Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz are not the Orlando Magic’s best players this season. But their growth gives the most hope for the present and future.
The Orlando Magic were not a new team when they gathered together in September.
Every player from last year’s rotation returned. The only new additions to the team were point guard Markelle Fultz, who did not play a game last year after the team acquired him in February, and Al-Farouq Aminu, added in free agency.
The goal for the Magic was clear, focus on internal development to take another step up the Eastern Conference ladder. The hope was that a fast start would help stake the team a place among the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
But that was only going to happen if players kept up their play from last year and other players took a step up.
Injuries were the dominant story of the first half of the season for sure. That slowed everything down for the team. They were not able to develop at the pace they needed to succeed.
It is hard to believe the Magic entered the midpoint of the season at about the same place they entered the midpoint last year. While the Magic probably are not going to go on a 22-9 run to finish the season, they probably will not need one. They have played much more consistently and have a better sense of who they are in the Eastern Conference hierarchy.
That might still be just making the playoffs as a 7-seed and finishing around .500 once again. That is not exactly a result that would inspire confidence that this team is still moving forward and capable of doing more in the future.
If this season had two goals — to make the playoffs and map a path forward to improve — then all this information would suggest the season has not been the ideal one for the team.
That might be one way to look at the season. But the Magic are once again in playoff positioning. Orlando is in place to match last year’s run despite these struggles.
And the Magic indeed do have a window into their future through the first half of the season. It may not be exactly how everyone thought this season would go. But the growth of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz shown through the first half of the season is more than enough to view the first half of the season as some success.
Both Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz represent the biggest surprises for the team. The most welcome surprises for the team.
They both are making huge impacts on the team. They have stood out above everything else.
Fultz is undoubtedly the story of the season so far when it comes to the Magic.
The Orlando Magic claimed him in a seemingly throwaway trade from the Philadelphia 76ers in February and stayed patient in his return from thoracic outlet syndrome.
It was not even clear Fultz would be ready for training camp or play much in this season. He was not even getting jumpers up until September. But from the moment he stepped onto the floor, he has wowed fans and shown the kind of impact he would make.
Within five games, the Magic had inserted Fultz into the starting lineup. Quickly he showed his value as a driver, squeezing and muscling his way to the lane and the to basket or squeezing a pass through an impossible hole.
He has looked like an inexperienced player at times, but he has pushed through any mistake and learned from them quickly.
Fultz’s first-half stat line is fairly modest — 11.7 points per game, 4.6 assists per game and 46.2-percent shooting — but the impact is abundantly clear.
Coach Steve Clifford promised Markelle Fultz would progressively get better the more he plays. His development plan is always to have his team playing better as the season moves on. That bodes well for what is to come. Fultz seems to be hitting his stride even more.
Fultz had several “he’s back” moments, including his one-handed coast-to-coast jam against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the season opener. Then there was the steal and slam in the Orlando Magic’s first home win over the Washington Wizards.
It culminated in a triple-double and clinching basket in the Orlando Magic’s marquee win over the Los Angeles Lakers last week.
Fultz has started to take more control over the offense and pick his spots. Despite his still-struggling 3-point shot, Fultz has become an effective and efficient mid-range jump shooter, making 39.8 percent of his shots from 5-20 feet. That is a good percentage for the relatively inefficient mid-range shot.
Fultz has taken advantage of defenses that go under screens on him, finding ways still to get to the basket and hit his shot or distribute to teammates. Fultz’s confidence is only starting to grow.
Isaac’s defensive impact was incredible this year. He led the league in “stocks” racking up steals and blocks and becoming the rim protector and safeguard defensively the Magic have desperately needed.
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His game against the Dallas Mavericks verged on the rare 5×5 club — 13 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and four steals while keeping Kristaps Porzingis from even really getting a shot off in that game. Isaac got legitimate Defensive Player of the Year buzz, if not All-Defensive team buzz.
Nationally, Isaac is the player the media is most excited to see develop. There was a real push to recognize his defensive bona fides even at such a young age.
Isaac averaged a career-best 12.0 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 2.4 blocks per game. The Magic have very few players who seemingly can make elite-level plays or have an elite-level skill. Isaac very much seemed to have both as a defensive ace.
He started to take on more responsibility offensively too, even if it was in small increments. Isaac’s usage rate jumped up to 18.3 percent. A modest rise, but still one nonetheless.
Isaac played with more confidence and impact defensively, showing a lot more assertiveness on that end as he gained confidence. It felt like the season was about to collapse when he went down with a knee injury in the Jan. 1 game against the Wizards.
The fear is this will disrupt Isaac’s growth on the court too much and affect the team’s future outlook. It certainly will. Not having Isaac on the court will hurt him and the team tremendously.
But Isaac still put in plenty of work to inspire confidence in his skills and his potential impact moving forward.
The Magic have filled in his loss defensively very admirably. But Orlando is undoubtedly a better, more competitive team with Isaac in the lineup, especially when it comes to matching up in the playoffs.
There is still hope Isaac can return this season. He will be re-evaluated in late February or early March. The Magic believe he will make a full recovery.
Neither Fultz nor Isaac were the Magic’s best players in the first half of the season. They played a role within the larger structure of this team.
Evan Fournier was probably the most consistent and best player on the team through the first half of the season. But it was largely a by-committee approach especially as the team deals with all the injuries it has had to this year.
To be sure, their growth as young players was a key facet to cementing the team’s place in the Eastern Conference. Orlando is clearly one of the eight best teams in the Eastern Conference at a minimum right now (anything less would be considered a disappointment).
With all the injuries and all the inconsistency this year, it is Fultz and Isaac who have shined as the brightest lights for this team’s present and future. They will both surely have roles to play to support the team moving forward.
But if the Magic wanted to see their future. They do not have to look much further than the first half of their season and see all the promise Isaac and Fultz realized.
And realize how much more they can still accomplish.