Wesley Iwundu benefits from the Lakeland experiment

The Orlando Magic are using the G-League for the first time with their affiliate team now in Lakeland. Wesley Iwundu is the fruits of that labor.

At times, Wesley Iwundu looks extremely comfortable. He will make a quick cut through an open lane and explode to the rim. He knows how to take the space in front of him.

That was evident Tuesday in Miami. Iwundu waited for his space and burst toward the basket with athleticism and made a simple shot. The simple plays are the beautiful ones for Iwundu right now.

Confidence grows slowly in the rookie at the NBA level though. There are still times where he receives the ball on the perimeter, open, and is unsure what to do.

Shooting was not Iwundu’s forte. In four years with the Kansas State Wildcats, his offense grew slowly. He was something of a tweener, a playmaker and defender more than a shooter. He entered NBA radars a bit later than most.

Topping off as an early second-round pick, Iwundu was a promising player who would need time to develop. It was clear even at an early stage, Iwundu would be a perfect guinea pig for the Magic’s next experiment.

The Magic’s purchase of the G-League’s Lakeland Magic has opened up a lot of doors for the team. Doors the team has already taken full advantage of. Iwundu has spent a good chunk of his season already with the Lakeland Magic, where he has put up solid, but not spectacular numbers.

In a way, though, that time prepared him for the opportunity that emerged with the Magic. As injuries mounted for the Orlando Magic, the team found itself relying on him a lot more. And, like any rookie, Iwundu has had to adjust to the NBA game, playing games in the G-League has certainly helped.

Iwundu had a positive mindset to the ups and downs he has gone through this season.

“It’s an unexpected opportunity,” Iwundu said earlier this month after his last call up from Lakeland. “But the great thing about Lakeland is I got to go down there, stay ready and get some reps in for the moment like this. As a young guy on the team, I think my job is to keep the energy up on the defensive end mainly. On offensive end just try to get easy looks. Just stay solid on the offensive end, that’s the main thing with me.”

Iwundu has not done much to step on anyone’s toes so far.

With the Magic, he has appeared in 16 games, averaging a meager 3.2 points per game and shooting a 41.8 percent effective field goal percentage. Iwundu has also netted three starts, getting challenges from coach Frank Vogel to focus on his defense. That is still his main role with the Magic team.

Slowly, he is becoming more confident offensively looking to attack off the dribble or firing from deep. But that is not his role yet. He knows he has to play within himself and take things slowly. The Magic are throwing him in there largely because they need the extra bodies.

Vogel has yet to play Iwundu late in games for any long stretch of time, at least when the game is still in the balance. But Iwundu has impressed with his overall defensive ability. That has kept him on the floor and could have him retaining a spot in the rotation even with Evan Fournier back in the lineup.

Iwundu will tell you his time in Lakeland helped prepare him for that role.

“I think going down there with a positive mind helps you get better as a player and as a person,” Iwundu said. “Looking at it the wrong way can hurt you as a player. Even if you get called up, if you go down there with a negative mindset, it brings you down. I just want to stay positive.”

Iwundu took advantage of the opportunity, giving himself some latitude to explore and grow his game.

In eight games with the Lakeland Magic, Iwundu averaged 16.9 points per game and 9.1 rebounds per game. He added 2.0 assists per game to that tally too. This was the well-rounded play the Magic hoped to see from him offensively.

Orlando drafted him knowing he was already a solid defender. That much has proven true even in the NBA. What they also saw in him was an ability to do a lot of different things — a Swiss Army knife player — on the floor. Versatility would be his calling card.

But they knew he had a long way to go. And he showed that too in his stint with Lakeland.

He shot just 41.4 percent from the floor and 12.5 percent from beyond the arc. He also turned the ball over 2.9 times per game. Perhaps he had a bit too much freedom to explore.

Iwundu dominated, but he was not efficient. And that fear of shooting he showed when he got on a NBA floor was probably warranted with how he struggled. It was clear Iwundu can play some, but that he also still has lots of work to do to improve.

There may still be another stint in Lakeland to come for Iwundu to help round out his game. And his development this offseason will be key to his future too. Even this year, he must show continued signs of growth.

Fortunately, that does appear to be happening. Iwundu’s production has become very consistent and he rightfully knows his role and plays it well. His ability to deliver on defense will be what determines his NBA playing time.

Most importantly, Iwundu knows and understands his role with this team.

“Anything you do, you want to start off slow and start off within yourself,” Iwundu said. “Not do too much to hurt the team. The team has some things going for themselves. You don’t want to break that continuity with everyone in the team. Just keep building game by game and getting better with things. It is going to take some time. I think game by game, I am getting more comfortable with it.”

Surely Iwundu can thank his time with Lakeland for building that confidence and getting him caught up with the NBA speed. If the Magic intended to use the Lakeland Magic in a way to develop their young players, then Iwundu is surely a sign of that success.

He is still carving his role with the team and still has a long way to go. His NBA future is not completely certain. But it is hard not to like what the 23-year-old rookie has done so far.

And it is hard not to see the benefit the G-League team down the road has provided the parent club in Orlando.