ORLANDO, Fla. — In an offseason where there were seismic moves across the NBA landscape, no team changed less than the Orlando Magic.
Orlando added exactly one player in free agency (Al-Farouq Aminu) and re-signed four of their six free agents (Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross, Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams). When asked if such continuity is a good thing, Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said, “It is when you were a good team the year before. If you weren’t, it probably isn’t.”
It’s been a while since the Magic could say they were a good team the previous season. Last year was Orlando’s first playoff appearance after six seasons of futility. Orlando took a game off the eventual champions, the Toronto Raptors, before bowing out with four straight losses in the first round. The postseason appearance left them hungry for more. Every returning player mentioned his desire to get back to the playoffs, with none summing it up more than the team’s lone All-Star, Vucevic: “It was good, but that’s not enough. We want to be there again and this time we think we can do even better.”
Orlando started the season 20-31 and looked destined to be headed back to the lottery once again. Instead, it finished 22-9 and was the NBA’s best defensive team over the season’s second half. Guard Evan Fournier said improvement is the natural byproduct of not having to start over once again: “Nothing changed. It just takes time to adjust to a different system. Not having to start over this season is huge and having the same core is going to help us tremendously.”
Adding to that defense is Aminu. He’s long been regarded as one of the better defensive forwards in basketball. He’ll join Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon to give the Magic arguably the best group of defensive forwards in the NBA. Multiple Orlando players referenced his addition as being great to helping the team’s versatility, and Aminu should help the Magic remain a top defensive team.
What was also mentioned was that the team wasn’t good enough on offense, especially in the playoffs. Head coach Steve Clifford said, “We learned that you need to play with intensity every game in the playoffs. We were good with that on defense, but we didn’t have enough on offense. Intensity on that end, execution and creating for yourself and others are things we have to be better at.”
Given the relative lack of turnover on the roster, that improvement has to come from within. And the Magic are banking on that being spurred by Markelle Fultz.
While technically not a new addition — Fultz was acquired at the 2019 trade deadline — he will suit up for the Magic for the first time in 2019-20. After being shut down by the Philadelphia 76ers due to thoracic outlet syndrome, Fultz never appeared in a game for Orlando last season. This summer, Fultz’s rehab had been a closely guarded secret until recently. Leading up to the opening of training camp, the Magic released a series of videos showing Fultz working out. This immediately led to multiple breakdowns of his long-scrutinized shooting form. While still far from textbook, Fultz looked to be shooting the ball free and easy with a consistent form. Most importantly, he was on the court.
At media day, Fultz took several questions about his health, his recovery and his hopes for this season. When asked about how excited he is to just play basketball again, Fultz smiled widely and said, “Imagine having the thing you love most in the world taken away from you. That’s what happened to me. Now I have it back and will never take it for granted again.” That candid and hopeful response was typical of his nearly 15-minute conversation with the media.
When asked about the pressure of living up to his status of being the No. 1 pick, Fultz said, “That’s all in the past. I just want to help this team win.”
And although his individual performance will be key this season, Fultz stayed with a team-focused message for his main goal: “To help the team win. Whatever it takes. I’m the guy who will dive on the floor, defend, rebound, whatever it takes. I’m just excited to get started.”
Weltman recognizes that his team needs more offense, but stopped short of putting it on Fultz. Weltman said the team “needs to be more aggressive and that they need to hit the paint regularly for shots at the rim or to kick to shooters.” Even though he didn’t say that was Fultz’s job specifically, Weltman said, “Markelle is a guy who can help with creating offense for himself or others.” Clifford wouldn’t go as far to say Fultz was guaranteed a rotation spot, but did talk about his work over the summer “He’s been in here every day. You saw it for yourself. He’s ready to go. He’ll compete for a spot with the others starting [Tuesday].”
From his teammates, Fultz couldn’t be getting higher marks. Several veterans, including Vucevic, Fournier and starting point guard D.J. Augustin, applauded his attentive work down the stretch last season and in the playoffs, despite being inactive. As for this summer, Mo Bamba, who is coming back from an injury-wrecked rookie year himself, Isaac and Carter-Williams also noticed Fultz’s work in the facility over the summer.
Bamba has seen what Fultz can do up close. They were teammates on the team that won the gold medal at the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. Fultz was named MVP of that tournament, averaging 13.8 points and 5.2 assists per game for the undefeated USA squad. When asked what Fultz can bring, Bamba grinned and said, “So much. I’ve seen what he can do when he’s healthy. He can get to the basket so easy. He can score and pass. He’s big for a guard and he’s a really good defender, too. I can’t wait to play with him again.”
While no one is putting the onus on Fultz for the Magic to go from just another good team to a real contender, it’s clear that many are hopeful that’s exactly what Fultz will do. Vucevic, who has been with Orlando the longest, said, “We need to be able to create easier offense. It was too hard for us to get points in the playoffs. We can all improve on offense, and we have guys who can help create now.”
That doesn’t signal Fultz directly, but it’s clear where the players’ heads are at. If Orlando does make a jump this season, Markelle Fultz could be a major reason why.
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