blossomed and you would presume Isaac and Fultz have hit the ground running. However, if we end up with a high lottery pick, it is in the hands of Hammond and Weltman to make the right choice. Tantalising prospects like Paolo Banchero, Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. are just three of the names Magic fans may be considering come the summer.
However, the front-office have also managed to pull some masterstrokes. Apart from the aforementioned rebuild trades, remember Markelle Fultz came to O-Town at a cost of Jonathan Simmons. Whilst no Magic fan would want to see fan favourite Terrence Ross depart and Gary Harris is showing ‘Denver G’ in recent games, if the veteran pair are traded, history would predict that the pair would return value to the Magic.
In closing, a few seasons ago the Magic paid tribute to NASA links in their then city edition uniforms. Looking to 2022 and beyond, another rocket looks primed for launch in Central Florida. This time it is in the capable hands of at least Cole Anthony, Franz Wagner, Jalen Suggs, Wendell Carter Jr, Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Chuma Okeke and RJ Hampton. Stand-by for blast-off in 10, 9, 8…
Image – Orlando Sentinel.