The Orlando Magic have a modest winning stretch. The reason they are is because their young players growing and gaining confidence at the right moment.
There was a time when Isaiah Briscoe did not look like he should be on a NBA basketball court.
He was the longest of long shots after toiling in Estonia last year as he tried to get notice somewhere in the NBA. He got squeezed out of the Kentucky Wildcats rotation by the parade of elite freshman they bring in around him.
Isaiah Briscoe was out of control in his early opportunities for the Orlando Magic. The speed of the game was a lot for him and he was a wrecking ball trying to get to the basket and score, his best and only skill it seemed. Briscoe was not a natural passer and defense was still something he was pinning down.
Not that Briscoe was not getting plenty of playing time yet. The Magic took a flyer on a young player they clearly saw something in. But they were not going to rush into him. He would have to earn everything.
Only a few months later, Briscoe is driving the lane with precision. Still a wrecking ball willing to throw his 215-pound frame around, he is more under control. Briscoe has become the passer everyone could have dreamed of, developing quicker as a distributor as teammates get used to him and he gets used to teammates and where they line up and like the ball.
Surprisingly, the only thing missing from Briscoe’s run in the rotation and his emergence as the team’s clear backup point guard is his scoring. The guy, who was a finisher at the rim throughout college while not much of an outside shooter, is not scoring at all.
Briscoe is everything the team wants but not in the way it expected.
Even there, the Magic saw what Briscoe could do when he put everything together. Saturday’s 103-83 win over the Milwaukee Bucks saw Briscoe score nine points, one shy of his career high, and dish out seven assists.
High-assist games from Briscoe have happened before all in recent games. His comfort and growth on the floor has been one of the biggest developments since entering the rotation.
Briscoe is averaging 4.0 points and 4.2 assists per game in the last five games. Coming off the bench, those passing numbers show how much he has grown and found his rhythm within the rotation. And they are especially surprising considering what his strengths were entering the season.
His development and growth have been vital to the team starting to find a rhythm.
The team has been slowly growing in confidence since a frustrating West Coast trip. And with the trade deadline passed, still find themselves in the Playoff race. But they know they have to make a run and take advantage of an easier schedule — including tonight against the Atlanta Hawks, albeit on the back end of a difficult back to back.
There are several players — especially young players — who seem to be coming into their own at this critical point.
Briscoe is the biggest example. Coming in with so few expectations, he has blossomed into a solid guard off the bench. He picks up the pace for the team and has shown he is not afraid to get physical.
Terrence Ross is averaging 18.5 points per game while shooting 44.6 percent from the floor and 36.6 percent from three in his last 15 games. He is showing more ability to go on big scoring binges that completely changes the Magic’s offensive outlook.
There is Jonathan Isaac too putting in the best stretch of his career as he has matched his defensive acumen with some offensive punch. Jonathan Isaac is averaging 12.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in his last six games, shooting 46.6 percent from the floor (although still worse than 30 percent from three).
Isaac had another strong game Saturday, scoring 17 points and grabbing six rebounds while adding two blocks. He was among the leaders on the team with two deflections according to NBA.com’s box score, but it always feels like he disrupts a whole lot more.
Even Khem Birch, always staying ready, has stepped in admirably for Mohamed Bamba at the backup center position. He does not provide much offensive punch, but he is typically a strong defender. And Saturday he was protecting the paint and closing off driving lanes.
Briscoe and Isaac especially as young players still finding their way in the league have begun to blossom and mature within their roles and gain confidence. It is all happening at the right time.
Coach Steve Clifford has managed his rotation in sometimes odd ways. He still probably is as Isaac’s growth — and the team’s long-term outlook — is demanding a bit more attention and responsibility.
It is sometimes easy to forget as a team goes through the season that players still have the chance and need to grow. Briscoe was not ready to play this kind of role earlier in the season. Isaac was not either.
There are plenty of moments where both still look like rookies. But it took half a season or more for them to get comfortable in their skin and comfortable in their roles.
Now they are growing and playing well. And that has sparked the Magic.
Orlando has won four of its last five games. That is a modest winning stretch, but not inconsequential in this Playoff race where it feels like every team is racing to the bottom. The Magic have stayed in the Playoff race as much by staying afloat as it is the teams ahead of them sinking toward them.
Orlando is not going to apologize for that. The focus, as Jeff Weltman said, is to make the Playoffs now.
To do that they will need more strong efforts and more growth from the young players they are relying on. Players like Briscoe.
At this juncture, the Magic are getting that and their young players are growing and growing and gaining confidence.