State of the Orlando Magic: Why Jalen Suggs could be Orlando’s next superstar

I first conceptualized this post in early June, back when the Orlando Magic were coming off an absolutely abysmal 2020-21 season. Back then, the tenor was unabating gloom, and for good reason: a midseason trade deadline that saw the playoff core jettisoned across the NBA, injuries to the top two long-term prospects and a lowly record with just one positive to take away — a chance at the number one pick in the NBA Draft Lottery. If that wasn’t enough, the promising odds didn’t pan out as the Magic fell to the fifth overall pick once the ping-pong balls commenced bouncing. 

The “State of the Magic” article that I am writing now is very different from the one I would have written then.

There were a couple encouraging developments through July — the hiring of Jamahl Mosley as the next head coach and an NBA Finals clash between two smaller market teams with homegrown superstars — but one galvanizing reason that sent the optimism gauge from non-existent to through the roof. 

We drafted Jalen Suggs.

In this “State of the Magic,” I will overview the present and future of the franchise, touching on both the positives and negatives and the path forward to relevance. This exercise is exciting for me. I’ve never actually written an article on my six-year-old blog about my favorite NBA team, despite all of my jeering of the media for never covering them. That will change here, and I’ll take full advantage of the opportunity to spill some ink on Orlando. 

What I’m Excited About

A nightmare of an NBA season decimated the Orlando roster, turning a squad fresh off two playoff appearances into the equivalent of a G-League franchise. Among the departures: All Star center Nikola Vucevic, Slam Dunk Contest star Aaron Gordon and three-point threat Evan Fournier. Head coach Steve Clifford, the most successful Magic coach since Stan Van Gundy in the 2000s, parted ways with the franchise after the season concluded.

I love those guys and appreciate their contributions over the years, and watching Chaisson Randle take over starting duties just didn’t feel the same. The silver lining of the roster explosion and franchise pivot is that brighter days may be ahead, brighter than even the dizzying heights of a first-round Game 1 playoff win. 

Here’s what I’m most excited about — fifth overall pick Jalen Suggs. The Gonzaga guard hit a buzzer-beater for the ages in this year’s Final Four, a bank shot from way downtown to sink underdog UCLA, and proved his value as a big game player even as the Zags failed to win the big one. Suggs comes to Orlando as an elite, blue-chip prospect with the talent to galvanize an organization that hasn’t had a playmaker of his caliber since Penny Hardaway.

The first couple years will not be pretty, but Suggs can develop into an All-Star and give Orlando true direction after a rudderless 2010s. Judging from his post-draft reaction, he’s actually excited to relocate to Central Florida and join the small-market Magic. I can’t wait for him to get started.

After Suggs, the Magic are loaded with young talent, though each player has his own question marks and a lower ceiling. The backcourt figures to return point guard Markelle Fultz after a season lost to injury along with sophomores R.J. Hampton and Cole Anthony. That gives the Magic four point guard-oriented players (though some can slide over to shooting guard), and the approach the Magic is taking is to hope that at least a couple of these lottery tickets will pan out. Anthony is my favorite non-Suggs player on the roster right now, an electric guard with contagious energy and clutch shooting ability that should still see the floor even with the Suggs selection.

The frontcourt also offers reason for hope. If forward Jonathan Isaac returns to full health, he slots in as Orlando’s best player and an NBA All-Defensive team candidate. Mo Bamba might be a lost cause after his sixth overall selection, but Bamba and trade acquisition Wendell Carter will have plenty of minutes to make an impression in this rebuild. Power forwards Chuma Okeke and Franz Wagner (the Magic’s other 2021 lottery pick) can be difference makers in the years to come.

To be clear, the Magic are nowhere near playoff or championship contention over the next couple of seasons, and new coach Jamahl Mosley should prioritize development of the young core and establishing a sense of direction. But the cupboard is anything but bare, and the roster that Orlando will carry into the 2021-22 season is loaded with lovable, athletic young guys who might just hit it big in the long term.

What They Need to Do

Orlando needs to strategize over how to evaluate and improve its current roster. That is more important than a mandate to tank games like they had last season, though I certainly expect the Magic to return to the lottery. Staving off the injury bug would also help a ton — Isaac, Fultz and Bamba have missed substantial time in multiple seasons of their young careers and are running out of time to establish themselves as reliable NBA starters.

The Magic will be in the bottom five of virtually every NBA power rankings over the next couple of months, but the current NBA landscape should provide assurance that the gargantuan task that lay ahead can be conquered. The Milwaukee Bucks won the NBA championship as a small-market team with a homegrown superstar over a longtime cellar dweller in Phoenix that featured lottery picks Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton. 

A Southeast Division rival could be the most encouraging comparison, though. The Atlanta Hawks finally capitalized on years of drafting in the lottery and advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. Like the Magic with Suggs, the Hawks found their superstar in college legend Trae Young and surrounded him with lottery tickets that all came of age at the right time. There’s no guarantee that Suggs becomes the Magic’s equivalent of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker or Trae Young, but these teams have established a blueprint that can be fulfilled with intentional development and, for lack of a better phrase, trusting the process.

Orlando Magic’s Cole Anthony, center with extended hand, is mobbed by teammates after his game-winning, 3-point basket against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the ending buzzer of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Minneapolis. The Magic won 97-96. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

What to Watch Next Season

The Magic won’t lead anybody’s NBA Season Ticket rankings for entertainment value, but I am excited to watch the warm-weather Magic from over a 1,000 miles away in a Chicago winter. I can’t wait to see Orlando’s new faces on the sidelines and on the court. Suggs should be a Rookie of the Year favorite, and intrigue over the returns of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz from season-ending injuries ups the drama factor. Even in the bleakest seasons, there will be moments of pride and joy that will lessen the sting of losing. 

I also want to take a moment to explain why I’m a Magic fan, and will continue to be an Orlando fan. I shamelessly jumped aboard the Orlando bandwagon in 2009 after they defeated the Boston Celtics. I loved center Dwight Howard’s antics, the Magic’s underdog mentality and those beautiful blue pinstriped threads. 

The decade after was less fruitful than that NBA Finals appearance, with the Dwight Howard megatrade, seasons of awful draft selections and Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon’s Slam Dunk Contest defeats among the lowlights. But that decade also entrenched me as a fan of the team — I saw the Magic multiple times against my hometown Wizards, drafted players for them in the NBA 2K video game and purchased my share of Orlando jerseys. 

Sometimes rooting for Orlando feels like a lost cause (case in point: 33-year-old backup center Robin Lopez was the team’s lone free agent acquisition). First Take won’t be debating them on a daily basis, and there’s not much historical success to boast about. 

But the positives make up for it. This is a team that has never won the NBA Finals and reached the mountaintop, and if they ever do all of the losing and incompetence will have been worth it. The Magic brand is characterized by swagger (Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal in the 90s, T-Mac and Dwight Howard in the 2000s) and team-over-ego mentality (Nikola Vucevic, Jameer Nelson). Style points and jersey aesthetics also factor in here.

I wouldn’t have said it a month ago, but there’s something special brewing in Orlando. 

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