5 Things Learned About the Magic During Preseason

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Two plays from the Orlando Magic’s exhibition-season finale at the Amway Center on Thursday showed just the kind of opportunistic and athletic team that they want to be in the season ahead.

Midway through the first quarter against the rival Miami Heat, Nikola Vucevic stripped the ball away from a driving Bam Adebayo and batted it to Evan Fournier before it could go out of bounds. Looking to immediately attack, Fournier tossed the ball ahead to a streaking D.J. Augustin for an uncontested layup.

Later, after Fournier stepped in front of a pass intended for Kelly Olynyk, Augustin scooped up the loose ball and immediately got it ahead to Aaron Gordon, who outran Jimmy Butler and avoided a swipe attempt by Justise Winslow for another easy basket.

Statistically the NBA’s best defense over the final 2 ½ months of last season, the Magic are now looking to that side of the ball to fuel more of their offense. When they create turnovers, block shots and force foes into taking low-percentage shots, the Magic want to better translate those opportunities into points on the offensive end of the floor.

With the preseason wrapping up and the Magic’s start of the regular season – Wednesday versus Cleveland at the Amway Center – here is a look at five things culled from the exhibition games about an Orlando squad that has high hopes in the days, weeks, months and 82 games ahead:

1. The Magic are looking for ways to make their offense more efficient, namely by pushing the pace, converting turnovers into points and getting on the offensive glass.

Despite having a roster loaded with youth and athleticism, the Magic didn’t get much out of the fast break or even the turnovers they created last season. In order to make sure that their offense doesn’t lag too far behind their suffocating defense, the Magic need to find ways to get easy baskets every way possible.

The Magic went 42-40 last season, had the league’s best win improvement ratio (plus-17) and reached the playoffs despite ranking 26thin the 30-team NBA in forcing turnovers and just 24thin points off those turnovers.

Part of the reason, of course, is head coach Steve Clifford’s insistence that his players not foolishly gamble for steals and potentially weaken the team’s base defense. Now, however, Clifford feels Orlando can be more proactive in forcing turnovers – and getting points off those miscues – with active hands, anticipation through film study and controlled aggression.

In six preseason games – three wins and three losses – the Magic showed tremendous progress in forcing foes into errors and then making them pay. This preseason, the Magic ranked fourth in the NBA in turnovers forced a game (23.3) – up dramatically from the 13 turnovers a game created last season. They turned those turnovers into an average of 24.3 points (13th in the NBA). That, also, is up dramatically from the 15.2 points a night that the Magic got off turnovers last season.

With young and dynamic forwards Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, speedy point guards in Markelle Fultz and Augustin, finishing guards in Terrence Ross and Fournier and mobile centers in Mo Bamba and Vucevic, there’s no reason the Magic can’t be a dynamic force in pushing the pace while racking up gobs of fast break points. With their length and skill defensively, the Magic are going to force plenty of turnovers, and they must get better at turning those errors into points.

2. Markelle Fultz has proven himself healthy and happy and he will be a major factor this season for the Magic.

Orlando won its first three exhibition season games, but the highlight of its preseason was the dynamic all-around play of Fultz last week in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, the franchise that dealt him to the Magic last February. That night, Fultz gave a glimpse at his massive potential with 12 points, five assists, two steals and a no-look pass that led to a Gordon dunk that was a thing of beauty.

Fultz, 21, lived in the paint all preseason by using his 6-foot-4 size, herky-jerky dribble and quickness to routinely beat foes. His ability to get into the heart of the defense and command the attention of multiple defenders allowed him to be a dynamic playmaker – something that should only improve as the chemistry between him and Orlando’s big men improves.

Of course, there are still plenty of issues with Fultz’s shooting and turnovers – something to be expected considering that he’s played just 33 NBA games over the last two years because of the thoracic outlet syndrome injury in his right shoulder that has since been cured. In 119 minutes over six preseason games, Fultz made just 17 of 54 shots (31.5 percent), misfired on all six of his 3-point shots and turned the ball over 16 times while handing out 24 assists.

Fultz will eventually need to show an ability to make those shots to keep defenders from going ``under’’ on screen-and-roll plays – something that could allow them to cut off his dribble penetration moves. His massive improvement at the free throw line (six of nine) is encouraging and the Magic believe that he will shoot the ball better going forward while working with assistant coaches Steve Hetzel and Bruce Kreutzer. Those two coaches played major roles in the development of all-star guard Kemba Walker while they worked together in Charlotte.

Show improvement as a shooter and Fultz’s ability to penetrate into the paint should only get more dynamic. He could evolve into being the one Magic player who can command a double-team – a must-have for an NBA offense to be truly lethal.

3. Orlando’s re-signing of Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross – two players looking to follow up career years – looks better than ever now.

The Magic went into the offseason knowing any chance they had of carrying over the momentum established last season centered around bringing Vucevic and Ross back. They acted accordingly and quickly signed the two free agents in early July, ensuring they would remain in Magic pinstripes for years to come.

All you need to know about Ross and Vucevic this preseason is this: The Magic were a plus-34 on the scoreboard in Ross’ 93 minutes on the floor and they were a plus-14 in Vucevic’s 85 minutes. Without them, the offense was mostly a mess of missed shots and turnovers.

Vucevic and Ross both averaged career highs across the board last season while leading to the Magic to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Vucevic, who has vowed that he is just hitting his prime as a player, joined Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard as the only Magic players ever to average at least 20 points and 12 rebounds over a full season. Meanwhile, Ross became the first player in NBA history to drill at least 200 3-pointers in a season while never starting a game last season.

Now, the ask is that they do it again, stay healthy again and prove that last season was no fluke. Both came back hungry and in great shape, clearly being determined to lead the Magic even deeper into the playoffs.

Teams will likely defend Vucevic and Ross differently now, shading coverages their way and flooding them with double-teams to get the ball out of their hands. They got a bitter taste of that in the playoffs when Toronto trained its defense on them, and the Magic invariably struggled. It will be up to Vucevic and Ross to make the necessary adjustments and find ways to continue to be effective.

4. Roster, coach and front-office continuity matter in the NBA, and it could play a major role in the Magic getting off to a great start to the season.

Just listen to what Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Philadelphia’s Brett Brown had to say about a Magic team that returns 12 players along with President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, GM John Hammond and Clifford.

Stevens: ``I think (the Magic) are going to be one of the better teams around.’’

Brown: ``(Continuity) is a priceless gift. I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it now: Talent does not trump time. You know, you need time and you want to expedite it and move it forward, but you need time. I respected the (Magic’s) organizational decision – which it obviously was – to persevere with the group that they have and coach that they have. Personally, I lived that life for 12 years (as an assistant coach) in San Antonio. I have not lived it in Philadelphia, but it’s what we all aspire to ultimately find.’’

Several of the top teams in the Eastern Conference made major changes in the offseason. The defending champion Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency, while the Milwaukee Bucks saw guard Malcolm Brogdon depart for the Indiana Pacers. Boston reacted to losing Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn by signing Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter. Philadelphia is hoping that the additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson can soften the losses of Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick.

The Magic, meanwhile, return all five of their starters, their top eight rotation players and a group that comprised 86 percent of the minutes played last season. Clifford feels that continuity has the Magic far ahead of where they were at this point last season.

The hope, of course, is that the Magic will be able to pick up this season where they left off last season when they went 22-9 down the stretch.

The schedule is favorable early on, with the Magic playing three of their first four games against rebuilding teams that missed the playoffs last spring. The fourth is a Toronto franchise trying to pick up the pieces and plug the holes created by the defections of Leonard and Green. Also, nine of the first 13 games will be played at the Amway Center – where Orlando won nine straight times to close last season.

The schedule growths teeth in December and January, so the Magic need to take full advantage of their continuity and stockpile as many wins as possible early in the season.

5. Mo Bamba’s rehabilitation from a leg injury and the work he put in over the summer are already paying big dividends, putting him on a path to potentially fulfill his massive potential.

Outside of Fultz, Bamba was the player with the most question marks surrounding him coming into the preseason after a somewhat shaky rookie season and an injury that limited him to 47 games. Also, Khem Birch seemed to be threatening to overtake Bamba for the back-up center job with his strong play down the stretch last season.

However, the 7-foot-1 Bamba – the No. 6 pick of the 2018 NBA Draft – cleared up many of those questions this preseason by playing as well as any Magic player. Bringing consistent energy and aggression are still areas where Bamba needs to improve, but he showed this preseason why he can be a difference-maker on both ends of the floor for Orlando.

In just 17.6 minutes a night over six games, the big man with the 7-foot, 10-inch wing span averaged 11.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. More importantly, he made 25 of 42 field goals (59.5 percent) and an even more impressive nine of 18 3-pointers. Already, he’s developed a nice chemistry with Fultz on the Magic’s second unit, occasionally rolling to the rim for lobs, while popping out for open 3-point shots in other instances.

An intelligent, inquisitive type, Bamba benefitted greatly from Clifford and assistant coach Mike Batiste having him file scouting reports from every game last season while he was out injured with a stress reaction in his left leg. Now, he seems to have a better plan in the post when attacking and defending other big men and he’s more willing to play with the physicality and energy needed to be a great player at basketball’s highest level.

Unlike perimeter players, big men often take longer to develop. Bamba is still plenty young and painfully thin, and he will undoubtedly go through rough patches at times this season, but his offseason growth has to be extremely encouraging for the Magic. Now, they know they can trust him when replacing Vucevic at center. And if Bamba keeps making threes, blocking shots and playing with great energy, he will eventually earn more and more opportunities to be a difference-maker on both ends of the floor.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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