Who would have thought that nearly 20 games into the NBA season, the youthful Orlando Magic would have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference? Outside of ride-or-die Magic fans, probably no one.
But here we are in the early going, and Orlando is currently 12-5 and riding a seven-game win streak, the longest since the franchise-record nine-game streak from Dec. 23, 2010, to Jan. 12, 2011. But what has fueled this hot start for a team that has gone from picking at the top of the NBA lottery to standing atop the league?
There are two influential factors.
Wagner’s growth comes from being more aggressive as an offensive initiator. This season, Wagner is averaging 19.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.2 steals, all career-highs. He is also notching just over three assists per game. But most importantly, he is taking the most 11 threes (5.2) and the most shot attempts (16.5) of his young career.
This step up as an offensive initiator is essential for a team built like the Magic, who have a unique backcourt issue. Orlando has a vast backcourt rotation with Cole Anthony, Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, and rookie Anthony Black. But none of them have asserted themselves as the lead guard. So, at 6-foot-9 with guard-like ball-handling skills, Wagner somewhat assumes that lead role until someone emerges.
A key word that keeps coming up is “lead.” As a former top-10 lottery pick in his third season, this growth as a leader is the main attribute the Magic organization needs to see from Wagner. He is only one more offseason away from coming to the table asking for a hefty rookie extension. So far, he looks like he would be worth every penny.
For Paolo Banchero, he is slowly becoming cleverer on the offensive end, and his efficiency has been climbing along the way. For Banchero, he is averaging 19.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, and getting to the free throw line 6.2 times a game. These are all minor dips from his historic rookie season. But where he has “regressed” in these areas, he has grown in others.
He is shooting 48.8% from the field, a near 5% jump from last season. His shot from long range has also drastically improved as it has skyrocketed from 29.8% from three last season up to 43.6% this year on a similar number of attempts per game. As a physical presence who seems to be able to get to the free-throw line whenever he wants, a softer touch from distance was arguably Banchero’s biggest offensive flaw. This season, he seems to have found his stroke.
Although 17 games is still a relatively small sample size, these strides are crucial as he continues to grow into the All-Star caliber talent many projected Banchero to be coming out of the 2021 NBA draft.
The combination of Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero is slowly shaping into one of the better young duos in the league. But this season, in particular, they seem to have recognized their weakness and are slowly transitioning them into strengths in their game. Something that will not only help them realize their potential but also help them coexist for years to come.
Along with the emerging star potential of their two former top draft picks is the team’s establishment of a defensive identity. The Orlando Magic currently have the third-best defensive rating (107.0) behind only the Houston Rockets and the Minnesota Timberwolves, who both have a 106.8 defensive rating. But their elite defense goes deeper than that. Here are just a few other defensive statistics where the Magic rank Top 10:
– 2nd in steals (9.5) behind only the LA Clippers (9.9)
– 2nd Least opponent’s 2nd chance points allowed (11.5) behind only the New York Knicks (10.6)
– 10th Least opponent’s points in the paint allowed (46.8), highest ranked are the Memphis Grizzlies (42.1)
– 1st in opponent’s turnovers as they force 17.2 turnovers per game
But this recent body of work defensively isn’t just a coincidence. Since the arrival of third-year head coach Jamahl Mosley, there has been a newfound emphasis on the defense in Orlando.
At the end of the Steve Clifford era in 2020-21, the Orlando Magic finished with the 4th worst defensive rating in the league. Once Mosley took over, the team drastically improved. The following season, their defensive rating jumped from 26th to 17th, and last season they finished 16th.
This defense-first philosophy has all the young guys bought in, instilling confidence throughout the team. After a recent victory over the Toronto Raptors, Cole Anthony shared his thoughts on the impact of the team’s defense so far this season.
“We strap up…simple as that,” Anthony said. “We take pride, and we’ve got a few dudes on this team between Jalen (Suggs) and JI (Jonathan Isaac), who I like to call the heads of the snake on the defensive end. Those are two dudes who have All-Defensive Team potential. When I’m on the bench watching how hard Jalen plays on the defensive end, it makes me want to go out there and guard ’cause that energy is contagious.”
For context, Suggs has been the Magic’s most trusted perimeter defender against some of the best guards and wings in the league, while Isaac has been the team’s lead rim protector.
Orlando has the components of a young team on the rise: Young studs in the front court, depth in the backcourt, and identity built around defense. With this structure, the Magic have a real chance of keeping up this recent success. And if you ask the guys in that locker room like Franz Wagner, they believe they’re capable of big things this season.
“I think everybody in the building believes [they can win], and I think that’s how it starts for us, I think a little change in our mentality compared to the last two years,” Wagner said in postgame following Sunday’s victory over the Charlotte Hornets. “When we walk in the building, we believe that we win that day. Like I said, that’s just the start, those are just words, we go to do the work in the game. But I think the last couple of weeks we’ve been doing a pretty solid job.”
Hi there! My name is Jalon Dixon, but most people just call me Jay. As an aspiring, young sports writer and podcaster, I enjoy discussing sports (mainly basketball and football) and sharing my knowledge with others. Growing up right in the middle of Towson University, Morgan State, Goucher College and others, I have gotten the chance to learn so much about a handful of the different athletic teams that thrive here in Baltimore. I want to be the voice of local fans and teams that may not get the same spotlight as others, but still play a big part in our everyday lives. My motto is “Always Embrace Conversation,” so if you ever want to give me feedback on a piece or even just have a friendly sports debate, feel free to email me! Hope you enjoy my work and maybe even learn something along the way.