2018-19 Magic Position Preview: Centers

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Plenty of intrigue is sure to surround the Orlando Magic in the upcoming season what with them having a new coach, a potentially transformational new big man and a couple blossoming young players seemingly on the verge of making big leaps.

No position on the Magic’s roster will command more attention and intrigue than that of the center spot – one where new head coach Steve Clifford will likely have to pull off his best juggling act at times this season.

Nikola Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, is back for a seventh season in Orlando and back following one of the best all-around seasons of his NBA career. That didn’t stop the Magic from gleefully selecting 7-foot center Mohamed Bamba with the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft. Orlando is hopeful that Bamba – owner of the NBA’s longest wingspan ever recorded at 7 feet, 10 inches – can quickly become a shot-swatting deterrent at the rim and make the Magic a feared, elite defense. Potentially pairing Bamba with Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac – two young players the Magic will be expecting to make major gains this season – could give Orlando the most explosive and athletic frontline in the NBA.

How Clifford balances Vucevic’s steady offensive production and Bamba’s much-needed defense could be one of the major keys to the season for a Magic team that hopes to make a major jump in the standings this season. Clifford, who was hired on May 30 following a successful five-year stint in Charlotte, has been charged with getting the Magic back into the playoffs for the first time since the 2012 season – one in which he worked in Orlando as an assistant coach.

The Magic will hold Media Day at the Amway Center on Sept. 24 and open training camp a day later in Orlando. The team opens the preseason in Philadelphia on Oct. 1 and plays Brazilian powerhouse Flamengo on Oct. 5 at the Amway Center. For a third straight season, the Magic will open the regular season at home against the rival Miami Heat – this time on Oct. 17 ay 7 p.m. Season tickets and single-game tickets are on sale and can be purchased by logging onto OrlandoMagic.com or calling 407-89-MAGIC.

With the Magic being almost two weeks from the start of training camp, OrlandoMagic.com is breaking down the team’s strengths, weaknesses and likely plan of attack at each position. Today, the focus is on the center position and how the team will use Vucevic, Bamba, Khem Birch and Timofey Mozgov. Without further ado, here’s a look at how the Magic will look in the middle:

POSITION: Center

PLAYERS: Nikola Vucevic (7-0, 260, 7 NBA seasons); Mohamed Bamba (7-0, 225, NBA rookie); Khem Birch (6-9, 220, 1 NBA season); Timofey Mozgov (7-1, 275, 8 NBA seasons).

PROJECTED STARTER: Vucevic (2017-18 stats: 57 games, 16.5 ppg., 9.2 rpg., 3.4 apg., 1.1 bpg., 47.5 FG percent, 31.4 3FG percent, 81.9 FT percent).

PROJECTED DEPTH: Bamba (2017-18 stats at University of Texas: 30 games, 12.9 ppg., 10.5 rpg., 3.7 bpg., 54.1 FG percent, 27.5 3FG percent, 68.1 FT percent); Birch (2017-18 stats: 42 games, 4.2 ppg., 4.3 rpg., 0.5 bpg., 54 FG percent, 68.9 FT percent); Mozgov (2017-18 stats with Nets: 31 games (13 starts), 4.2 ppg., 3.2 rpg., 55.9 FG percent.

STRENGTHS: In Vucevic, Bamba, Birch and Mozgov the Magic have a diverse base of talent, making it arguably the squad’s deepest overall position. Vucevic is nearly as skilled offensively as any other center in the league what with his perimeter shooting, excellent passing skills and stellar work on the glass. Bamba has the wingspan, smarts and lateral quickness to make the Magic a feared defense for the first time in seven seasons. Birch proved last season that he belongs in the NBA with his willingness to block shots and fight bigger centers in the post. He and the veteran Mozgov will have to fight for minutes in the regular rotation, but undoubtedly there will be times when they will contribute because of their size, skills and toughness.

WEAKNESSES: Whereas each Magic big man possesses a true strength, there is also a definitive weakness in each of their games. For as skilled as he is offensively, Vucevic usually struggles in high pick-and-roll defense and opposing players usually have no fear of him swatting their shots at the rim. Bamba has done a lot of work this offseason on his post play and shooting, but he is still incredibly raw offensively. His lack of bulk and strength – something he’s already addressing with more weight room work – will likely be to his detriment as a rookie against bigger, more physically mature players. Birch is a center in a power forward’s body, but he doesn’t yet possess the ability to step away from the basket and knock down perimeter shots. Mozgov has struggled to carve out playing time in recent years as teams have gone to faster, more agile centers.

ANALYSIS: While improving the defense is a top priority for the Magic this season, they are still going to need to score enough points to keep up in today’s small-ball, space-and-pace NBA. For that reason, the Magic most likely will begin the season with Vucevic as the starter at center. They know that they can count on Vucevic to make the right play on the offensive end what with his solid combination of shooting, passing and screening. A member of the Magic for six seasons, Vucevic loves playing in Orlando and wants to secure his long-term future here. The best way to do that is to have a career-best season on both ends of the floor.

The Magic will still make sure to carve out plenty of playing time for Bamba, who has the potential to make a sizeable impact on the defensive end of the floor with his shot-blocking and length around the rim. Because he’s still so raw offensively, the Magic will likely use the big man primarily as a lob threat after setting high screens and rolling to the rim. If he can also make enough perimeter shots and the occasional 3-pointer, Bamba will be able to stay on the floor more and carve out a bigger role in the rotation. Bamba has already greatly impressed the Magic with the improvement he’s made since the end of his college career and if he can continue on that path this season he could have superstar potential in the very near future.
Birch is a highly underrated player who could find his way onto the floor this season with his ability to bring consistent toughness, energy and shot-blocking. Birch and Mozgov give the Magic plenty of insurance at the center position should injuries hit the 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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