I have a theory that nobody in the NBA has punked their opponents more often this season than the Orlando Magic. After wandering the purgatory between the bottom of the league and its glamorous middle for more than a decade – they weren’t even a play-in team last season! - the Magic have come out this year as gangbusters. They’re a top-five team in the East, and possibly the most impressive team in the league relative to expectations. Here, I’ll tip the cap to the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Minnesota Timberwolves, but both are anchored by young superstars who might be the next face of the league. Perhaps owing to their lack of the same, it still feels like the Magic can be underestimated on a game-to-game basis. They play like they take that personally. Their success has already rewarded Jamahl Mosley with a four-year extension to stay on as head coach, and they’re breaking free with their own grit, a smashmouth style that hits like a sucker punch.

Paolo Banchero, the reigning Rookie of the Year, is a first-time All-Star in his second season, and Franz Wagner is on a similar trajectory in his third year. They may not be pushing for top-10 status in the NBA right now, but it would be a lie to say that the Magic don’t have top-tier prospects of their own. Operating as Orlando’s alphas by committee, Banchero and Wagner have become reliable go-to scorers adding craft to their games at an incredible rate. Banchero was a ready-made bucket from his first game in the pros, a big and burly body who can get to his spots in the midpost with a veteran’s calm and range of moves. Wagner, likewise, makes his home in the lane using change of pace and misdirection. There might be no greater failsafe in team-building than having two young 6’10 wings who can carve the paint and consistently create their own shot and free throw opportunities; the late-2010s Magic, who snuck into the playoffs a few times with an Aaron Gordon-Jonathan Isaac defensive tandem, and Nikola Vucevic mashing the post, didn’t have this path forward.

I’m still not sure that you could’ve seen this coming, at least this season. The Magic announced their intentions to start winning some games for real when they pursued Fred VanVleet in the offseason, but they only came away with 36-year-old Joe Ingles and a pair of rookies drafted in the lottery (Anthony Black, Jett Howard). As things stand, Banchero and Wagner are posting league-average efficiency rates on Orlando's 23rd-ranked offense. Both players do their best work in the paint, but neither shoots the three well enough to space the floor for the other nor does most of the rest of this team. They can consistently make the right pass, but not the advanced read that manipulates the defense to pry teammates open. That’s fine, they’re young and still growing into the demands of primary playmaking, but I would’ve argued that Orlando was better primed for a rise next season instead of this one.

Certainly, you wouldn’t watch a Magic game and think they’re coming out ahead on the math, by outshooting their opponents from three or cranking the pace of the game. Instead, they’ve embraced their own jank. This is a team that has knuckled down on a ferocious defensive identity – fourth in the league – and a frenetic, physical brand of play. Nobody in the NBA forces a higher rate of turnovers and they might also be the league’s best gang rebounding team, allowing the second fewest rate of offensive rebounds. The front office has outfitted this roster with above-average positional size and speed across the board, and Mosley has made defensive effort a prerequisite to regular playing time.

He isn’t the sort of player that makes All-Star games, but if you could pinpoint a spiritual flag-bearer for the Magic team, it would be Jalen Suggs. Let’s call this the Marcus Smart effect, where Suggs wouldn’t be anyone’s nomination for the best player on this team, but he has ingrained himself into the team culture and in doing so become the fabric of their identity. His effect is psychic. The Magic play like a Jalen Suggs team – they want to outwork you, perhaps bruise you and definitely mean-mug you. Coming out of the draft, Suggs was praised for his intangibles as a winner and a competitor, and I mean, it’s easy to see this as cliched old-school analysis, but Suggs adopts cliche as his playstyle. He flies across the court, causing havoc on defense and risking it all for a loose ball, and savors the matchup against bigger players in the paint who would take him for a mouse in the house. He’s convinced that this is Orlando’s Heatles moment, and he’s starting to convince me too.

To Suggs’ credit, he’s also undergone a complete transformation to become the Magic’s best three-point shooter this season. After shooting 27.1 percent on threes across his first two seasons, Suggs is making just under 40 percent this season and taking a team-high 5.3 attempts per game. The Magic are a greatly different team if he was a non-shooter who could be played off the court when it matters; instead, he’s become essential to operations on both ends of the floor. There might’ve been loftier ambitions for a true lead playmaker when the Magic drafted him with the No. 5 pick in 2021, three picks before Wagner, but if the shooting holds, then Suggs has struck his niche as the sort of two-way player that forms the backbone of successful teams. On this particular team, he coheres everything into a winning formula.

The burden of proof still stands. Like any young team, the Magic are going to have to show us they can win at the next level before anyone believes it. There seems to be a pretty obvious scheme that they’re going to encounter in a playoff setting, when teams will send multiple defenders to Banchero and Wagner and force everyone else to make shots. This is where a player like VanVleet would’ve been useful, or perhaps Zach LaVine – there still figures to be a win-now move in their future. The Magic are rich with young talent, all of their own draft picks and a clean cap sheet to build upon; they won’t have any significant commitments until Wagner and Suggs’ second contracts in 2025.

Here’s where I give the mea culpa. This team lives in the present. They’ve been on the warpath to prove us wrong all season and draw their powers from what appears be a bottomless well of spunk. Survey the East right now and you’ll find teams on questionable footing, teams that are injured or facing identity crises of their own making. The Magic have no such reservations. They’re playing with a self-assuredness that makes you forget that they’re actually new to this, and they’re just waiting to pounce on the next team that takes them for the underdog.