ORLANDO – Combined, Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond have 65 years of experience in the NBA – a large chunk of which has been spent identifying, scouting and analyzing young talent used to build winning teams.
It is in their seasoned and successful hands that the future of a Magic franchise in great need of difference-making talent sits now on the precipice of Thursday night’s NBA Draft. Undoubtedly, several vexing and difficult decisions will come up in the hours and minutes prior to the Magic’s pick, and Weltman and Hammond are hopeful that their experience and proven track records will pay off for an Orlando franchise looking to score big.
``We’ll find out, but hopefully it helps,’’ Weltman joked, referring to the experience that the Magic will have in their draft room at the Amway Center. ``I can tell you that there’s never a moment that we’re not kicking ideas around. It’s not just John; it’s everybody. We’ve been in there in the day and night in the days and weeks leading up, working our butts off. … Obviously, we all bring different experience and hits and misses to this, but (the experience) makes for good dialogue and we want disagreement. We’ve had good dialogue.’’
In possession of the No. 6 pick of the first round, the Magic will most likely have to make a decision between one of the age-old arguments in basketball: Big or small? Do they opt for the size, shot-blocking skills and low-post dominance of a big man such as Mo Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Wendell Carter? Do they gamble on undersized, rail-thin point guard Trae Young, a player who could potentially transform their offense with his seemingly limitless shooting range and creative passing vision? Or do they gamble on the eventual upside of Michael Porter Jr., a forward with size and scoring ability, but a balky back following an injury in college?
The questions hardly end there on a night that potentially could be filled with upward and downward movement by teams because of the depth of top-tier talent. Do they nab European playmaker Luka Doncic if he’s passed over by Phoenix at No. 1, Sacramento at No. 2 and shockingly continues to tumble? Do the Magic use one of the pieces on their current roster to try and move up higher than No. 6 to beat out a foe to a targeted player? Do they deal a veteran or offer a future asset in an attempt to acquire an additional first-round pick who could bolster the franchise’s foundation?
Weltman, whose job it is to make the final call on those personnel decisions, knows that a lot is riding on the outcome of Thursday’s proceedings. He doesn’t take that responsibility lightly and has put in hundreds of man hours scouting, analyzing, ranking and re-ranking players to make sure he’s as prepared as possible when it’s the Magic’s time to make a decision.
``It’s my dream job and with anyone in our business, this is their dream job,’’ said Weltman, who will be running his second draft with the Magic. ``It’s a tremendous challenge and it’s always exciting to wake up and try to take it on and do well. We feel the weight of (making the correct pick) – not only for our team, but for all of our fans in the city and we know how important it is. It’s something that you get excited about.’’
Magic fans, undoubtedly, could get excited about seeing Young throw alley oop passes to Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac next season after the way he set college basketball ablaze this past fall and winter. Not only did Young become the first player in Division I history to lead the NCAAs in scoring (27.4 ppg.) and assists (8.7 apg.), he did it in dazzling fashion. He had 21 25-point games, 10 30-point performances and four 40-point efforts to go along with 11 double-digit assist games and nine nights with at least five made 3-pointers. And he has the confidence to match those gaudy numbers.
``I think I’m the best overall player in this draft,’’ said Young, who worked out for the Magic in Orlando in early June. ``My main focus isn’t to be the best player in this draft; my goal is to be the best player in the NBA and that’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.’’
Young is hardly a sure thing, however, because of his lack of size (6-foot-1 ¾ and 177 pounds), defensive struggles and late-season swoon at the University of Oklahoma.
``Well, the first thing is with Trae is he’s small, so he’s going to have to guard point guards, and he did not do a very good job defensively, but he wasn’t really asked to do that,’’ ESPN NBA Draft analyst Jay Bilas said. ``I would not project him as a good defender. I think he can be much better than he was last year where he wasn’t a very focused defender.
``He is really special on the offensive end, because he’s got (deep) range as a shooter,’’ Bilas added. ``When he takes good shots, he’s very efficient. I think he felt like he had to take some bad ones, some challenged ones and some unusually deep ones last year. … But he’s special out of pick-and-rolls. He’s an excellent passer. He’s got terrific vision. I think he’s a very special offensive player.’’
Or do the Magic opt for a potentially special defensive player? Whereas Young has been compared to gifted offensive players such as Steph Curry or Steve Nash, Bamba very well could be the next Rudy Gobert. Already 7-feet tall, Bamba has the broadest wingspan ever recorded at the NBA Draft Combine (7 feet, 10 inches) and his standing reach (9 feet, 9 inches) almost allows him to grab the rim flat-footed. He used that size to swat 3.7 shots a game as a freshman at Texas, and he’s since worked hard to expand his shooting range – something that should help him better adapt to today’s small-ball styles in the NBA.
Bamba’s stock has reportedly soared among teams picking high in the draft in recent days. That has come as little to no surprise to him.
``I believe that I have the tools, the presence and all the make-up to be the No. 1 pick,’’ Bamba said. ``I think (the media) will see more and more as draft night comes up that I’m right there with (Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Doncic), if not the number one pick. To answer the question in a sentence: `I do more, but require less, on the court and off the court.’ I feel that I’m the most efficient guy in this draft class.’’
Orlando also owns the Nos. 35 and 41 picks – ammunition that it could potentially use to move up from No. 6 or to acquire an additional first-round pick. If they do just that, Orlando-native and life-long Magic fan Anfernee Simons – someone named after Magic Hall of Famer, Anfernee ``Penny’’ Hardaway – could be a potential target.
Weltman and Hammond teamed together five years ago in Milwaukee to pull off one of the best picks in the history of the NBA Draft, nabbing superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo with the No. 15th selection. They used their experience, expertise and vision to uncover the raw, 6-foot-11 prospect from Greece. Ultimately, they found the ideal superstar that the Bucks desperately needed. Now, their task is to do the same for the star-starved Magic.
``It’s important that we make quality decisions through our draft and with the way that we build our organization,’’ Weltman said. ``Any time we add someone to our family, whether it’s on the court or off the court, it’s important that we have a good decision-making process and we add the right people. Of course, nothing is more important than adding the right players, so (this draft) is very important.’’
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