SAN FRANCISCO – At the conclusion of the Orlando Magic’s practice in San Francisco on Sunday, Jalen Suggs picked up a basketball, tossed up a corner 3-pointer with his left hand, instantly spun around, and as it swished through the net, looked at Mo Bamba and declared, “I know it’s good by the sound.”
The rookie point guard’s right thumb may be fractured, but his confidence, desire to continue his learning process, and passion for the game are still as strong as ever.
Suggs, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, embarked on the Magic’s five-game road trip with the team despite having a fractured right thumb that will keep him out for an extended period of time.
The 6-foot-5 guard suffered the injury in Orlando’s comeback effort in Philadelphia on Nov. 29. With just under five minutes to play in that contest, Suggs drove to the basket and was met by Sixers center Joel Embiid, who swiped for the ball and in the process came down on his hand. The team announced shortly afterwards that the Gonzaga alum suffered a fractured thumb, would miss the rest of the game, and would be reevaluated once the team returned to Orlando.
“I was trying to drive to the lane and put pressure on the paint and then try to kick out to a shooter,” Suggs explained. “Embiid slapped down and ended up catching my finger and my hand, and yeah, it fractured it. It’s one of those plays that’s just an awkward play that you don’t even think would happen. It’s the last thing I thought would happen. It’s the first time I’ve been hurt in my NBA career. It is what it is. It comes with the sport. Everybody has to go through it.”
On the positive side, medical examinations revealed that Suggs would not need surgery. Instead, the versatile combo guard will be evaluated every two weeks to gauge healing and his return will ultimately depend on the healing of the bone.
Upon getting his diagnosis, Suggs spoke with members of the Magic’s coaching staff as well as his teammates to develop a game plan for his absence. One of those players was Cole Anthony, who missed 25 games during his rookie campaign with a rib injury.
“(I told him) during this time where you really can’t be on the court, take the time to study as much film and not just that, but especially when we’re playing, watching each one of those games and be super focused on what the team is doing and on when you come back how you can implement yourself into the offensive and defensive schemes,” said Anthony, who upon his return from injury scored in double figures in 19 of the Magic’s last 22 games of the 2020-21 campaign, including exploding for a career-best 37 points in the season finale.
Suggs took his teammates and coaches’ advice to heart. While he could have stayed back in Orlando and continued his rehabilitation process from the comforts of Amway Center, the 20-year-old wanted to head out West with the team and soak up as much knowledge as possible.
“The conditioning and rhythm could have been done at home. For me, the biggest part was still being around the team, hearing what the coaches are saying, being on the bench, and being engaged into the game,” Suggs explained. “That was the biggest piece for me for wanting to come and hoping they’d let me come. Again, just continuing to build the comradery because I love to be around these guys. I didn’t want to sit at home for two weeks and watch the guys play on TV. I wanted to be there live to support them. That was really the main reason that I came on the trip.”
The organization is using that time to kick his learning process into overdrive. In addition to engaging in his normal video work as well as his rehab, Suggs has extended film sessions with Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley and assistant coach Nate Tibbetts where they review games in full-quarter or full-contest videos rather than just cut ups.
“Just trying to see the flow, see where certain shots come in, see how I can better control the game in certain situations,” Suggs explained. “I think they’ve done a great job of keeping me involved and keeping me engaged.”
Although he’s unable to take the court, the Minnesota native still has in-game tasks. Mosley has asked Suggs to remain vocal during the Magic’s games and relay what he’s seeing on the court.
“I really think (being on this trip is) going to be great for him, working on the studying of the game even more so,” Mosley said. “Being with us in some coaches’ meetings, understanding, watching film breakdowns, spending time with his teammates just the same. But again, during the games, I’ve asked him to stand up and (say) the things he sees on floor. Just to continue to communicate the things that are going on but being able to see it from a different perspective as well (with) not being able to get into the game.”
It's been hard to keep Suggs off the court. In fact, he still finds ways to hop into practice by passing with his left hand and going through conditioning drills. But everyday task without the regular use of his dominant hand can be frustrating for him at times.
“I tell you this has been one of the hardest things that I’ve had to do. Not having an opposable thumb. Again, I’ve told the trainers (it feels weird not) having an opposable thumb,” said Suggs. “I have to use my index finger and my middle finger like chopsticks for everything. It’s just not working out right now. But we’re working on it and it’s getting better. And I’m trying to stay involved whether that’s me passing on shooting drills. I hopped in the three-man weave (on Sunday). Again, just trying to make my presence felt and be around the team in any way possible.”
Prior to the injury, Suggs was starting to get even more comfortable on the floor. In addition to emerging as one of the league’s best pick-and-roll defenders, he scored in double figures in seven of his final eight games. And upon his return, he will look to build on a campaign where he's averaging 12.3 points, 3.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game.
“There’s still time. It’s kind of like a pre-offseason during the season,” said Suggs, who expressed that he’s already eager to get back on the court. “I get to take time to work on my game, watch film and really dive deep into what was going on those first twenty games while I was in and learn from them. Get my wind back up to an even higher level than it was. Then, when I come back, I hope to perform at an even higher level than I was when I went out.”