Fans are anticipating the Orlando Magic will make some changes to the roster as they map their way forward. Chuma Okeke is a newcomer that is already here.
The Orlando Magic’s offseason is a week old. The team left the bubble after its five-game series with the Milwaukee Bucks ended. Everyone has moved on.
The team has started to splinter and head off for their offseason. There is still uncertainty about what kind of work they can do inside the AdventHealth Practice Facility, let alone when the season is going to begin.
There is plenty of hand-wringing already about what the Magic will do and who they can add. The team is going to operate above the salary cap this year and have virtually only the nontaxpayer mid-level exception to spend to improve the roster.
That is not much. Last year, that same contract got the team Al-Farouq Aminu, a starter-level player who fell off significantly in his short time on the floor before a torn meniscus ended his season.
The anticipation to add new players to the roster and start to transform the team is still present. It feels like the team needs to inject some new blood to improve the roster and take its next step.
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There are major cosmetic changes that have to be made. And those changes are going to be gradual. But the Magic already have one new player to add to their fold.
And the team is very excited about him.
In last year’s draft, the Magic selected Chuma Okeke with the 16th overall pick. It was a surprising pick considering the Magic’s limited ability to add players last year and the fact he had torn his ACL and likely would not be available to play the entire season, or at least be very limited.
It seemed like the plan from the start was to have him defer his rookie season so the team could save some cap room to make signings to stay in the playoff race. They would let him rehab with the Lakeland Magic for the season and then bring him in for the 2021 season.
Chuma Okeke had a solid career with the Auburn Tigers, averaging 12.0 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game in his final year in college. He shot 49.6-percent from the floor overall and a 57.7-percent effective field goal percentage.
He had a breakout NCAA Tournament, averaging 15.0 points per game and 7.0 rebounds per game in his three NCAA Tournament games. He shot 50.0-percent from the floor and 61.7-percent effective field goal percentage.
He scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, shooting 8 for 11, in 25 minutes in Auburn’s win over North Carolina before tearing his ACL in the second half.
That was a devastating moment for Auburn, one the team overcame to win not only that game against North Carolina but the next game to reach the Final Four. But it was clear how much Okeke was a motivating factor.
He was a big part of that team as a defender and energy player. He was stepping up his game on the biggest stage to lead Auburn to a place in the tournament it had never gone to.
The one thing everyone seems to say about Okeke is that he is a team-first player and a diligent worker. He is someone the Magic certainly believe will fit into this team well.
“I really believe our fans are going to love him,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said in a teleconference last week. “He’s all about team first. It’s the way that he plays and the way that he thinks. He has done well with his rehab, but there is no forum for him to take that to the next level. We are very excited to have him on our team next year.”
Okeke has progressed well in his rehab, Weltman said. He was reportedly shooting jumpers before the G-League season ended because of the pandemic. It was unlikely he would have been able to play this season, but his rehab was going well.
But every report from Lakeland — and from players who were with the Magic who were down in Lakeland — was that teammates loved having him around. They certainly noticed his work rate in their practice facility. And Okeke was at least involved on the bench for home games.
Weltman said Okeke is in the late stage of his rehab and development. It is unknown just how far he is though because the pandemic has stopped that progress and prevented him from reaching that final stage — Aminu is very much in the same boat in terms of his knee injury.
The NBA’s guidelines for workouts are limiting access to the AdventHealth Practice Facility (Okeke is not technically under contract yet, so his access to the building and to the Magic’s training staff is something outside the collective bargaining agreement). They are also limiting the amount of physical contact he can play. Teams are only allowed to conduct individual workouts under the league’s current safety protocols outside the NBA campus.
Weltman said right now Okeke needs live-action to complete his rehab and see how he responds to the actual acts of playing basketball.
By the time Okeke takes the NBA floor for the first time, it is very likely it will be about 23 months since the last time he played. Undoubtedly he will have some rust to knock off.
Still, the Magic feel he is very special. They say that other teams were lining up behind them to take Okeke if they had not taken him at No. 16. And if he was healthy, the Magic, at least, say he could have gone sooner.
Some of that may be posturing and selling the fan base on a pick that they would not see for an entire year. There may still be some of that going on.
It might not happen all of a sudden. But with Okeke’s defensive ability and decent shooting, the Magic are probably hoping that Okeke can slide into the rotation as a backup forward at the very least. Considering the team will be without Jonathan Isaac, and all the players the Magic missed at that position in the playoffs, Chuma Okeke could be a valuable contributor if he has the right mindset and approach to his rookie year.
Everyone earns their minutes on this team. Coach Steve Clifford has been good about managing players coming back from injury and putting them in positions where they can succeed. As they grow, their roles grow.
Okeke certainly seems like a player who will fit their eye. But at this point, nobody knows how he will play after being away from the game for so long. And the last stages of his rehab are still incomplete.
But Orlando already has one new player coming to its roster. One that the team continues to be excited about for his future and potential.