There are approximately 25 teams in the league that aren't being labeled as title contenders, but none of them are going be as big as the Orlando Magic. It’s almost best to pretend that the current gold standard franchises like the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets are mere dreamworld fantasies—enjoying a tranquilized paradise adorned with once in a generation, Hall of Fame caliber players, casually spinning “NBA Jam" flame-ignited basketballs on their fingers while bemusedly watching everybody else struggle to climb up the spiral staircase a thousand feet below. But the smarter ground-bound teams aren’t working up a sweat only to exhaust themselves by the 2nd floor; they’re building, adapting, and analyzing their rosters with poise and preparation, beginning their trek towards that rarefied air only when it makes complete sense to proceed.
For the Magic, their reverie involves John Hammond wearing a weathered scientist’s jacket, looming over a blanketed mass in a murky RV (because Florida can’t handle basements), while Jeff Weltman stands at his side holding a metal tray of 3D printed limbs to help aid in further elongating Hammond’s collection of already lengthy players. The biggest wingspan fanatic this side of Jay Bilas, Hammond’s (and Weltman’s) draft decisions helped spur on the BIG moniker that has caught on in Orlando.
The Magic are bucking the trend and going big—or at least cementing their foundation with bigs—in a league appearing to get smaller. But these aren’t the lumbering giants of yesteryear, and the game is always evolving depending on where the congregation of new talent lies. The Magic are in possession of three high character, versatile big men that have the ability to develop into game changers on both ends of the floor—if all goes right. A tall task, but a task that all three of these young men would not hesitate to sign up for. Hammond’s draft decisions don’t seem to be delusions of grandeur, or attempting to reinvent the wheel—but carefully curated and selected. It’s about getting to your final destination with the least amount of resistance, and the most amount of talent. A modern NBA team will always need guards to stretch the floor, and historically, one All-Star level scorer that can create for himself and others. One of these guys may turn into a go-to scorer with all the bells and whistles attached, but even if they don’t, their unique abilities could help bring in one of those via free agency.
B, Mo Bamba. To the delight of the Magic front office, the highly touted freshman from Texas slid all the way down to number six in the 2018 NBA Draft. The B of the BIG trio is the easiest player to plug in—there’s no mistaking what position he is when he steps onto the parquet floor of the Amway Center. His pairing with recently hired head coach Steve Clifford will be a good introduction to NBA level schemes and expectations. Clifford historically prefers his bigs to play foul-free defense, become noteworthy defensive rebounders, work hard to prevent easy transition baskets, and defend the hell out of the paint. Bamba can illuminate those areas right out of the gate. The longest tenured Magician, Nikola Vucevic, has done an admirable job at the center spot since the boisterous departure of Dwight Howard in 2012, but it’s clear where his value and impact lands on the overall big board, and the Magic have sent up a bright blue flare with the drafting of Mo Bamba. Vucevic will be warming the starting seat, at least until mid-season, when Bamba is ready to withstand 25-30 minutes of jostling and banging down low without getting turned into gristle.
The wingspan, the sprint time, all of Bamba’s measurables and tests are off the charts. Still, he was dinged in college for his inconsistent motor, and does need to clean up areas of his defense before we anoint him a future DPOY contender. A better natural understanding of pick and roll defense would serve Bamba well in the future, as he’s mainly relying on raw talent over savvy in that area at the moment, but being equipped with his weapon-like mind means that all of the repetition and practice he’ll accrue will help plug in those holes in no time.
He’ll also be afforded the luxuries of an official NBA training program and NBA level trainers. As much work as he puts into improving his offense and defense, just as much dedication and graft will be needed in putting on weight and strengthening his core. The later that occurs, the more that ill-wishing centers like Joel Embiid and Steven Adams will want to crush his psyche and “welcome him to the league”. But until training camp starts, he can stream himself on YouTube eating a mukbang of Chick-fil-A spicy chicken sandwiches. I’m sure that would be a hit.
I, Jonathan Isaac. The forgotten rookie of the notable 2017 draft class endured an injury plagued season after a promising start, with his early advanced numbers comparing favorably to the Tatums, Mitchells and Kuzmas of the world. A recurring ankle injury would derail his season, keeping him out of 55 games—effectively killing all hype he had gained before the injury. There were still moments of impressive defense later on in the season, but all in all, the excitement faded and it wasn’t the rookie year Isaac envisioned himself having. In this most recent Summer League though, Isaac continued where he left off at the beginning of his rookie campaign, completely shutting down a red-hot Jaren Jackson Jr. and showing tantalizing defensive abilities alongside his new partner in defensive crime, Mo Bamba.
Isaac has the potential to become a monstrous two-way player in the league, but it all depends on how aggressive he can will himself to be, and how his shot will develop as he gains more experience. There are tons of little things to improve upon for him—he tends to let go of the rim too quickly after dunks, making for awkward landings and grimaced reactions from Magic fans, he flashed a mid-range shot that didn’t like to go down during the regular season (admittedly, it looked 100% better during Summer League), and deciding when to drive, take a three, or settle for the mid-range is a pure decision making improvement he’ll need to focus on—while things like feeling more comfortable dribble driving and getting to the line are improvements that all NBA players should always make. For Isaac however, these improvements would take his game to the next level.
Isaac is built like a modern day power forward, but there are rumblings of him feeling more comfortable as a small forward—time will ultimately tell. If you’re looking for a bright red sign pointing to the player with the highest potential ceiling on the team, it’s Jonathan Isaac. He’s endlessly fascinating as a prospect. The combination of his strengths aren’t always translated in the box scores, but more often than not, you come away feeling strongly about his future while watching him play, even if he posts pedestrian numbers. It’s like walking to your car in the morning and repeatedly wiping off the dewy spider webs from your face that you ran into but couldn’t see. It’s annoying and you know it’s there, but you can’t always see it. The Ringer have drank the Judas Juice—you should too.
G, Aaron Gordon. Fresh off his debut acting role in Uncle Drew, Casper captured the attention of NBA fans league-wide for something other than his dunking prowess during the first quarter of the 17-18 NBA season. After a 41-point explosion against the Brooklyn Nets, and a 40-point game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Gordon’s name was firmly plastered among the other top candidates for Most Improved Player as the season inched towards Christmas. His sudden panache for random scoring outbursts came as a bit of a surprise, as the put-back, dunking, garbageman version of Gordon his freshman year at Arizona and rookie year in the NBA became more and more opaque. Sure, eventually his shooting cooled way off, as did his MIP hopes, but he was still a decently viable scoring option for a poor Magic team. And even if his ceiling as a scorer is limited, it’s more than what anybody projected for him coming out of college. More importantly, this summer, he’s providing plenty of offseason tape. Make of it what you will, but he’s smoothing out areas of his game that already looked much improved last season, and he’s clearly dedicated to getting better at creating his own shot. Gordon punished defenses last year for leaving him open, now he’s working on punishing them while being guarded, and he’s still only 22 years old.
It’s inoffensive to immediately write off the potential of Aaron Gordon at the small forward position, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing so. Two years ago, neither Frank Vogel (who wanted to use Aaron Gordon like Paul George), nor Aaron Gordon (who was on board with the Paul George plan) were quite ready for that role. His physique was too bulky, his offensive movements too mechanical, and the overall Aaron-at-SF vision faded by the time the team hit the All-Star break. When Aaron moved back to the PF spot after Serge Ibaka was traded to the Toronto Raptors, it was as if he removed a 35-pound vest.
But to be fair, Serge Ibaka and Nikola Vucevic occupied many of the same spaces on the floor, which didn’t help the transition into his new role—it was like releasing a butterfly out of a mason jar into a slightly larger Ziploc bag. The security wasn’t there, and neither was the room to breathe or make mistakes and naturally progress. His play last season at SF was adequate, nothing to write home about, but nothing like the disaster of his previous year. At the defensive end however, Aaron Gordon has always been more adept at disrupting and defending small forwards than power forwards, where the Taj Gibsons and Kris Humphries of the world historically have given him fits with their size.
The bottom line is that one of Gordon or Isaac will have to work out at the small forward position at some point in time for this BIG project to work as intended, but time can be molded and stretched for a few seasons while they take their lumps and see what form the chiseled marble will take. If you’re lucky, you’ll get gifted a David from Michelangelo, on the other hand, you could find yourself holding that infamous Cristiano Ronaldo bust. It’s just part of the risk you take when dedicating yourself to three young frontcourt players.
All in all, it’s an experiment that will reward the franchise with a fruitful bounty if applied correctly and nurtured with the right amount of push and pull. For a team entering a sort of re-rebuild, the Magic can ill afford to repeat a Mario Hezonja situation. But fear not, there is no mirage in the excitement that these three could conjure, and quite frankly, Magic fans deserve to get a little bit excited about their future.