The Orlando Magic are hoping to build a development program to grow young players. Wesley Iwundu is a sign of its potential and failure.
When Jeff Weltman took over as president of basketball operations for the Orlando Magic, he never hid from the work his team would have to do. They had a lot of development to go and a lot of work to do, but the process would be similar to his stop in Toronto.
He made clear his vision would put an emphasis on competing both internally and externally. Teams grow because they battle each other and they fight together to accomplish something real. Making the playoffs was something he wanted his team to achieve.
He certainly took his time evaluating what was already on the roster. And he clearly discovered some things about these players that another general manager might have ignored and shipped off — for better or for worse.
But the focus always stayed on his players. The players he selected and fit his overall vision were the important ones. They would one day grow into roles.
Selecting Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba in the first round were obvious choices at the time. Their development and growth remain key factors in the team’s growth. Weltman has taken fair criticism for some of his second-round picks.
But there was still an undoubted success story. Wesley Iwundu established himself as a NBA player. Someone that has a clear future.
Yet, the Magic never could find a consistent role for him. The team trusted him enough when they needed him, but never enough to develop into a regular rotation player.
This is a sign of the Magic’s success. Iwundu earned a second contract — and probably more than the minimum deal he got with the Dallas Mavericks. But it is also a sign of the larger problems the Magic face.
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Iwundu should have been the kind of player who grew into a rotation role. Part of the plan for the Magic is to draft players and have them grow into and fill roles on the team. The team’s development depends on this natural progression so they can cycle out other, higher-priced players or consolidate them for higher-level players on the trade market.
Iwundu should have been a player the Magic could have viewed as a potential fill-in at small forward without Isaac or a clear-cut rotation player. Instead, he was staring at the same inconsistent minutes if he stayed on the team.
Entering the draft process in 2017, Wesley Iwundu was seen as a nice story. He showed good improvement in each year at Kansas State, most especially with his shooting. He was a true sooting guard with good defensive instincts, but nothing more than an energy guy off the bench at the pro level.
He did not get much chance to do anything his rookie year. His shooting struggles largely kept him to the bench as the Magic tried to figure out what to do with this second-round pick. But he slowly and steadily improved.
By the time Steve Clifford took over in 2019, he seemed to be a player that fit his eye. He was energetic and eager to defend. That got him at least a few looks. But Iwundu was biding his time.
Still, Iwundu went from someone who did not look like he would be on the floor into a solid contributor when called upon.
He bumped his averages in 2019 to a solid, but not overly impressive 5.0 points per game with a 46.5-percent effective field goal percentage. His 3-point shooting jumped up to 36.7 percent from 19.6 percent in his rookie year.
More impressively, during the Magic’s 22-9 run that year, Iwundu averaged 5.5 points per game in 19.8 minutes per game, making 43.9-percent of his 3-pointers. The Magic’s decision in part to move him into a more consistent role was a big part of the team’s surge.
Iwundu perfectly understood his role. When the Magic called on him, he never played too far outside of himself. When he was not comfortable taking a 3-pointer, even when open, he did not take it. He was an expert at moving without the ball to flash through the lane.
Iwundu followed that up with a solid 2020 season. He averaged 5.8 points per game and his effective field goal percentage jumped to 47.6-percent.
Thirsting for an opportunity
Coach Steve Clifford often said Wesley Iwundu would perform well when he could give him consistent minutes. Finding that opportunity has been the story of Iwundu’s three seasons in Orlando.
That finally came around the time Jonathan Isaac got injured on Jan. 1 and then again at the trade deadline.
From Jan. 1 until the season went on hiatus, Iwundu averaged 7.0 points per game and shot 40.8-percent from beyond the arc in 20.6 minutes per game. Inside the NBA Campus, Iwundu averaged 9.0 points per game and shot 46.7-percent from beyond the arc in 20.5 minutes per game, despite missing time with a concussion after one of the scrimmages.
These are modest stats, but also clear improvements. A sign that Iwundu can contribute when given the chance.
Like in 2019, however, Iwundu again struggled in the playoffs. His 3-point percentage dropped dramatically. The Milwaukee Bucks like the Toronto Raptors the year before were more than willing to let Iwundu soot, betting his percentages would return closer to his career averages.
These would all seemingly point to a player the Magic would be eager to put into the rotation when the chance comes. Not a player who was more used in emergencies.
The hope is that a player like this goes through the team’s development system and grows into a larger role with the team. Even if they can be had on an affordable contract. The whole point of a development system is to feed players through the system and have them graduate to bigger roles.
Iwundu seemed poised for that. His progress from a flyer on a second-round pick to someone the Magic could rely on is a testament to the Magic’s development program. He should and will get his opportunity moving forward.
Not ready to step in
At the same time, Wesley Iwundu was not ready to step in.
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At the end of the day, the Orlando Magic opted to acquire James Ennis at the trade deadline to play small forward when Jonathan Isaac was out with his injury. The team tried — and largely failed — to platoon both Wesley Iwundu and Khem Birch in the starting lineup depending on the matchup in the immediate aftermath of that injury.
And that might be why the Magic ultimately let their project go. Iwundu signed with the Dallas Mavericks for a minimum contract. It certainly felt like Iwundu is capable of playing a meaningful role on the right team — one with better shooting around him and better playmaking and creation.
Still, it is hard not to believe the Magic could have continued this development project with Iwundu at the minimum — or perhaps a bit more to retain him.
Dwayne Bacon is a bit more versatile and can defend bigger, stronger small forwards. If the Magic only had space for someone to fill in those spare minutes, it would be hard to justify bringing Iwundu back. Much less, holding him back from that opportunity.
It is hard to say at this point whether the Mavericks will give him that opportunity too. It is hard to say if he will get that bigger role that he hinted at so often.
The Magic’s development program at least got that question on the table. It is proof that what the Magic are building can work.
But they need to do more. Iwundu should have been a player the Magic felt comfortable slotting in off the bench. If their development plan really worked to its best, Iwundu would have been a comfortable role player at this point.
This season for the Magic will be about trying to get young players on the Magic’s bench ready to start. That was something that did not happen with Iwundu.
He represents both this team’s potential success and where it still needs work.