When the Orlando Magic traded for Markelle Fultz on the trade deadline, they managed to, under-the-radar, build the best young core in the league. And by ‘best’ I mean a young core that could conceivably return Orlando to the playoffs, while becoming a talking point for the foreseeable future.
Fultz alongside Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon have the potential to be the centerpiece of a great team. After six years of tanking the franchise finally has direction.
Fultz was traded to the Magic from Philadelphia for Jonathan Simmons, a second-round pick in this year’s draft and a top-20 protected first-round pick next year. He was drafted first overall in 2017, so for a team like Orlando to get someone of his potential at such a young age for pennies on the dollar represents great value. However, often in this league, if it is too good to be true then it probably is. His shoulder issues have been highly documented and it is hard to forget just how bad that jump-shot looked, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed.
The reason the 76ers traded up at the time to select Fultz was because he displayed an ability at college that could translate to the NBA and transcend it. At Washington College he averaged 23.2 points per game and shot 47.6% from three-point range.
He could score any way he wanted, had the quickness and size to drive to the rim, and could stop on a dime for a pull-up shot or kill you from beyond the arc. On top of this, his 6’10 wingspan gave him the tools to be an elite NBA defender.
His potential was never realised at Philadelphia. Ben Simmons proved to be a better player and better fit, and the 76ers switched to win-now mode by trading for Jimmy Butler, excluding any chance of them easing in and developing Fultz.
This is why Orlando is an ideal fit. He will play only when he is ready, and until then there won’t be any pressure from within the organisation. He will also work under Steve Clifford, a coach who works well with youngsters and is credited by Kemba Walker for developing him massively. He will play on a defense-oriented team that will utilize his handling ability and size on offense in a more pick-and-roll focused system. Fultz is the youngest player in the league’s history to register a triple-double. This is the player Orlando hopes they are going to see more of.
If injuries are being mentioned, then it is only logical to address Jonathan Isaac next. Isaac was selected by Orlando in the 2017 draft with the sixth overall pick. The franchise knew he was a prospect.
He is officially listed as 6’10 with a 7’0 wingspan but the eye test suggests he is taller and wider than that. His rookie season was blighted by injuries and has only just reached 81 games in the league, yet his ability and potential is clear.
Isaac appears to be someone who can guard multiple positions effectively, and might be a future candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in the future. He is 20th in blocks this season and only has five fewer blocks than Giannis Antetokounmpo on the season despite playing over 400 minutes fewer. Being a wing who can shut down the opposition’s best defender is valuable enough but Isaac seems to be growing in confidence and offensive influence in every passing game. The Magic went 6-2 early in February and Isaac has been largely responsible. He has almost doubled his points per game to 14.7 alongside grabbing 6.3 rebounds and blocking 2.7 blocks. More importantly he is +13.7 in plus-minus, which puts him seventh highest in the league for February ranking above Paul George and Kevin Durant. In short, Isaac has the ability to be a generational defensive talent and if his three-point shooting continues to improve, there is no reason he shouldn’t be an All-Star in the future.
Then comes Orlando’s two big men: Mo Bamba and Aaron Gordon. The latter has been in the league and with Orlando for four full seasons. Gordon was drafted with the fourth pick in 2014 and it feels like he has been around forever. This is why it can be forgotten that he is just 23 years old. He is a young forward who has been doing his learning on a poor team with no continuity at the coaching position. On the face of things it might appear that Gordon has taken a step back this year. He is averaging fewer points, rebounds and blocks, and his usage rate has dropped for the first time of his career.
However, the truth could not be further from it. Gordon is displaying a level of maturity and basketball IQ in a way that cannot be measured by a box score. He is now given the role of defending the opposition’s best player and has risen to that challenge. Importantly, his three-point shooting is up to 34.2% and he has increased his assists per game to 3.5, proving his offensive decision making has improved considerably. Nikola Vučević is having a career year in Orlando at was recognised with an All-Star selection and there is no reason to believe Gordon can not do the same.
Mo Bamba symbolises the Magic’s young core as a whole. He has a clear upside, everything suggests that he could become a real force in this league, yet it is all a little unconvincing. I would not judge him from his 6.2 points and 5 rebounds per game this season. He is a 20-year-old rookie who only played one year in college.
He has shown glimpses. His 7’10 wingspan, the largest the league has ever seen, has been an issue for opponents on the offensive end. When Bamba times his leaps on contested shots he has displayed a defensive ability not seen in Orlando since Dwight Howard’s prime. He will only become a better rim protector with experience.
His offensive game looks raw but has shown flashes of being able to knock down shots from beyond the arc, which is rare from a 7’0 rookie. If he can learn to shoot these with any consistency then he will be a dream offensive tool for Head Coach Steve Clifford. Just look at what Brook Lopez has been able to do to the Milwaukee Bucks. The idea of an athletic big man who can shoot and defend is never difficult to sell, even in today’s small ball systems.
At the very least, Orlando should have four players who could easily make them a top five defense. The team’s General Manager John Hammond and President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman came from Milwaukee. Just look what they built with that roster and you can see what their aim is in Orlando.
The four young core players all display a long wingspan and good athleticism. They are all on long term, relatively team friendly contracts. Orlando is a small-market team but we have seen they have been able to recruit free agents due to their location.
If they can make the playoffs this year then this team will get exposure and more importantly playoff experience. With the East being so weak they could make the playoffs and still get a decent mid-round draft pick to add to this core. In simple terms, this team may only be a year or two away being the most exciting young team in the league. A harken back to the type of team they had when Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway came in to the league and fired Orlando to a NBA Finals in 1995.
The issue for Orlando is this is all built on unstable foundations. None of the above is even close to a sure thing. It is just as likely that Fultz doesn’t recover physically or mentally from his injuries; that Isaac becomes a solid defensive player but is held back by his lack of offensive production; that Gordon becomes one of the many young players with much hype but never comes close to reaching his potential; and the Mo Bamba experiment fails leaving you with a back up center averaging 8 and 8 for the rest of his career.
But doesn’t this make everything so much more exciting? It’s the unpredictability that has finally made Orlando interesting again. It may not be long at all until people start talking about Orlando in a positive context, and you can thank their young core for that.
Feature photo – Dylan Buell / Matthew Stockman / Fernando Medina / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration