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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Magic preview with RK

Getting a little insight about Monday’s opponent.

Philadelphia 76ers v Orlando Magic - NBA Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is RK (@beyondtheRK on Twitter), who covers the Orlando Magic at his Substack, “Beyond the RK.”

What’s one key matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

The matchup to watch has to be the battle of big-name guards who slipped in the 2020 draft, both now starting and running point for their respective teams while in the hunt for Most Improved, Cole Anthony and Tyrese Maxey. The rebounding battle between Wendell Carter Jr. and Andre Drummond could also be a sizable factor. If Anthony remains out due to injury (he is), fans won’t be disappointed by the matchup of Maxey and Jalen Suggs, the latter of whom will run the offense in Anthony’s place.

What’s been your assessment of new head coach Jamahl Mosley?

This locker room needed a new voice, and Mosley has been just what the doctored ordered. Instantly connecting with Orlando’s youth movement, the positive energy could be felt right away. In today’s league, the role of the head coach goes beyond the Xs and Os; relationships, chemistry and communication are necessities. Mosley hits them all on the head. A former NBL player who’s spent the majority of his coaching career focusing on player development, Mosley is a true player’s coach.

Where has he excelled? Where are you hoping to see growth?

For better or worse, lineups have been inconsistent. On the one hand, Orlando isn’t contending, so it doesn’t need specific lineups to rack up endless reps together for the playoffs. On the other hand, players generally play better when they have an assigned role, when they know where their shots are going to come from and, roughly, how many they’re going to shoot. Sporadic lineup changes can be a fine tactic in these early days to gauge which of Orlando’s new lineup combos work together and to keep defenses on their toes. However, inconsistency in role and playing time hardly helps anyone develop. Magic fans would also ask for a little more fight on the sidelines, as Mosley rarely disagrees with the refs, focusing instead on an uplifting message to the player that seems to imply “calm down, it’s just one possession. Good or bad, we move on to the next play”

What’s the identity of this team’s young core?

Pace. Space. Pass. This has been Mosley’s mantra since being hired, and while the results have been hit or miss, those concepts still remain a clear goal. Mosley also installed a “hustle bell” in training camp, a fun way to reward players after deflecting a pass or diving for a loose ball. These concepts at their core are what great basketball teams focus on: giving effort defensively, pushing the pace off missed shots and turnovers, spacing the floor with enough shooters, and moving the ball for the best possible shot.

Where can this team achieve consistent success long-term?

Anthony and Wagner are proving they can run pick-and-rolls, while Carter has been really good on both ends. Through the season’s first twenty games, those players stand out as potential building blocks for the rotation going forward. In a contract year, Mo Bamba is producing in the areas he’s best at: catch-and-shoot threes, rebounding and rim-protection, while still needing to work on the little things that the best bigs do, like re-screening. Suggs should fine-tune his jumper and develop further into the all-around ultimate connector he projects to be.

The defense can be special long-term. Jonathan Isaac is a DPOY-level anchor, while Wagner, Carter, Suggs and Markelle Fultz make sound rotations as lengthy plus-defenders. Bamba is an elite help-side shot-blocker. The offense is a bigger question mark. There might not be a clear primary scoring creator on this roster; maybe Orlando continues to build a pass-happy system where anyone can run the offense.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

Wagner’s immediate impact in Year 1 is the biggest pleasant surprise. Many projected him to have an NBA-ready skillset, a rare rookie who could contribute to any team right away. Wagner has been sound on all fronts, someone who already knows how to play basketball. On defense, he uses his length, awareness and anticipation to make the correct rotations, time up reaches for digs, break up passing lanes and consistently throw off opposing offenses’ rhythm with deflections.

Offensively, he’s showing off his full arsenal of moves, at his best attacking closeouts against scrambled defenses, while not quite showing the acceleration and dribble moves to be a killer 1-on-1 player, yet. The developable ball-skills are there though to be “good” at just about everything, while the sum-of-its parts effect of a player having so few holes in their game can be the difference between “good” and “great”. Shooting 36 percent on four three-pointers, Wagner’s jumper is smooth, his ball control is solid and his finishing moves are pristine. Fundamental Franz is here for the long haul.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

A young team being cautious about rushing anyone back from injury is normal, if not smart. The lack of clear timelines for Orlando’s injured players is what’s been most disappointing about this season. Fans were led to believe Fultz and Isaac could return as soon as opening day, yet both are still out. Fultz is reportedly closest to return.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this game?

Sixers fans should keep an eye out for any Wagner-Carter pick-and-rolls. Not only has this set become a staple of Orlando’s offense, it’s produced highlight after highlight, especially when Wagner finds a window to toss a lob to Carter for the alley-oop.