Magic Plan to be Patient With Chuma Okeke

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – In recent years, the NBA’s talent-rich teams have been able to get richer by culling under-the-radar players such as Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Klay Thompson, Paul George, Donovan Mitchell, Paschal Siakam and Clint Capela from the middle of the first round of the NBA Draft.

On Thursday night, an Orlando Magic franchise still riding high about being in the playoffs and picking outside of the lottery for the first time in seven years hope they found a future in star in Auburn forward Chuma Okeke. However, the Magic will have to be patient with Okeke, who will likely miss major chunk of his first NBA season because of a knee injury suffered in the NCAA Tournament this past spring.

The Magic selected Okeke with the No. 16 pick of the draft’s first round, looking past the ACL tear in his left knee because of his diverse set of skills as a do-everything forward. The 6-foot-8, 230-pounder addresses the team’s need for depth, toughness and athleticism at the wing positions – when he’s healthy once again – because of his positional versatility and two-way talents. He averaged 15 points, seven rebounds and three steals in three NCAA Tournament games before going down with the season-ending injury against North Carolina.

``Why this pick? We believe in this player and we believe in this person,’’ Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. ``He was someone we had been targeting for quite a while and we felt he was an under-the-radar player. When he did suffer his injury in the tournament, obviously that’s going to have an impact on anyone’s draft status, but we’ve done all of our research and we are comfortable. We feel this is just going to be a bump in the road for him and he’s going to be an excellent player for us for several years.’’

Okeke, who grew up in Atlanta even though his father is from Nigeria, shot 38.7 percent from the 3-point line this past season as a sophomore at Auburn. He averaged 12 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.3 steals in 38 games with the Tigers in 38 games. In leading Auburn to the SEC tournament title and on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, Okeke scored in double figures in 15 of his final 17 games with Auburn. He had 18 points, 13 rebounds, three steals and five 3-pointers against Tennessee in the SEC title game. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds against top-seeded North Carolina before injuring his knee late in that stirring upset victory for Auburn.

He feared that his knee injury would greatly damage his draft stock, but he was relieved when the Magic decided to draft him at No. 16.

``I went up (to Orlando) and they showed a lot of interest, but I didn’t know they were going to pick me this early,’’ Okeke said from his home in Atlanta, where he watched the draft with family and friends. ``Anything is a shock to me, really, but it’s all a blessing. They took a chance and I’m just happy for that.’’

The Magic owned the No. 46 overall pick in the second round going into the night, but they traded it to the Los Angeles Lakers for a future second-round pick and cash considerations.

Weltman has said repeatedly in the past that the organization will be patient with its young players, and he backed that up by bringing forward Jonathan Isaac and center Mo Bamba – first-round picks from the past two seasons – along slowly as they battled injuries. Undoubtedly, the Magic will have a similar approach with the 20-year-old Okeke as he rehabilitates his knee injury.

``Unfortunately that injury happened in the tournament, but he’s certainly a player whose best days are in front of him. We feel fortunate to be able to draft him,’’ Weltman said. ``It was an ACL and obviously we were comfortable with it. We’ll have to go through that (recovery) process with him and we’ll get into the timetables more once he gets here and we speak to the doctors and talk to him. But (everyone) knows the timetable of ACLs. We expect him to be back some time during the season and we’ll let that kind of, as we always say, happen as it happens. There’s no rush, there’s no rush whatsoever. We are drafting him to be a long-term player for the Orlando Magic.’’

Okeke said doctors have been pleased with his recovery throughout the surgery and rehab processes thus far.

``I’m doing good in my rehab and right now I’m just strengthening my quad back up, getting my leg back right and getting my strength back,’’ Okeke said. ``The doctor said I look good just two months into my rehab, so I’m looking real good.’’

Duke superstar Zion Williamson was the draft’s first pick to the New Orleans Pelicans, while point guard Ja Morant was selected No. 2 by the Memphis Grizzlies. The New York Knicks picked Duke forward R.J. Barrett with the No. 3 pick, while DeAndre Hunter (Atlanta Hawks) and Darius Garland (Cleveland Cavaliers) rounded out the top five in the draft. Forward Jarrett Culver (No. 6 to Minnesota), point guard Coby White (No. 7 to Chicago), center Jaxson Hayes (No. 8 to New Orleans), Japanese power forward Rui Hachimura (No. 9 to Washington), guard/forward Cam Reddish (No. 10 to Atlanta), forward Cameron Johnson (No. 11 to Phoenix), forward P.J. Washington (No. 12 to Charlotte), shooting guard Tyler Herro (No. 13 to Miami), point guard Romeo Langford (No. 14 to Boston), French forward Sekou Doumbouya (No. 15 to Detroit) were chosen before the Magic selected.

Thursday’s draft was the first for the Magic where they didn’t pick in the lottery since 2012. Over the past six seasons, Orlando selected second, fourth, fifth, 11th, sixth and sixth as the franchise was stuck in rebuilding mode for years.

On Thursday, the Magic selected 16th overall – a spot the franchise had never picked before in its 30-year history. Two players familiar to Magic fans – Hedo Turkoglu (2000) and Nikola Vucevic (2011) – were picked at No. 16 by the Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively. Turkoglu was a driving force on the Magic team that reached the 2009 NBA Finals, while Vucevic was the franchise’s first all-star in seven years this past season.

Orlando’s front office, led by Weltman and GM John Hammond, have had major success before in finding budding stars later in the NBA Draft. Hammond and Weltman worked together in Milwaukee when the Bucks discovered and drafted Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 pick of the 2013 NBA Draft. In 2016, Hammond spearheaded the drafting of Malcolm Brogdon, who became the first-ever second-round pick to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. That same year, Weltman was on the staff in Toronto when the Raptors uncovered Siakam – the likely winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award this season – in the No. 27th pick.

Thursday’s draft was the Magic’s third with Weltman and Hammond calling the shots on draft night. Orlando picked Isaac with the No. 6 pick in 2017 and Bamba with the No. 6 pick in 2018.

Inside the Magic’s draft room on Thursday night, Weltman and Hammond were joined by CEO Alex Martins, head coach Steve Clifford, assistant GM Matt Lloyd, consultant and former Magic GM John Gabriel and several other front office members.

The Magic finished 42-40 this past season, giving them the largest win-improvement total (17 more victories) in the NBA. They closed the season with a 22-9 run to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2012. The Magic won Game 1 in the playoffs before dropping the next four in a row to the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors.

In Okeke, the Magic will eventually have a powerful player with great range and basketball IQ. He eventually sees himself as a do-everything type who can help the Magic win in a variety of ways.

``I feel like I bring a lot of versatility with my ability to defend people and different positions, (point guard) through (center), make plays for my teammates and rebound. I just go out there every game and play hard every game.’’

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