We got a Saturday afternoon meeting between two of the youngest teams in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies and Orlando Magic. Both teams are in different spots of their rebuilds. The Grizzlies are further along in the process, enjoying a nice surge towards becoming a contender and are entering the evaluation period of the next steps of solidifying that status. The Orlando Magic are at the league’s basement, enjoying the highs and lows of young prospects and assessing who’s there to stay.
To preview this game, I catch up with Aaron Goldstone of Orlando Pinstriped Post — SB Nation’s Orlando Magic blog — to talk about these two squads.
1) What have you liked from 2021 draftees Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs?
Simply put, there has been a lot to like about the play of Orlando’s two rookies from the 2021 draft class.
Franz Wagner (20) leads the Magic in minutes played, and he’s been the only player on the roster to participate in every game this season. In fact, Wagner has played more minutes this season than any other player from his draft class. He also leads the class in scoring average (15.8 points per game) and number of contests scoring 20 or more points in a single-game. Not bad for a prospect who arrived in Orlando considerably less heralded than his rookie counterpart. Without a doubt, Wagner has been the steadiest and most consistent player on Orlando’s roster, which is not something that can be said to describe the play of most rookies through their first year in the NBA.
He can play four positions on the floor, has shown advanced play-making ability for a wing prospect still so early in his development, and he will guard the other team’s best wing/forward. If Wagner continues to develop his handle (he gets to the rim with such ease, mainly by utilizing his length and positional size), his perimeter jump-shot, and his body/strength, then Orlando is going to have a monster on their hands.
Jalen Suggs has struggled a bit more this season (compared to Wagner that is). His shooting numbers from the floor have been subpar, which is to be expected for such a young player breaking into the league. Orlando’s first lottery selection of the two they owned this past draft (fifth overall pick) also missed twenty-straight games from late November through mid-January due to a fractured right thumb. That extended absence seemingly allowed for things to slow-down for Suggs, who was able to watch quite a bit, and he’s come back to the Magic with renewed focus (and welcomed energy). The Magic have gone 5-6 over the eleven games since his return, which marks a considerable improvement from where they were without him.
Suggs is going to keep getting better, and he can already influence the game in a few ways without his shot consistently going in. Using his plus-athleticism, Suggs is able to push the tempo and create easy opportunities for the Magic in transition. And he’s already a stud defensively, possessing the size and strength to defend both backcourt positions.
2) Is the breakout of Cole Anthony making Markelle Fultz more expendable?
I don’t think the Magic are there yet, thinking about ‘who stays and who goes’ moving forward as the team attempts yet another rebuild. Or at least, I don’t see how they can make a decision like that (with anyone on their roster), because two core pieces of the puzzle – Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz – haven’t played a single minute alongside the majority of Orlando’s current team.
Information surrounding how far along Isaac currently is in his return from an ACL injury he suffered all the way back in August of 2020 has been fleeting at best. Isaac has been around the facility, arena, and team when they’ve been at home, and he even recently started traveling with the team on the road (and getting shots up in shootaround). But the team still refuses to provide any concrete information about his possible return to the court.
Fultz is a little further along in his process of also returning from an ACL injury. He’s been practicing with Orlando’s G-League affiliate in Lakeland since December (when the team is on the road), and he’s been around the team for shoot-arounds and walk-throughs as well. But he still hasn’t been cleared to fully return either. And to take a lengthy round-about way of answering your question, I don’t see how the Magic could make a decision on Fultz/Anthony until they see the former number one overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft back on the court.
Yes, Anthony has emerged this year – particularly at the beginning of the season – as a guy that Orlando could potentially include as part of their long-term plans. Anthony can create his own shot, but unfortunately that shot has gone cold for over a month now (Anthony’s shooting splits by month this season: October – 44% FG%, 42% 3PT%; November – 40% FG%, 33% 3PT%; December – 42% FG%, 33% 3PT%; January – 33% FG%, 23% 3PT%). Like Suggs, the second-year guard can positively impact the game in other ways besides shooting/scoring the basketball. Anthony is a plus-rebounder for a lead guard, and his play-making skills continue to improve. But again, I’m not sure he’s done anything to change the team’s plans as they relate to Fultz. Not until Fultz is back on the floor (with Anthony) and they see what they have.
3) Orlando is in an interesting spot with good blend of quality/quantity with prospects in both the frontcourt and backcourt. Does that play into your favorite 2022 draft targets?
Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and General Manager John Hammond have been extremely consistent with their collective draft approaches since they’ve been with the Magic. Orlando’s front office values selecting the best player available on their board when it’s their turn to pick, regardless of position or perceived fit. And they value length and positional-size, almost to a fault.
You are correct, the Magic have a quantity of young players up and down their roster (and I think there’s some quality as well). And the time will come when eventually they have to decide which young players to build around, and which ones they aren’t going to keep long-term. But that time is not going to be this summer, the organization is still very much in the middle of the ‘asset collection’ portion of their current rebuild.
I know it’s not an exciting answer, but they will likely just take the best player available when their spot comes up (hopefully in the top-3 this season). Jabari Smith, Paolo Banchero, and Chet Holmgren have seemed to separate themselves from the rest of the pack at the top of this class, and I could see a fit for any one of those guys in Orlando. I love Smith’s shooting upside, length, and two-way potential. Banchero has an incredible NBA-ready body, and I think his vision is underrated. And Holmgren is as unique of a prospect as anyone that has entered the NBA in some time (and he has history in Minnesota playing with Suggs). It definitely will be interesting to see how it all plays out for Orlando (lottery, draft).
4) Which matchup are you looking forward to in today’s game?
This one is super easy. For me, it’s the Suggs/Morant matchup. I’ll be at Amway Center covering the game, and selfishly – I’m just excited to see Ja Morant play (in person) for the first time. He is an absolute star in every sense of the word, truly one of the most exciting parts/pieces of today’s NBA game. Everyone knew he was a ‘home run’ get for the Grizzlies, but I never thought he would be this good this soon into his career.
When it comes to speed, verticality, and athleticism, Suggs has no shortage in his giddy-up either. I’m looking forward to watching those two guys get after it; it will be a great test for Suggs (or Anthony, whoever ends up with the defensive assignment).
5) What are your outsider’s thoughts on the Grizzlies?
I’ve been really impressed with the Grizzlies, not just this season, but the way they’ve been able to put their roster together in general. Morant falling into their lap was golden, of course. But trading for Desmond Bane in 2020 was equally as genius – he was one of my favorite prospects in that class. In Morant and Bane, Memphis has athleticism, playmaking, shooting, and versatility in their backcourt. Jaren Jackson Jr. continues to develop, and he’s still so young. And throw Dillon Brooks into the mix – who I understand is hurt right now – that’s a great core right there. How in the world did the rest of the NBA allow Brooks to slide all the way into the second round in ’17?
Yeah, I like their team quite a bit. I will be paying attention closely to what Memphis does at the trade deadline, because I feel like they’re still a bench piece away from elevating to another level in the Western Conference. But fun young team nonetheless, one I’m very much looking forward to seeing tomorrow night.