The Orlando Magic seem pretty set with Markelle Fultz as their point guard for now. But behind him questions loom this offseason with free agency.
The Orlando Magic have always seemingly had a point guard problem.
Ever since dealing Jameer Nelson in 2012, the team has sought stability at point guard. This coming in a league that increasingly demands solid point guard play to lead teams. As the league became more reliant on dribble penetration, pace and defense from the point guard position, the Magic seemed to get behind.
General manager Rob Hennigan fixated on Elfrid Payton. The rangy point guard had a defensive reputation and quickly ascended to the starting point guard position. But Payton struggled to hold down the spot and truly lead the team. He could get into the paint but struggled to defend.
The Magic did not help with a mismatched roster around him. Nobody thrived with the coaching and roster structure.
Orlando abandoned the Payton project at the end of his rookie contract. They again sought a point guard.
D.J. Augustin provided stability. But the prize was Markelle Fultz. The Magic’s great investment and gamble. The first big swing from president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman. A no-risk trade with potentially great rewards.
In the first full year of Markelle Fultz on the team, he has far surpassed expectations. The former top overall pick has shed his struggles with thoracic outlet syndrome and put in a year that would be strong for any player in their first season — 12.1 points per game and 5.2 assists per game.
Magic fans are rightfully excited about Fultz. It feels like the Magic have a promising young point guard who has delivered for the team in big spots and has helped the team win. This does not feel like Payton’s sometimes empty stats.
There are still questions though.
Markelle Fultz establishes his spot
Markelle Fultz has had a promising “rookie” season. But he is not at top-overall-pick levels. There is still a lot of development to go. And the roster duplication issues that seem to traverse the Orlando Magic’s roster also touch the point guard situation.
Orlando does not have enough shooting to give Fultz consistent space. And Fultz’s shooting, while vastly improved and a bit underrated on mid-range jumpers, is not enough for teams to respect it defensively.
The Magic still have issues to resolve at point guard. And this summer is going to bring at least a few of them to a head.
Fultz is firmly ensconced as the starting point guard for the team’s foreseeable future. The Magic are invested in his development and giving him his chance to reclaim his career. Unless a killer deal comes around for a proven star, the Magic are not likely to upset the apple cart.
That decision to keep Fultz though trickles down to other areas of the roster. The Magic are putting their faith in a point guard who has not yet proven he can shoot consistently. So the team will need to find shooters. That does not bode well if the team plans on keeping the Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon pairing together — neither are considered great shooters.
The investment in Fultz only further reveals the Magic’s dearth of shooting.
The backup importance
But that also make D.J. Augustin important. Augustin has been rock steady at point guard for the Orlando Magic for the last two years of the four-year contract he signed in the infamous summer of 2016.
Augustin averaged 11.7 points per game and dished out 5.3 assists per game last year while shooting 42.1 percent from deep. That consistency and that play helped the Magic return to the playoffs.
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And Augustin has taken a back seat and still provided stability for the team. He is averaging 10.4 points per game and 4.6 assists per game. Although his shooting has decreased to 34.5-percent. That was to be expected. Augustin still commands respect from deep.
But he will become a free agent this summer. The Magic likely still value Augustin — both for his veteran presence and his consistency at the position — but the question, as always, comes down to price.
It is hard to say what Augustin could get on the market or if he could approach the mid-level exception. It is hard to say whether the Magic are willing to invest another long-term contract in Augustin with the team floating above the salary cap line, having to add two more draft picks to their dole and the potential the salary cap decreases.
Orlando has Michael Carter-Williams and his early Bird Rights. The team can bring back Michael Carter-Williams over the cap with some limitations. And Carter-Williams fits the team’s defensive mentality well, even if he does not bring shooting.
Coach Steve Clifford will want three point guards on the roster. Whether fans like it or not, Clifford has always preferred having the ability to play two point guards together. That is a lineup he will push especially if there are players he trusts.
Options at point guard elsewhere
The Orlando Magic are going to have some financial decisions to make. Point guard is an important position behind Markelle Fultz especially, but the team cannot have its cake and eat it too with a ton of other needs on the roster.
The Draft here can help. This is a draft loaded with point guards. And while it would not be preferable to have a young point guard backing up another young player in Fultz, that option is readily available.
Magic fans have had some eyes on Killian Hayes or Tyrese Halliburton at the top of the draft. But at around No. 15, the Magic could also look at Theo Maledon, Cole Anthony, R.J. Hampton or Nico Mannion.
Maledon has solid length and strong point guard skills already even if he lacks athleticism. He could fill in as a solid backup point guard already. Hampton and Anthony were promising prospects entering last year who struggled at the next level. But their talent is undeniable.
Mannion is a crazy athlete who can get hot from beyond the arc. But he lacked consistency at Arizona last year, causing him to drop on draft boards.
The Magic certainly could go the draft route — keeping one of Augustin and Carter-Williams and adding a young player to groom as Fultz’s backup or partner in two-guard lineups. Or they could go through free agency, using part of the mid-level exception or some other avenue to bolster their depth.
This is not a strong free-agent class. Outside D.J. Augustin and Michael Carter-Williams, Emmanuel Mudiay and Kris Dunn might be the best backup options on the market for the price. Is that better than what the Magic already have?
It probably is not. The team could either look to target a backup point guard in the draft or re-sign their two veterans and try to run back the same rotation, barring any trade that brings in some point guard help.
The Magic have things pretty locked in with Fultz as the point guard for the future. While questions still remain about his long-term development, the Magic are ready to wait that out.
That makes finding a suitable backup all the more important.
There are big issues and needs the Magic need to fill this offseason. A backup point guard might be low on the immediate needs list for the Magic.
But whether they like it or not, this is a decision the Magic will have to address this offseason. And with questions still surrounding Fultz and his development, this is a pretty important one to resolve.