Wesley Iwundu’s return to the rotation stabilizing Orlando Magic’s defense

Wesley Iwundu's return to the Orlando Magic's rotation has been a key factor in their defensive turnaround. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)
Wesley Iwundu's return to the Orlando Magic's rotation has been a key factor in their defensive turnaround. (Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have turned to their utility player in Wesley Iwundu to help stabilize and advance their defense as injuries crush the team.

The Orlando Magic’s natural progression and slight changes to their rotation in the offseason inevitably meant some players from last year’s playoff run were going to find themselves competing for minutes.

Among the many things that had to go right for the Magic to make their playoff run, Khem Birch’s emergence as the backup center and Wesley Iwundu’s reliability as a 3-and-D player were big factors in the team’s playoff appearance. Both though saw their minutes decrease as Mohamed Bamba returned from injury and the Magic added Al-Farouq Aminu to the rotation.

Coach Steve Clifford kept saying he trusted both and that when they would be called upon they would be ready. Their production remained fairly uneven.

Especially Wesley Iwundu.

But Clifford assured that once Iwundu got more consistent playing time, he would return to that level of play on both ends of the floor. The Iwundu that was stellar defensively and reliable from the outside was still present, but just not on the floor enough for long enough to come out.

Ever since Jonathan Isaac’s injury, Wesley Iwundu has been put back into that role, starting in Isaac’s place. And since Jonathan Isaac’s injury, Wesley Iwundu is seemingly back to that reliable wing defender and shooter.

"“He’s smart and he knows the game plan and he knows who he is guarding,” Clifford said after the team’s shootaround Wednesday. “He’s got good instincts and he’s got length. He pays attention and he knows what he is doing. What do they say? Those guys you might not put on your rotisserie team, but they help you win games.”"

It is getting easier to quantify Iwundu’s impact. But certainly, typical counting stats do not do him justice. Especially this year when his playing time has been so sporadic.

This year, Iwundu is averaging 4.1 points per game but shooting only 34.5 percent from the floor and 16.7 from beyond the arc. This has come in sporadic minutes, however.

Until the Magic’s West Coast trip a few weeks ago, Iwundu had played more than 10 minutes in consecutive games just four times. All of those came while Aaron Gordon was out with a sprained ankle in November.

In his recent playing stretch — which started with the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Dec. 20 — Iwundu is scoring 5.1 points per game on 35.0-percent shooting. However, since Isaac’s injury (including the game he got hurt against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 1), Iwundu is scoring 9.5 points per game on 50.0-percent shooting. He has hit three of his six 3-point attempts.

More consistent playing time and a more solidified role have certainly helped him find his footing again.

It is good to see those scoring numbers jump up and return to where they were at last year — during the Magic’s playoff run, he averaged 5.5 points per game, shooting 44.9 percent from the floor and 43.9 percent from beyond the arc. Orlando certainly needs that.

But that is not his true value to the team.

The way the Magic want to see him impact the game is on defense. That is what comes more naturally to him anyway and where Iwundu takes his pride.

He had the primary defensive responsibility on Bojan Bogdanovic in Saturday’s loss to the Utah Jazz and held him to 14 points on 4-for-13 shooting. Against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, Wesley Iwundu was critical defensively sticking with Joe Harris after his hot start. On several occasions, Iwundu stayed down and bottled up the Nets’ shooter disrupting their entire offense.

This is part and parcel to what Iwundu does and part of his overall mindset and role on the team.

"“I just don’t want to be responsible for my man scoring or missing an assignment on the defensive end,” Iwundu said after shootaround on Wednesday. “Every time my man scores, it kind of takes a piece out of me. As a player, the defensive end is where I want to make my money at. That’s just something I try to bring to the rest of the team — multiple efforts. I hope it rubs off on the rest of the team.”"

For the season, opponents are shooting just 41.6 percent against Iwundu when he is the closest defender to the shooter according to NBA.com. That is the second-best mark among regular rotation players on the team (D.J. Augustin holds the best mark, which certainly suggests the numbers need a bit more reading into). Opponents shoot 3.1 percentage points worse than the team otherwise does with Iwundu on the floor.

Last year, Iwundu led the team with the best defended field goal percentage. Opponents shot just 40.6 percent when he was the closest defender to the shooter.

While the defended field goal percentage statistic NBA.com tracks is rough around the edges. It does suggest the kind of effort and intensity Iwundu plays with on the defensive end. It does not take a whole lot to see that effort in action.

Clifford said Iwundu is a “natural multiple effort guy.” That is something a coach cannot teach and is something of their dream. He is a guy that makes a first stop and does not rest then, making the next rotation or the next effort to truly bottle up a player.

The Magic’s defense has followed step with Iwundu’s increased playing time.

Since he started getting regular minutes — 21.2 minutes per game in the least nine outings — the Magic’s defense has risen from its season average of 106.9 points per 100 possessions (12th in the league) to 101.3 points per 100 possessions (second-best in the league since Dec. 20).

Orlando has climbed into the top five in defensive rating for the season thanks to this run.

It is obviously not all on Iwundu. He makes good individual defensive plays and helps make the Magic a better defensive unit for sure.

Iwundu is not-so-quietly one of the best defenders on the team. The problem has been trying to find a way to get him out there more often. That was always going to be tied to his offense. And some of his offensive struggles are certainly tied to his lack of consistent playing time.

Injuries have cleared the way for Iwundu to step back onto the court. The Magic knew they had a player they could trust to plug in defensively when called upon.

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Now Iwundu is finding that rhythm offensively again and looking more like the player that helped turn last season around.