The Orlando Magic have not gotten off to the start they had wanted. Injuries and inconsistency have plagued them. Except for Evan Fournier.
His team had defeated the United States, sending the Americans to their worst finish in an international tournament in 14 years and causing the whole program to question itself after an embarrassing seventh-place finish. It was not just that his team had beaten the mighty Americans it was that he led them in doing it.
That was never enough. The goal was not to dethrone the dominant team in the league. the goal was to win the gold medal.
The feeling of Spain defeating France in the semifinals, nullifying that win over the U.S.A., overwhelmed everything else. France would win the gold medal but Evan Fournier would give up his bronze medal, passing it off to someone in the crowd likely never to be seen again. He already had one of those in his collection.
Fournier would take home a watch as a member of the All-Tournament team. Regardless of anything else, Fournier had dominated on an international stage. With many of the best basketball players in the world gathering for this major tournament, Fournier shined as bright as anyone else.
Just like there was unfinished business on that court in China. There was unfinished business on the courts in the NBA.
He left the Magic last year with a bitter taste. His first real playoff experience put the cap on an entire season of frustration. He made only 8 of his 34 3-pointers (29.5 percent) in the playoffs. There was an unending feeling that if Fournier had shot his regular career percentages, the Magic might have made it more of a series.
Despite the growth in other parts of his game — especially on defense and in playmaking — last season felt like a disappointment. Fournier did not shoot the ball the way he knows he can (34.0 percent).
The World Cup was a preview for what the Magic would get when Fournier returned. It was a preview of what the Magic would need from Fournier as the season played out.
The first quarter of the season has been an inconsistent mess for the team. The Magic started off strong on defense but without offense. Then when it finally looked like the team was about to find its footing, injury struck the team hard, taking away their best player in Nikola Vucevic.
Other players on the team would have to quickly step up. And so it would be that the one player who was consistent throughout the entire season would step into this featured role.
Fournier has been a constant for the Magic throughout the season. That strong run he had in the FIBA World Cup did not completely dissipate when he returned stateside.
Fournier is averaging a season-high 19.8 points per game on a career-best 44.6-percent 3-point shooting. All the while maintaining 3.3 assists per game.
On a team that has one of the worst offensive performances of the first 20 games of the season, Fournier has been a constant. Fournier has only two games with fewer than 10 points and five games with fewer than 15 points.
What Evan Fournier has done since Nikola Vucevic’s injury has been even more stellar. In those seven games, Fournier is averaging 25.1 points per game and shooting 50.0 percent from the floor. That is incredible efficiency even in a small sample size for someone with a 27.5-percent usage rate.
The Magic asked Fournier to step up and he has stepped up better than anyone could imagine.
Until Vucevic comes back, Fournier will have the ball in his hands. He will be the primary attacker and scorer. And there will continue to be nights where Fournier will have to carry the team.
Defenses certainly know this. They will adjust. They are already adjusting.
Fournier has faced plenty of criticism for his tunnel vision and perhaps searching for his own shot. With the ball in his hands more, his decisionmaking and shotmaking become even more important. He has a lot more responsibility.
The Magic will need to continue to get him open shots and work him off the ball, where Fournier is far more successful even though Fournier has improved off the dribble.
Despite the Magic’s frustrating start, they have had impressive starts from Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. Those two developments have been kernels of encouraging signs in a start that has not been what the team or fans expected. They make letting this project run through this year feel worth it.
But Orlando still clearly needs the presence of its veterans. The team still clearly needs Vucevic and Fournier on the floor. The Magic still need both to make their playoff dreams come true — and they can still very much come true.
Fournier has not always stood out the most. The Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz stories foretell a much brighter future for the Magic. But Fournier has always been there. He has always been someone the team can rely on for some offense and some shooting.
Will that continue? This is the big question. It was the big question everyone asked of Vucevic after his strong run to start last season.
Fournier is putting up career numbers in a bit of a correction from last year’s difficult year. He may indeed come back down to earth. At the very least, Fournier has returned to the levels that made him such a reliable player throughout his time in Orlando.
Then again, Fournier is someone who is not satisfied with just being good enough. He was not satisfied with his bronze medal this summer just as he was not satisfied with just making the playoffs last year. He wanted more. He wanted to do more for his team.
To start this season, Fournier has done so much for the Magic. He has stepped up in so many ways and his consistency is valued beyond anything.
And to many, he has turned some opinions about him and his play — although his long-term future of the team in what might be a contract year remains up in the air.
Orlando would not be in the position to make the playoffs again without Fournier.