2019-20 Magic Position Preview: Centers

Nikola Vucevic
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Expectations are soaring for the Orlando Magic in the upcoming season after the squad ended last season as one of the hottest teams in the NBA and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Now comes the hard part for a Magic team that is hopeful that it is just starting an extended run that will eventually make them contenders in the Eastern Conference once again.

Orlando did what it could to make sure it carries the momentum from last season over to this one by retaining free agents Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams and Khem Birch, while also signing free-agent forward Al-Farouq Aminu and drafting rookie Chuma Okeke. Along with a core of Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac, D.J. Augustin, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz and Wes Iwundu, the Magic figure to have a deep and talented team capable of dominant nights on both ends of the floor.

After going 22-9 down the stretch, 42-40 on the season and downing the eventual World Champion Toronto Raptors in the first game of the playoffs, various computer models are projecting the Magic to be in the hunt for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference this season. ESPN.com’s projection simulation has the Magic winning 46 games and being a 93 percent lock to make the playoffs again, while other simulations predict Orlando nabbing the No. 3 seed in the East behind Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Those jumps, if they materialize, would be as impressive as the Magic leading the NBA in win-improvement (plus-17 victories) from 2017-18 to 2018-19.

Magic Media Day is scheduled for Sept. 30, while training camp will open on Oct. 1 at the Amway Center. After starting the exhibition season on the road (at San Antonio, at Detroit and at Atlanta), the Magic will play their first preseason game at home on Oct. 11 against the Boston Celtics. The Magic also open the regular season at the Amway Center, hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 23. Season tickets and single-game tickets are on sale and can be purchased at OrlandoMagic.com/tickets or by calling 407-89-MAGIC.

With the start of training camp less than a month away, we’re beginning our position-by-position analysis of the Magic’s roster. For the first installment of the analysis series, we’ll closely analyze the Magic’s talent at the center position – arguably the squad’s deepest and most potent position on the roster.
Without further ado, here is a breakdown of the Magic’s center position:

POSITION: Center

PLAYERS: Nikola Vucevic (7-0, 260, 8 NBA seasons); Mohamed Bamba (7-0, 245, 1 NBA season); Khem Birch (6-9, 220, 2 NBA seasons).

PROJECTED STARTER: Vucevic (2018-19 stats: 80 games, 20.8 ppg., 12 rpg., 3.8 apg., 1.1 bpg., 51.8 FG percent, 36.4 3FG percent, 78.9 FT percent).

PROJECTED DEPTH: Bamba (2018-19 stats: 47 games, 6.2 ppg., 5 rpg., 1.4 bpg., 48.1 FG percent, 30 3FG percent, 58.7 FT percent); Birch (2018-19 stats: 50 games, 4.8 ppg., 3.8 rpg., 0.6 bpg., 60.3 FG percent, 69.9 FT percent).

STRENGTHS: In Vucevic, Bamba and Birch the Magic have three quality NBA centers who should give the team plenty of production, depth and muscle on the inside.

Orlando is hopeful that Vucevic can repeat the career year he had in 2018-19 when head coach Steve Clifford put the ball in his hands and trusted his decision-making whether it was with his scoring or passing. Vucevic, who will turn 29 years old a day after the regular-season opener, feels that he is just beginning his prime as a player and that his experience will make him even more productive and efficient in years to come.

Bamba, the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, impressed at times early on before seeing his rookie season end prematurely because of a stress fracture in his left leg. He is fully healed now, and the Magic are looking for big things from him following a productive summer of work.

Birch filled in nicely for the injured Bamba and helped the Magic play some of their best basketball of the season with his uber-athletic play on the inside. Birch spent much of his summer playing for the Canadian National Team, and he could be poised for another breakout season in a reserve role.

WEAKNESSES: Vucevic made great strides defensively last season in terms of his pick-and-roll coverage and his willingness to challenge shots at the rim. However, teams will continue to go at Vucevic defensively because he is not an intimidator on the inside.

Bamba was often overmatched physically during his rookie season, but he’s worked to add bulk and muscle this past offseason. He has the wingspan, lateral quickness and timing to be an elite shot-blocker at the NBA level, but he must play with more aggression and intensity as a rim protector.

Like Bamba, Birch has elite-level shot-blocking skills and he often surprises shooters with his quickness and length off the floor. Still, Birch – an undersized center whose weight plunged as last season wore on – must work to be a better low-block defender without fouling.

ANALYSIS: Vucevic became an NBA All-Star last season for the first time in his career, and the Magic need him to continue to play at the level. He gives the team great steadiness because of his versatility, smarts and toughness in tense moments. After playing just 57, 75 and 64 games the previous three seasons, Vucevic stayed injury free last season and was available for 80 games. The Magic have great depth behind him, but it would be ideal for them to have their leader stay injury-free once again.

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Magic going into the season is how the team will handle the back-up center job behind Vucevic. Bamba struggled for long stretches of his rookie season and the Magic were a much better team after Birch took over the backup center job in late February. The Magic obviously want to give Bamba every opportunity to play major and meaningful minutes because of his star potential, but what does the franchise do if they simply play better with Birch setting screens, rolling to the rim for lobs and swatting shots on defense?

Bamba, 21, will be a player to watch early in training camp after he worked most of the summer to better his body and grow his game. Clifford stayed on him last season to play with more energy and aggression and the hope this season is that he will be able to do that now that he has more muscle. Bamba will get every shot to play because he gives the team something that it desperately needs more of – perimeter shooting. His ability to knock down shots from the perimeter gives the Magic some much-needed spacing on the outside.

Birch isn’t a shooter, but he creates offense for the Magic with his ability to free teammates with screens and while rolling to the rim for lob dunks. The Magic don’t lose much with him on the floor because of his toughness inside defensively and the threat he presents as a rim runner.

Clearly, the Magic are well-positioned at the center spot because of their depth, versatility and power there. If Vucevic can continue his all-star play and Bamba and Birch made individual leaps, the Magic should have major advantages at the center position most nights.

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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