Magic Will Have Plenty to Evaluate Leading Up to Draft

by John Denton

ORLANDO - Long before he was ever officially affiliated with an NBA team, Jeff Weltman would discuss, debate and even argue at times about talent and team building with his father, Harry Weltman, who was a long-time GM in the ABA and NBA.

Weltman, the Orlando Magic’s President of Basketball Operations, has dedicated so much of his life to the nebulous nature of constructing rosters and prospecting for talent out of the college ranks. Because there are so many ways to do the job and so many contrasting variables at play, Weltman knows full well that the task can be as complex a scientist mixing volatile chemicals or as simplistic as a toddler assembling a 500-piece puzzle. Twenty-nine years of experience in doing the job has taught him that every detail – both large and small – factor into culling the right sort of players from the NBA Draft to add to a roster.

``That’s a great challenge because there are so many things to consider and factor in,’’ Weltman said this weekend from Chicago’s NBA Draft Combine. ``Personalities and how everything fits together – much of it is non-predictive. You can do all the work, all the preparation and crunch all the numbers and you still can’t know what it’s going to look like after you make your decision. That’s the beauty of it, the challenge of it and it’s really exciting.’’

Weltman, who has been part of major turnarounds with the Clippers, Nuggets, Pistons, Bucks and Raptors and is hoping to do the same with the Magic, is teeming with excitement about a June 21 NBA Draft that is loaded with diverse and difference-making talent. Even though the Magic didn’t get much help from the NBA Draft Lottery earlier in the week and will pick sixth overall, Weltman is confident that Orlando will ultimately emerge with a dynamic, young player capable of impacting the team right away.

Weltman, GM John Hammond, assistant GMs Pete D’Alessandro and Matt Lloyd and others in the front office spent four days interviewing and evaluating players that Orlando could consider come draft night with its one first-round pick and two second-round selections. The Magic were strategic in how they utilized their allotment of 20 30-minute interview sessions, casting a wide net and trying to speak with prospects projected to go in and out of their draft range.

The Magic spoke with big men Mohamed Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. as well as point guards Trae Young and Collin Sexton. The Magic sat down with plenty of others, as well, asking probing and rapid-fire questions and working to set up future individual workouts in Orlando. Weltman came away from the sessions even more encouraged by the depth of talent and character that runs throughout this year’s class.

``It’s a deep draft, a good draft and a draft that a lot of people who specialize in the evaluation from the high-school levels has been flagging for quite a while,’’ Weltman said. ``And we’re excited to be where we are in this draft.’’

Where the Magic are at No. 6 could potentially position them to catch a top talent that drops after there’s a run on one position or others seek to fill specific needs. Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta, Memphis and Dallas are ahead of Orlando in the pecking order of the draft, but that is subject to change as plenty of trade chatter filled the gymnasium in Chicago this past week. Weltman said he would leave Chicago this week even more convinced that Orlando is perfectly positioned to nab a top talent.

``I think in this draft it’s wide-open,’’ said Weltman, who is also leading the Magic’s search for a new head coach. ``Usually, you could usually draw line and say, `These six or seven will go in some order,’ but as we sit here more than a month before the draft I really think it’s wide-open as to what that order looks like. We could get the same player today at six that will go a month from now at two.’’

Orlando hopes to use the aforementioned month debating and evaluating a variety of factors that will go into its decision. Do the Magic shift their focus toward defense and draft a shot-swatting big man such as the 7-foot Bamba, who recorded the most expansive wing span (7 feet, 10 inches) in the history of the Draft Combine? Do they address the glaring need at point guard by picking a scoring and playmaking difference-maker such as Young? Do they take a chance on swingman Michael Porter Jr., who was once thought to be the top talent available before a back injury wiped out much of his one collegiate season?

And those are just a few of the factors in play. How would the prospects mesh with players already on Orlando’s roster? How will they fit with whoever is ultimately named Orlando’s head coach? Have they topped out in terms of talent or will they continue to grow? Ready to play now or still need time? Maturity?

The list of questions goes on and on and on, Weltman noted with a laugh. That’s why the week spent in Chicago at the Draft Combine proved so vitally important.

``This is such a valuable tool for us. We don’t get to have any interaction with them during the season, so not only do we get to watch them here, we’re interviewing them and interacting with them in a way that we never have before,’’ Weltman said. ``Some of it is really making sure what we’ve learned about them is accurate. It’s really just about getting a feel for their energy, personality, their ability to lock in and how they interact with people. It just helps in learning about where they are in their curve and their readiness to play in the league, readiness to deal with coaches and all that comes with the NBA.’’

As for the age-old NBA debate of ``greatest need versus best player available,’’ Weltman said: ``Obviously, there are so many levers when you look at the draft and you have to balance out a guy’s development curve, balance out team needs, balance out upside and downside. Every one of those factors kind of shift the conversation. But, ultimately, you’d like to hope that things line up so that you end up picking the best player.’’

As if Weltman didn’t already have enough to consider already, he might also need to peer into a crystal ball and try to predict where the NBA game is headed next. Likely, no one ever envisioned a small-ball style of play that teams such as Cleveland, Golden State and Houston have perfected with forwards such as LeBron James, Draymond Green and P.J. Tucker logging time at center as teammates heave 3-point shots in record-numbers.

Despite that dramatic shift to perimeter play, as many as five of the first seven picks in next month’s draft could be centers or power forwards. Is that potential shift back to big, bully ball something Weltman should take into account with the Magic’s first pick? Or does he bring Orlando’s offense more into line with the current style of play with a point guard such Oklahoma’s Young, who has tremendous passing vision and limitless shooting range? Considering all of the factors in play it’s a good thing Weltman has been thinking about talent evaluation and team building most of his life.

``The way the league is evolving, the point guard position has become one of, if not the most important, position,’’ Weltman said. ``You’ve got to have guys who can play that position in a traditional sense in terms of being able to facilitate and establish a rhythm for others and also being able to score. That position continues to evolve as the game does and then, obviously, the rise of two-way players (is important). Guys who can maybe not contain the ball entirely, but they can at least steer it where you want it to go.’’

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.