Orlando Magic not done being patient after drafting Chuma Okeke

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 29: Chuma Okeke #5 of the Auburn Tigers handles the ball against Garrison Brooks #15 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI - MARCH 29: Chuma Okeke #5 of the Auburn Tigers handles the ball against Garrison Brooks #15 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the 2019 NCAA Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center on March 29, 2019 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic made an investment drafting Chuma Okeke after he tore his ACL. This is part of their continued patience in a long-term plan.

It is easy to forget just how good Chuma Okeke was as the Auburn Tigers tried to upend the North Carolina Tar Heels in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA tournament.

A flash to the post and Chuma Okeke had Nassir Little pinned to his back. The taller and more athletic Little could do nothing to move Okeke off the block and he worked around him for an easy shot, even with North Carolina trying to shade and double team him.

Then he will come across a curl and find himself behind the 3-point line. He is deadly enough there to fire from beyond the arc and crafty enough to attack off the dribble on a defense closing out. There, his power, strength and athleticism allow him to rise above defenders and finish with force.

Okeke was on track to flirt with making the Lottery. This showing — a 20-point, 11-rebound effort on the national stage — displayed everything he can do on the ball. His defense was strong too. Auburn was in line to upset North Carolina.

Then it all came crashing down. The lasting image of that game was Okeke crumpled on the ground unable to get up with comfort.

Okeke tore his ACL in a devastating knee injury and his tournament was done. Auburn defeated North Carolina that night and kept fighting to get to the Final Four with Okeke on the sideline in a wheelchair. The Tigers made sure to include him, but he could only watch.

His draft stock predictably tumbled with the chance that he would not play at all in the 2020 season apparent.

As the Orlando Magic picked him with the 16th overall pick, fans were puzzled. Not only with adding another tweener 3/4 — a distinction that is becoming less important in the modern NBA — but with adding a player who likely would not contribute to the upcoming season in any way.

The playoffs provided a taste of success for the Magic and their fans. The immediate high of getting into the final 16 and getting the test from the Toronto Raptors in the first round only left the team wanting more.

This could not be the end of the line for this team. This had to be just the beginning.

And the only way to keep things moving forward was to add players that could make an immediate impact. The chance of losing key players in free agency — and little money to replace them — seemed to raise the alarms for the Magic to find an impact player quickly.

But that is not how Jeff Weltman and his Magic operate. That is not what he is interested in. With big decisions ahead of him — and they are big decisions, one way or another — Weltman is not changing the posture that has characterized his time with the Magic. That has slowly built the team up and laid its foundations.

Weltman has proven his willingness to wait and be patient. To work on the margins as he finds guys that fit his vision. Growing the team from the roots rather than planting seeds that had already sprouted.

This approach has not changed. The Magic are going to stay patient. Their playoff appearance did not put them into a win-now mode where they were desperately trying to keep their place at the expense of their long-term future. There is still a bigger picture to consider.

Orlando took long-term projects in Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba with its draft picks the last two years. Those players were raw and still developing their skills as they grew into the game.

That focus on the long-term is what a lot of this offseason is about. It is less about continuing the straight-line progress the team made last year than about continuing the long-term progress the team makes, forming the contours of the team it will become.

The decision regarding Nikola Vucevic is at the heart of this.

The team will have to decide whether to bring back their flawed All-Star and run back the roster that finished with 42 wins and seventh in the Eastern Conference. Or they will have to decide whether it is time to let him walk and begin shifting toward Mohamed Bamba and some of their younger players.

The going thought is Orlando would like to bring Nikola Vucevic back, but on a deal that is amenable to them. If he gets a big offer — and Vucevic will have his suitors — the Magic seem perfectly fine letting him walk.

The Magic are not shortchanging their long-term investments for a short-term gain. Although the team wants to remain competitive in the present. This is still about a long-term project for the Magic and building the team up for a bigger vision.

The biggest complaint of Weltman and his tenure with the Magic has been the team’s seeming inactivity. Weltman did not come in to change everything. He has worked slowly to sculpt the team carefully.

The splashiest move he made was to acquire Markelle Fultz in a trade involving a player that had fallen out of the rotation. His biggest free agent acquisition might have been undrafted free agent Isaiah Briscoe — and re-signing Aaron Gordon.

Orlando has sat tight as it dug itself out of a salary cap hole. The team came together under a new coach and outperformed all expectations to make the playoffs last year.

Orlando is still looking for the right guys to mesh with the team’s core group. And if that guy needs time to develop, the Magic seem happy to let him do so.

That is part of the plan in drafting Okeke. It is why, while the Magic certainly could have used this asset to improve the roster immediately, the Magic are perfectly fine waiting on him to develop.

In Okeke, Orlando saw a versatile wing player who can bolster their depth and perhaps turn into something more. Someone who works well off teammates, defends and competes for his teammates. This is the kind of person and player the Magic want to build with.

He was a perfect fit for the team’s culture. If that takes a year to come to fruition and step onto the court, that is worth the investment.

The Magic are still laying the foundations for their team and their core. They will need players like Okeke to help bind the team together off the bench in the future.

And it is for that future team the Magic drafted, not the team in 2020.

Next. Orlando Magic select Chuma Okeke in NBA Draft. dark

Only time will tell if he is worth the wait.