Orlando Magic need the glue guys to get through the schedule

James Ennis has proven to be a key player in holding the Orlando Magic together with energy and defense. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images)
James Ennis has proven to be a key player in holding the Orlando Magic together with energy and defense. (Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic will need to rely on some unsung heroes who do not put up a ton of stats to get through a difficult schedule in the seeding round.

The Orlando Magic’s first game against the Brooklyn Nets seemingly could not have gotten off to a worse start.

The team was scoring and keeping up, but its defense was giving up points at the basket and open threes. The team looked disorganized and struggled to assert itself to make the Nets’ job harder. With still no sense on how teams will play as games resume and the intensity ratchets up, nobody was quite sure how long the good shooting would last.

Defense was the thing they were supposed to control. Energy was the thing they were supposed to control. And without that, it would be tough to find victories inside the strange campus setting.

Then Khem Birch and Michael Carter-Williams checked in. Then Terrence Ross checked in. Then Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac joined the fray.

It was not instantaneous by any means and starting players helped provide some offensive and creation stability. But the ship slowly steadied. Orlando settled in. The Magic went on a run and found their rhythm. They found their groove and they found their energy.

It was Khem Birch diving down the lane following a Markelle Fultz drive. It was Jonathan Isaac smothering whoever he was guarding. It was James Ennis being in the right spot for a cut or a shot and defending with energy.

It took not the starters to change the game’s energy, it took the team’s glue guys — it’s unsung heroes. And that is what it is going to take for the rest of this seeding round.

"“You have to have those guys to win,” coach Steve Clifford said after Saturday’s practice. “Eight games in 15 nights is a bear. It still gets back to which team has more readiness to play? Which team puts more into it has a big advantage. You’ve got to have those guys — those kind of energy, intangible guys  that you can count on to play well every night.”"

The whole situation of resuming the season is certainly a lot to take in. The concern at the beginning of training camp was on getting players conditioning back up. It was on making sure players could play high-intensity minutes more than anything else.

Owning their role

Now that the schedule has started, there is concern about making sure they can manage a daunting eight-games-in-15-days schedule.

And that will require players like Khem Birch, Michael Carter-Williams, James Ennis and Wesley Iwundu. Along with usual starters Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz while they are still building themselves back up off the bench.

On that front, the Orlando Magic are receiving some good news. Wesley Iwundu has cleared the NBA’s concussion protocols after last Saturday’s nasty fall. He may still be available for Sunday’s game against the Sacramento Kings.

It is hard to put a number to the kind of impact these players make. None of them are particularly good shooters or have a lot of gravity. Teams will still leave them open.

Yet, when the Magic are successful, it is usually because these players have given the team a nice boost in some areas.

More from Orlando Magic Daily

It is usually because they have owned their roles in these minutes. It is why Clifford likes inserting them into lineups throughout the game. There is usually at least one of these players available.

"“I just think a bench is important period,” D.J. Augustin said after practice Saturday. “No matter what team it is, no matter what you are trying to accomplish. You always need a strong, solid bench. A bench can come in and change the game. A bench can come in and keep a game steady. Having a good bench and good guys in their roles is important for any team.”"

It goes beyond their scoring. These are players Steve Clifford can count on to execute and play well and play with energy every night, regardless of how much they score or the shot attempts they get.

Take Ennis, for example.

With the Magic, he is averaging a mere 6.8 points per game in starting 11 of his 13 games with the team. But it is easy to see from the time inside the campus what kind of energy he can bring.

Early on in the scrimmage against the Denver Nuggets, Ennis set the tone with some strong cuts to the basket and around the paint that got the Magic easy basket. Ennis is not the most prolific cutter in the league by any means, but he is effective enough and smart enough to be a threat.

More importantly, Clifford likes how he competes on the defensive end. This is where a player like Ennis can stand out and make his mark. This is where all those “glue-guy” players make their mark and why Clifford leans on them so heavily.

Ennis’ defensive numbers may not pop off the page, but he holds his own effectively. And the fact he dove right into the Magic’s schemes mid-season (and after a pandemic) shows his adaptability on that end.

"“The more comfortable he gets, the better he plays,” Clifford said after practice Sunday. “He is also like a glue guy to me. He brings a lot of intangibles to your team. he likes sto be in the gym, he likes to work. Like MCW he has a natural intensity that is contagious to the other guys.”"

That kind of intensity is going to do a lot of work to keep the team together and afloat in some respects. That toughness from Ennis specifically has left an impression on his teammates.

Necessary roles to play

It will take that kind of play throughout the roster to be successful. Energy off the bench and play off the bench is essential to success. Everyone can see that.

Khem Birch said the LA Clippers are a perfect example of a team that has a deep bench that can carry over the momentum from the starting lineup.

These role players may not show up much in the box score.  But they are vital to a team’s success. Without these grinders, it is hard for a team to function.

More from Analysis

These players make everyone else look better and get the production necessary to win. It is like a good offensive line — their stats are reflective elsewhere in the box score. It takes some investigation to find out where their impact really is.

Birch said his main role is to get others open more than scoring himself — jokingly saying setting screens is his way to make sure he gets his touches and chances to score.

That is something Birch is very good at — his 5.9 screen assists per 75 possessions is in the 96th percentile in the league according to BBall Index. To find that value, you certainly have to dig a little deeper.

But that little advantage can be enough to spring a teammate open or make it a little easier for them to score. These are the plays that these players make possible.

It was necessary to Friday’s win over the Nets. And it will become even more necessary as the team goes through this difficult stretch of games to finish the seeding round.

Orlando’s energy guys are going to become even more vital. As Clifford tries to manage everyone’s conditioning, their energy and their natural competitiveness will become necessary to keep the team playing at a high level.

Next. Jonathan Isaac's return gives Orlando Magic new hope. dark

That already proved true in Friday’s win. Orlando will have to keep up that intensity from everyone to succeed in the next two weeks.