Magic's Second Unit Has Explosive Offensive Potential

Cole Anthony
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- Every member of an NBA team’s rotation has an impact on its success.

On squads without a definitive All-NBA, go-to scoring option, the need for a team’s entire unit to be able to contribute to carrying the offensive load becomes all the more imperative.

The Orlando Magic are hoping that this season their bench unit will not only be able to play with pace and purpose on the offensive end, but also put up points in bunches.

For the first time on Thursday night, the Magic rolled out their expected reserve rotation for the start of the regular season. Terrence Ross – returning from a non-displaced, hairline fracture, first metatarsal in his left foot – made his preseason debut as Orlando’s bench gave everyone a glance at their potential offensive potency.

“I think you saw a glimpse of hopefully what it can become, last night,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford said. “Those ingredients (were evident) in the second quarter (against the Hornets) where they created good shots and they knocked them down. There will be some growing pains for sure when we’re playing some younger guys, but I think both Cole (Anthony) and Chuma (Okeke), they have the right attitude.”

The Magic’s secondary unit connected on eight 3-pointers on Thursday, well above last season’s average of 4.8 bench triples per game. Ross, nicknamed the Human Torch for his ability to instantly catch fire the moment he steps on the floor, drilled three triples in the contest. The Magic’s rookie duo of Anthony and Okeke added the other five.

“I feel like we can spread the defense a lot being that all of us can penetrate and kick out and all of us can shoot the ball really well,” Okeke said. “We all have trust in each other, and we all believe that if we don’t hit this shot, that we’re going to hit the next shot. That confidence in each other, it just goes a long way.”

It was expected that it would take a while for the Magic’s rookies to adjust to playing with Ross. There are a number of unique plays within Orlando’s offense that are run specifically to highlight his skillset. But impressively, like they’ve done with nearly everything in this shortened training camp and preseason, Anthony and Okeke were quick to pick up the best ways to get the Magic’s star sixth man the ball.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do is when we do contact in practice is try to get them in the same group,” Clifford said. “Obviously, Terrence is a big part of our offense and a lot of the catch-and-shoot things that we do, we run for him. So that timing, spacing, overall execution is important for our team.”

That effort paid off early in the fourth quarter against the Hornets. With 8:24 left in the period, Anthony handed the ball off to Okeke. The 6-foot-8 forward then executed a perfectly timed one-handed pass off the dribble to a cutting Ross, who finished with one of the most spectacular slams of the night.

“Chuma is my guy,” a beaming Ross explained. “When he made that pass, I knew. There’s not too many guys that can make that pass, especially on the back-door off the dribble. Usually, that’s me and (Aaron Gordon’s) play, me and AG got that connection, but Chuma, he surprised me with that pass right on the money.”

While Ross has been impressed by the Magic’s rookies, they’ve been equally in awe of his skillset and were thrilled to finally be able to take the floor with him in game action.

“Just to be able to play with a dude who can shoot like that, shoot, that makes everyone’s life easier,” said Anthony, who finished the game with 13 points. "Having people that can shoot (is) awesome. And it’s not just one dude who can shoot, it’s one of the best shooters in the league. I’m happy he’s back out there, happy he’s starting to feel better. I’m comfortable playing with him and I look forward to playing with him more.”

In their one contest all together, the Magic’s bench produced 46 points off the pine. For reference, Orlando averaged 38.1 points per game from its secondary unit last season, 14th best in the NBA. Only two teams in the league produced more than 46 bppg., the Los Angeles Clippers (50.3) and Washington Wizards (48.3).

“We obviously need to have balance with the starting five and the bench,” Magic shooting guard Evan Fournier said. “They’re going to have a huge role to play, so hopefully the (young) guys can figure it out and help us win.”

With two rookies playing potential pivotal roles in the rotation, there will certainly be ups and downs. But Orlando’s head coach is encouraged by their prospects and ability to improve as the season evolves.

Anthony has wowed both coaches and teammates with his high-end work ethic and commitment to the game and has made significant strides in just three preseason games.

“He doesn’t back down from anything,” Ross said of Anthony. “He’s going to take it to you every time he has it. Especially for a lot of younger guys that mentality is a little harder to teach, especially when they get into the NBA and they see all these older guys and the guys they’ve been watching forever. He has that mentality that he’s just going to go at you. That’s valuable in our league.”

Also expected to be part of that unit are two players who share a similar mindset, Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams. Birch’s screening provides immense value to the surrounding shooters and MCW’s penetration, playmaking and two-way focus add another dimension to the team.

“We’re all playing for each other out there,” Anthony said. “That second unit is really starting to mesh together. I think we’re all finding where everyone is comfortable. Khem likes to come set those screens, Chuma can score and he’s also a good passer, Terrence wants to shoot it, and MCW can do everything, so I think we’re really getting comfortable out there with each other. It’s been fun and I think we’ve gotten better every time we’ve stepped on the court together.”

If that trend continues, it could develop into something special for Orlando as the season evolves.

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