Aided by some good lottery fortune, the reward for Orlando’s 22-60 record and last-place finish out East in 2021-22 was the No. 1 overall pick, where it nabbed Duke forward Paolo Banchero. By doing so, the Magic further solidify a highly intriguing young core featuring dudes like Banchero, Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr, which also figures to be the presumptive starting lineup.
Fellow prospects such as Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke and Mo Bamba should play reserve roles. Veteran swingman Gary Harris returned on a two-year, $26 million deal and Jonathan Isaac, following a two-season hiatus due to a torn ACL, could be back in the fold. How good Isaac will be feels rather murky to clarify, but he’s largely been an impressively versatile and elite defender when healthy throughout his NBA career. When healthy, of course, is a Grand Canyon-sized caveat these days for the 24-year-old.
A season ago, Carter enjoyed a breakout fifth campaign, making a leap in his functionality as a driver, interior scoring and defensive malleability to stamp himself as Orlando’s best player. This year, I expect him and Wagner, a scalable, rapidly developing two-way force who earned All-Rookie First Team honors in 2022, to duel it out for that mantle. There’s an outside chance Fultz or Banchero steals the crown as well.
Fultz only played 18 games in his return from a torn ACL a season prior. But his blend of driving, finishing and facilitating savvy immediately made him the Magic’s foremost perimeter creator. Early on, his defensive faculties lagged behind, though as he grew more comfortable, he quickly progressed, especially when navigating screens and generating turnovers.
Banchero is a 6-foot-10, 250-pound face-up creator with legit ball-screen and passing chops. The dude is hulking on the basketball court. He’s exceptionally strong and accompanies it with rarified movement skills at his size. His off-ball game needs some refining, and the hope would be the bevy of initiators on this Magic roster helps him in that realm, along with head coach Jamahl Mosley’s tutelage bestowing defensive growth in the 19-year-old.
In May, Suggs underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right ankle, yet is expected to be fully recovered by training camp. He’ll look to build upon a tumultuous rookie season defined by a slew of injuries, nifty pick-and-roll passing, defensive flashes and glaring scoring woes. His assimilation to the league was akin to a roller coaster, often the experience for any rookie. Bright spots and reason for optimism exist nonetheless.
Jamahl Mosley is entering year two as the lead man with Orlando. As a first-time head coach in 2021-22, his flexibility and creativity of schemes on both ends popped. He did well to provide players advantageous roles and seemingly instilled confidence in them to explore the depths of their skill-sets. The hope this year will be for the defensive talent of the roster to establish more cohesion (seventh in defensive rating post-All-Star Break, 19th overall) and for Mosley to discover a reliable back-end of the rotation. Both aspects tended to hinder the Magic last year, and Mosley cycled through a carousel of options off the bench.
The trio of Anthony, Okeke and Bamba have all enjoyed contrasting stretches of notable NBA contributions, but succumb to the natural inconsistencies youth conjures up. Anthony and Okeke are approaching year three, while Bamba will begin season five, the first of a two-year, $21 million contract inked earlier this summer. If any combination of them can cement sturdier NBA footing in 2022-23, Orlando’s chaotic, befuddling reserve group will benefit greatly.
Ultimately, the Magic’s core is headlined by an extremely versatile frontcourt of Wagner, Banchero and Carter, all of whom I deem to be of star-caliber down the line. In the immediate future, the widespread youth on this roster and lack of depth should keep the Magic out of the playoff mix next season, and render them a non-threat to the Sixers. However, if a litany of factors fall their way, vying for a play-in spot seems entirely plausible.
I’d certainly recommend catching this club whenever available because it should be a fun, lively group, even if the results are sporadic. Inklings of a rosy future will glimmer, and you’ll be glad you witnessed them.