Magic's Youngsters Display Flashes of Progress in Preseason Opener

Fultz, Bamba and Isaac staying patient as they each continue to develop
by John Denton

DETROIT – In a sports world thirsty for overnight success and one eager to hand out boom-or-bust labels often prematurely, an Orlando Magic trio of Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba might provide proof of the foolishness of those trends.

Ultimately, if those three become success stories and morph into a formidable core following rocky beginnings to their careers, they will greatly reward the Magic’s methodical patience and persistence.

On Saturday in San Antonio, three of the Magic’s most talented young players displayed flashes of tremendous progress and lent hope to the belief that they are finally on track to be solid NBA players – if not stars – for years to come.

Eager to prove themselves healthy and productive following offseasons full of work, Bamba, Fultz and Isaac were three of the Magic’s standouts in a 125-89 demolition of the San Antonio Spurs in preseason action. When the night was over, Bamba was delighted to be rewarded following the somewhat bumpy start in the NBA.

``I was just talking to (Magic teammate) Evan (Fournier), and I know it sounds cliché when people say, `it’s a process,’ but it really is a process,’’ said Bamba, who scored 18 points, grabbed six rebounds and swatted three shots in 19 minutes of work. ``Everyone’s process is different and it’s true (about it taking time). It’s not an overnight thing and you’ve just got to keep working at it.’’

Those have proven to be words to live by for a Magic trio that hasn’t always had things go their way because of early injury problems. Fultz, who was acquired by the Magic in a trade last February, famously played just 33 games in his first two NBA seasons because of a troubling shoulder malady, leading some to label him as a bust after being the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA Draft. Isaac and Bamba also saw their rookie seasons limited to 27 and 47 games because of ankle and leg injuries, but both have shown great resolve in working to overcome those false starts to set themselves up for future success. Now fully healthy, their raw talent is able to flow unfiltered, Isaac said.

``That’s why I’ve always said the biggest thing is just being healthy and being on the floor,’’ said Isaac, who was at his do-everything best in limited minutes on Saturday while contributing five points, five rebounds, two blocks and a steal against the Spurs. ``The more that (young players such as Fultz and Bamba) are out there, the more comfortable they will get, too.’’

The Magic (1-0) will be back in action on Monday night when they face the Pistons in downtown Detroit. The 7 p.m. ET game will be televised by Fox Sports Florida, giving Magic fans their first public peek at the progress made by Isaac, Bamba, Fultz and others.

All eyes were on Fultz on Saturday in what was his debut game with the Magic. After acquiring the 21-year-old point guard in a deadline-deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando kept Fultz out of game action last season and had him focus solely on rehabilitating the thoracic outlet syndrome injury in his right shoulder. That work continued throughout the summer as the Magic dedicated physical therapists and coaches to Fultz to help him through his recovery process.

Finally possessing full range of motion in his shooting arm, Fultz began his night with a nifty turnaround jumper from 8 feet early in the second quarter and capped it with a thunderous tomahawk jam late in the third quarter. In between, he pushed the pace, handed out four assists and swiped two steals.

Magic players leaped off the bench in celebration of the thunderous, third-quarter dunk, but no one was happier about how the night went than the 6-foot-4 Fultz, who has talked openly about how difficult the last two years have been for him while injured. While Saturday was just the start of a long road back, Fultz couldn’t have been happier about what he was able to show in his first steps with the Magic.

``It was huge, it’s really just a blessing and I give all of the praise to the man up top, God,’’ said Fultz, who played well despite the expected rust of four turnovers and five missed shots. ``It was my first time back out there in a long time and I’m just happy that I was able to step out onto the floor and compete.

``That dunk was just one of the things that I hoped I could go and do if I got a chance to dunk the ball,’’ Fultz added later. ``It felt really good – other than getting hit in the face with the ball (after it sailed through the net). Other than that, it was really good.’’

Good, if not great, were the adjectives often used to describe the play of Bamba on Saturday. More so than the impressive stat line that he delivered was the manner in which he dominated the action throughout.

The 7-foot-1 center with the 7-foot, 10-inch wingspan often struggled with his lack of bulk, strength and energy as a rail-thin rookie. His first professional season was mercifully cut short in early February because of a stress reaction in his left tibia, giving him extra time to develop a game plan for how he wanted to play going forward.

On Saturday, Bamba not only exhibited great energy and activity, but he played with the aggression that was often missing in his first season in the NBA. Twice early in the game, he hustled back on defense and thwarted easy baskets by Rudy Gay and Derrick White with massive blocked shots.

Later, after drilling a straight-on 3-pointer and a 20-foot jump shot, Bamba’s relentless hustle was on display in his best highlight of the night. After setting a screen to free up Terrence Ross for a 3-pointer, Bamba refused to give up on the play and dove hard to the rim where he rebounded the miss and dunked it all in one motion.

For Bamba, the strong start was somewhat cathartic following a rookie season that didn’t go exactly as planned.

``I had a lot of time to think about the upcoming season,’’ said Bamba, referring to his rookie season being cut short by injury. ``A preseason doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but it felt really good to get out there and run with the guys.

``I wasn’t happy at all (with his first-year performance) and I wanted to do more,’’ Bamba added. ``I know I have the physical and mental capacity to do more and I’m just looking to build off that and keep working.’’

Isaac, who turned 22 years old on Thursday, can certainly relate to the physical and mental tortures that Fultz and Bamba went through early in their careers. After repeated ankle injuries marred his rookie season, he worked tirelessly to grow his game and had a breakout second season by averaging 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.31 blocks. Even bigger things could be ahead for Isaac following a dedicated summer in which he ingested 5,000 calories a day to bulk up to 230 pounds and one in which he worked to perfect his shooting stroke.

Isaac’s preference, however, is to focus on the futures of Fultz and Bamba, who seem poised to reward the Magic’s patience with big production. The 6-foot-10 Isaac was delighted to see Bamba and Fultz healthy and happy on Saturday in San Antonio and he thinks both are now on collision courses with greatness.

``Mo’s going to be special, man,’’ Isaac raved. ``With his ability to shoot the ball, rebound and block shots, we just want him to stay healthy and continue to make the strides that he’s making.

``Just like Mo, Markelle is going to be a great asset for us,’’ Isaac added. ``I think he showed his ability to get into the paint, pass and make plays for himself. I think this preseason will just help him get more acclimated to our team.’’

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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