Restarted season is perfect time for Orlando Magic to pair Markelle Fultz, Mohamed Bamba

The Orlando Magic's playoff fate might be set but for Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba, getting Playoff experience is vital. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's playoff fate might be set but for Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba, getting Playoff experience is vital. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic should use the hiatus and training camp to pair Markelle Fultz and Mohamed Bamba together, a combination they have used sparingly.

On opening night back in October, Markelle Fultz was still catching everyone by surprise. Most of all his teammates.

Throughout the early part of the season, Markelle Fultz would whip passes to teammates and catch them unaware. They were not used to having a point guard who could squeeze passes through tight windows or suddenly go from scorer to passer in a blink.

As Fultz worked against the Cleveland Cavaliers in his first official game with the Orlando Magic, he caught Mohamed Bamba by surprise.

Fultz drove baseline, causing the defense to turn their eyes toward him. Markelle Fultz went behind the back to try to get the ball to Mohamed Bamba as he crashed the lane, looking for a shot right in front of the basket.

Bamba was not ready. Fultz’s foray and pass was a bit too ambitious. Bamba was not quite ready. He turned it over and the Cavaliers took it the other way.

As most players on the Magic would, they would not let that happen a second time. They would be ready at all times for Fultz to make a play. And that would benefit them.

Only a few possessions later, Fultz again drove the baseline and again sent the ball behind his back, seeking a target. This time, he would find Bamba and he would lay it in to help the Magic pace their way through the second half of the opening night win.

That was an early example of Fultz’s vision and creativity. It was clear very early in the season the kind of impact Fultz could have.

It seemed like, and this is no offense to D.J. Augustin, everyone wants to line up to play with Markelle Fultz. That his playmaking and driving ability really change the game. And he makes a lot of things easier for teammates.

A big part of development for young players is being put in a position with other players to make the most of their talents. They can build confidence through playing with players that make things easier. That can be tough especially when coming off the bench and not paired with starters.

Mohamed Bamba has probably felt this the most. He has had to develop behind the Magic’s best player in Nikola Vucevic. And very early on the early chemistry that he was building with Fultz got cut short. Bamba and Fultz rarely played together from that point forward.

They likely would continue to play fewer minutes together. Despite playing significantly better, coach Steve Clifford was pinching Mohamed Bamba’s minutes as he relied more heavily on Nikola  Vucevic and started shifting closer to his playoff rotation.

The league’s hiatus and the beginning of a new training camp has given the Magic a chance to restart some. The team will have to rely on its depth more as it ramps up back into a playing rhythm. The team’s bench will be even more important.

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And with Clifford taking a chance to evaluate the season as if it was the offseason, this is a time to start planning some for the future and trying out some different combination.

This is the perfect chance to let Fultz run with a player like Bamba and see just how much of the big man they can unlock.

Markelle Fultz makes an impact

Even in the five games Fultz did not start this year, his impact was pretty evident and clear. The Magic clearly had a guy who was going to pushing for a starter’s job. And coach Steve Clifford quickly made the change.

It is hard to quantify it exactly.

The Magic have a 108.5 offensive rating with Markelle Fultz on the floor, trailing only Nikola Vucevic, Michael Carter-Williams and James Ennis in that category. The team’s -1.5 net rating with Fultz on the floor is second among the team’s usual starters (most of the bench players lead the team in that impact category).

This is as much a sign of Fultz’s growing maturity. He was going through his first full season in the league after two injury-filled seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers. This was essentially his rookie year.

And Fultz made rookie mistakes. He was still learning how to manage a full season and went through periods where he struggled. He had the normal ups and downs young players face as they navigate the season.

He was on an upswing as the season neared its temporary endpoint.

But it is in the way he creates that he serves to benefit most of his teammates. Not to mention his creativity in creating passes. That game against the Cleveland Cavaliers caught teammates by surprise some. He kept making passes like that, creating angles with flair.

Mohamed Bamba has gotten a lot better since this early season game against the Indiana Pacers. It is still easy to see how tentative he is. Adding confidence and assertiveness crashing the glass will make him a bigger target and enable someone like Fultz to make this pass easier.

For sure, Bamba still has a lot of growth and development to go. And he has come a long way.

But playing with someone like Fultz who is an expert at getting into the lane and drawing in the defense creates not only crashing lanes for Bamba to get to the basket but also more space for his 3-point shooting.

Plays like these are relatively simple read-and-react plays for both Fultz and Bamba. The fact is they have happened very infrequently.

Markelle Fultz, Mohamed Bamba are infrequent partners

So far in this post, I have shared three clips of Markelle Fultz assisting Mohamed Bamba. That is three of Fultz’s nine assists to Bamba this year. The plain fact is those two have not played very much together.

The two played only 92 minutes together this season. The Magic posted a 90.8 offensive rating and 95.2 defensive rating with the duo on the floor. Most of these minutes however came early in the season — 34 of those minutes came in the first five games when Fultz was still coming off the bench.

They have played only eight minutes together since the All-Star Break. Hardly enough to judge anything. The Magic just did not put the two together very often. Especially as both got better as the season progressed.

That has left Mohamed Bamba playing a lot more with D.J. Augustin.

For the entire season, the Magic have a 106.8 offensive rating and 103.2 defensive rating when Bamba and Augustin share the floor. They are not a poor pairing by any stretch of the imagination.

Since the All-Star Break, when Bamba played significantly better at 5.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in fewer minutes with 44.4-percent shooting from beyond the arc, the duo has been better. The Magic have a 124.3 offensive rating and 109.6 defensive rating with Bamba and Augustin together.

Undoubtedly though, Augustin’s playstyle is different. He is about probing and scoring and he tends to play a safer style.

Some of it is Bamba for sure. He tends to pop to the 3-point line more when Augustin is around. His transformation offensively came a lot because he was hitting from the outside more often.

Bamba has gotten better at reading Augustin. But it is still imperfect.

Augustin is good at getting into the paint. But he is not necessarily a finisher. He creates space on the perimeter but he is not necessarily going to duck the ball into the paint or pass it in tight quarters.

That is something Fultz has proven good at, even though defenses still go way under screens to force him into jumpers. Augustin’s ability to shoot from the outside forces defense to close in on him. This creates more space on the perimeter when Augustin does get into the lane for Bamba to shoot.

But eventually, the Magic want Bamba working closer to the basket. A lot of that will be determined on how strong Bamba gets. He reportedly has put on weight during the hiatus and could be better at taking the physical pounding of working in the paint more. That will truly change his game.

Bamba still has to get better at learning when and how to roll to the basket.

With his size though, the advantage of him working around the basket is evident. He has gotten his share of lobs. And when he cuts aggressively and hard to the basket, he becomes a very big and easy target to find.

Bamba needs to feel confident and execute both rolls and pops with more assertiveness. That comes with comfort and familiarity. His point guard will play a role in giving him that confidence and putting him in the right spots.

The majority of Bamba’s pick and roll possessions still end up with him outside the paint and taking 3-pointers. That feels even more so when he is with Augustin.

This is where Fultz’s ability to squeeze passes through tight windows probably benefits him more. Even with compressed space, players can find pockets to stay available for Fultz, knowing he can get the pass to him.

The energy and pace of the game when Fultz is in are completely different too. Fultz tends to pick up the pace even in the half-court. Whereas Augustin tends to play a bit slower and more precise. The fact Augustin and Bamba played in a lot of lineups without much playmaking or shooting also hurt things some.

Teams often blitzed Augustin on pick and rolls to try to close out his field of vision. This left holes and pockets for him to pass that he did not always fill. But a lot of the reason Bamba struggled is his need to learn the league and where to position himself.

However, Bamba’s general shooting improvement has made the pairing with Augustin work a lot better.

But playing with a player like Fultz really only closes that learning curve.

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  • Now is a perfect reset for some lineups

    The reset to the season is giving everyone an opportunity to reset and reassess their lineups. Especially a team like the Orlando Magic with so many young players and only slim hopes of winning a title, let alone a playoff series.

    The Magic want to return to play to help develop their team and give young players the experience of going through the Playoffs. Bamba missed that last year as he sat out with the fracture to his leg.

    Orlando is clearly going to reassess some things and study what went right and wrong this season. And resetting some of their lineups and rotations are going to be at the top of the order. They need to find the right combination to maximize this time.

    The Magic can use this time to find new combinations and lineups to maximize their players.

    That should include looking for ways to use Bamba more effectively. And the considerations should absolutely include pairing Bamba with Fultz more. That will be a way to get more out of Bamba.

    Not to mention Nikola Vucevic and D.J. Augustin have long been a solid combination — the Magic have a +9.2 net rating this season with the duo on the floor, with a 108.3 offensive rating in 433 minutes together this season.

    Finding a way to mix up these combinations will help the team. And playing Bamba and Fultz together will help the Magic keep an eye on the team’s future.

    This will undoubtedly make the Magic better for the long term. And it certainly could help the team in the short term.

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    A lot of this depends on Bamba and where he is at. If he continues the improvement he showed at the end of the season, it may not matter who he is paired with. He will find his way to contribute offensively.