ORLANDO – Heading into their 2021-22 campaign, the Orlando Magic were focused on the growth of their young talent and constructing a culture along with winning habits that would set the organization up for future success.
At the conclusion of the season, Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman joined Mike Bianchi on FM 96.9 The Game’s Open Mike to reflect back on those elements, discuss some of the team’s key pieces and look at what’s ahead for the organization this offseason.
Here’s a recap of their conversation along with a link to the full podcast below:
Bianchi: “We knew this wasn’t going to be a season in which a very young team would win a bunch of games. With that in mind, how do you as the team president judge this season? Was it a success?”
Weltman: “Yeah. I think we accomplished a lot of our goals. We established a way of working and I’m going to say that was in large part due to our head coach (Jamahl Mosley) and coaching staff, who just did a great job keeping our guys elevated, and believing, and every day, man, every day, Mike, just showed up. If you’d of seen us practice at any point in the season, regardless of record, you would just be amazed at the spirit, and the energy, and the belief, and the togetherness that was felt throughout the whole group – on the court, off the court, organizationally. So, obviously, we knew we were going to take our lumps this year. We took them. But everybody knows that our future is in front of us and there’s a good spirit right now.”
Bianchi: “Jeff, you say that you accomplished a bunch of your goals. Would you say you pretty much got everything out of this season, not everything, but close to everything that you wanted out of this season as far as developing the young talent, you still have good draft picks left, and you didn’t get anybody seriously injured that wasn’t already injured?”
Weltman: “Yeah, Mike, I like that way of looking at it. (laughter) We’ll roll with that. I do think that our young guys – obviously our rookies – learned what it’s like to be in the NBA. They learned what it’s like to go through the marathon season that the NBA is all about. Jalen (Suggs) had an injury in the middle of the season that actually, I think, we’ll look back on it and say that was the best thing that could have happened to him. He used that time really productively, which I think says a lot about him, a lot about our performance staff and our coaching staff. Our analytics crew almost looks at our season like pre-Jalen injury and post-Jalen injury for the way that he looked and the way that our team looked. Our defensive rating skyrocketed when he got back from that injury. It’s a little tricky because we’re trying to evaluate individually and we’re trying to figure out what works going forward as a team and what’s going to put us in a position to win. At the very end of the season, obviously, we were able to bring Markelle (Fultz) back and the team looked different with him on the court. But overall, I would say, yeah, Mike, we have not pushed any chips into the middle of the table yet. We still have all of our draft picks. We’re excited about this year’s draft. Our cap flexibility. The young guys clearly improved. They got better and got integrated into our coaching staff. So, now, for the first time in a couple years, we’ll have a full summer. We’ll move into our new practice facility. And there is a lot of optimism throughout.”
Bianchi: “One of our listeners just texted in ‘do you believe that young talent gets used to losing and it becomes difficult to make a switch to becoming more competitive.’”
Weltman: “That is a great, great question. I can tell you that we studied a lot of rebuilds throughout the last twenty years of the NBA before we embarked on this path. Obviously, there is never a guarantee that you turn that corner. And that’s always the risk. But there’s also a risk in keeping a group together that doesn’t feel like it has the momentum to really break through to another level. I believe that it’s all in the relationships. It’s all in the work. It’s all in the character of the players and the connectivity of the coaches to the players. So, those are obviously elements that we have our antenna up for. But, no, I don’t believe that that’s going to happen to us. I believe that everyone in our group is spirited, they’re tough, they’re fighters, (and) they’re smart. We have a high IQ. We have a high skill level. We’re going to add more players like that. Obviously, we don’t want guys to grow up losing. But if you look at our team, and you look at (players like) Wendell (Carter Jr.) and Franz (Wagner) – I’ll go down the whole roster – those guys are fighters and they’re winners. The way that they play leads to winning. So, we just have to stay the course, kind of remain patient, and add more."
Bianchi: “You talked about coach Mosley earlier. Coaches are usually judged by wins and losses, but, again, we know what this season was about. Can you just elaborate on the job you thought that coach Mose did?”
Weltman: “Man, Mike. I just think he did an amazing job. I said coming into the season, ‘by the way with a young team, we also have a rookie coach.’ And I look at coach Mose right now as a different coach than the coach that entered the season. He has an understanding of how he wants to work, not just philosophically on the court, but even with his staff and how to progress through the rigors of an NBA season. I will say, I’ve always considered myself the most patient guy in the NBA, but I think I may have met my match. I have to tell you, this guy is a tremendous human being. Hs willingness to involve himself in others’ lives and take on what they’re taking on and go through that with them, it’s remarkable. He’s a great person. I think he grew tremendously as a coach. I have to say, the staff really embodied what he wanted them to be about. I’m really proud of all of those guys and I’m thrilled with the job that they did.”
Bianchi: “Everybody remembers the trade of last year where (Nikola Vucevic) got traded to the Chicago Bulls. Well, that trade netted Wendell Carter Jr. and the draft pick that got Franz Wagner. You have to feel pretty good about that trade now I would think?”
Weltman: “Listen, I’m happy for Vooch. Chicago had a good year and obviously, they’ll be in the playoffs. I always wish Vooch luck. But that said, obviously, I’m very pleased with the way that things worked out. I think that Wendell has already established himself this season as a top ten center. Wendell’s numbers reflect tremendous growth, but his game isn’t reflected by his numbers. This is a guy, who everything that he does is about winning – on the court, off the court. Tremendous young guy. Just turned twenty-three. His future is entirely in front of him and all that he does is lift his teammates up, on the court (and) off the court. Franz had a tremendous rookie season. I feel that he learned what eighty-two games is about. He came within a whisker of playing all eighty-two, which would have been a hell of an accomplishment. But the fact that he did play as many as he did, I think is remarkable in today’s NBA for a rookie. Those are two very smart, very skilled, very hungry guys who really, really care about winning first, and everything else second. Obviously, with that Mike, we have one more pick coming from them in a couple of years. Yeah, so far we’re pleased with those guys and it’s our job to continue to develop them the right way and it’s their job to work and I know they’ll do that.”
Bianchi: “What did you see from Markelle Fultz after he came back? What did you like about what you saw?”
Weltman: “Well, the first thing that we look at is how does the team play with any given player on the floor? And I think Markelle (with) his talent and his selflessness, just from the first game back just breathes life into the team. He’s such an amazing person. So, basically, what we saw I think was a guy who is exquisitely talented in creating offense for others, who has a high IQ, who has a crazy physical package of size and skills and vision, and I think he actually performed at a level that I probably would have not expected right out of the gate. He hasn’t played in fourteen months. There was a lot of rust there. I still think that he’s got a lot of growth and he knows it. We had a good talk yesterday. With his conditioning and just kind of tightening stuff up. But I think he’s on a track to be a high-level player for our team and he’s all about the right stuff. Again, he’s all about others and I think that’s reflected on the court. You could see the team really being lifted when he got back, and we played better. Very quickly, we played better with him on the court, which isn’t a surprise. That’s what it’s all about. So, very encouraging that when the young guys got their glimmers together, it looked good.”
Bianchi: “Mo Bamba showed some flashes this year, obviously. What’s his future with the team?”
Weltman: “I think what Mo really did, Mike, was Mo started to shoot the ball consistently as we have expected him to grow into over the years. That takes time. We always talk about guys growing into their bodies, understanding the rhythm of the league and the pace, and just kind of having the comfort level that it’s just another game. So, especially with guys with Mo’s body type, it takes longer than others. So, I think we’re starting to see Mo shoot the ball better. Obviously, he was healthier. The old line ‘no ability like availability.’ He was available more. I think the actual consistency, getting up and down the court is on the uptick. He’s still got work to do. He’s still a very young guy. He’s got a lot of progress in front of him, but to your question, look, Mo is a restricted free agent and right now our whole group is taking a big exhale. Everybody is kind of clearing out for a little bit while they decompress. We will regroup and try to get an understanding of how our group fits together and obviously, free agency is a two-way street. So, we’ll see where that goes, but we’re very encouraged by Mo’s progress. Mo is a great guy. Mo’s a great kid and he’s had a lot of bad breaks along the way with injuries and COVID, and etc. I was really proud of him, the way that he fought through those things this year and started to scratch the surface of the player that he should be.”
Bianchi: “Jonathan Isaac, as we know, didn’t play this year. He had a hamstring surgery, I believe, later in the season. What’s the prognosis for him next season and how dejected is he that he had this setback?”
Weltman: “Well, his surgery was on his other leg, just to be clear. Kind of a more minor – obviously the old expression ‘minor surgery is when it’s done on someone else’ – but I guess in the scheme of things a more minor (surgery) on his opposite leg. I would say that Jonathan Isaac gets dejected for a day and then he comes back and works with a smile on his face. He’s just an amazing guy. He sees the world differently than a lot of people that I’m around every day. He’s a fighter, he’s a believer, and he’s a relentless worker. He’s all about the Magic. So, he hasn’t really been able to get back to it yet from his latest procedure, but I know he’ll start ramping it back up soon, and get back on the horse, and get himself back on the court, and we go from there. He’s in a great frame of mind. He’s positive, as always. His mental makeup is unique.”
Bianchi: “Jeff, you said at the beginning of the interview that you pretty much accomplished a lot of your goals this year. What’s the goal for next year? Have you thought about that? Are we still in rebuild mode next year or do we start to see progress in the win column?”
Weltman: “You know, hearing you say my answer back to me that I was satisfied with the goals, I don’t really like hearing that, honestly, Mike, because we’re not content, we’re not satisfied. Our goals remain the same which are to develop these young guys. Everybody says you need stars in this league. Sometimes stars don’t always reveal themselves instantly. We’ve had guys that have had tremendous growth on this team, and I think that this team right now has a lot of potential. We’re talking about like two twenty-year-olds, twenty-three-year-olds, this a young, young team with everything in front of it. And they get along and they fit on the court, and they fit off the court. There are still evaluations to be made. There are still a lot of improvements that our guys have to make and that’s going to take a lot of work. And it’s going to take time. So, I don’t really think that we recalibrate our goals going into the season. I think that we ramp them up, we challenge our guys to get better, and from a team-building standpoint, obviously, we’ll look to add more. We’ll find out in about a month where we sit in the lottery and it’ll be an exciting offseason.”
Bianchi: “When do you decide who is going to play in the summer league?”
Weltman: “Summer league is generally about guys that really didn’t get a chance to play a whole lot. So, I’ll visit with the coaches about that and talk to Mose about it in the couple weeks to come. But I wouldn’t anticipate a heavy burden of existing roster guys in the summer league, only because they just played a lot. They got a lot of reps in the NBA. Summer league is generally for guys who didn’t get a lot of reps. If they are kind of feeling at a place where they want to go and get some reps, then we’ll obviously let them play. But I think we have our pick, we have two second round picks, and we also have a bunch of young guys in kind of other positions on our roster from Lakeland and two-way guys that I think performed well for us and I would be curious to see how integrated they are with us this summer.”