With Chuma Okeke having finally signed his rookie contract with the Orlando Magic after a year spent recovering from injury, all eyes will be on him to see how well he competes in the NBA and whether he can stay healthy.
Chuma Okeke was taken with the 16th pick in the 2019 Draft despite suffering an ACL tear in his left knee in March. The Orlando Magic were confident enough in his ability and potential to accept a year without a new first-round rookie, still managing to make the playoffs despite a somewhat unproductive season.
Now, the 22-year-old will join fellow rookie Cole Anthony on a team in need of a boost on offense. Both youngsters are key to helping the Magic improve next season, especially with the roster staying largely the same as last year.
But there will undoubtedly be questions over whether Chuma Okeke can manage a full season in the NBA without setbacks after such a big injury in college. With good options at the forward spots limited due to Jonathan Isaac’s injury, the Magic need Chuma Okeke to take up considerable minutes in the rotation.
Only time will tell if this is the case. There is only so much a player can do to prevent injury without holding anything back on the court. And the Magic are going to observe him carefully.
So far the returns on Okeke have been positive. Coach Steve Clifford has praised Chuma Okeke’s attentiveness and ability to pick things up quickly in practice. Several players have noted Okeke’s shot-making ability. Khem Birch called Chuma Okeke a special defender.
He is making an impression. The question is how that translates to actual games when he hits the floor for the first time in nearly two years.
With two new rookies on the roster, the Magic are now in a position where the young talent can be the main focus going forward. Okeke’s fitness will be an important factor behind whether the front office can start moving away from the existing core of more experienced players and instead look towards the future.
And that will be the central story for Okeke in his rookie year.
The Orlando Magic have not had good luck with injuries.
Jonathan Isaac made his long-awaited return from a spell on the sidelines in the NBA Bubble only to re-injure his knee in a huge blow to the team’s playoff and future hopes.
Aaron Gordon also struggled to stay healthy last season, missing the entire first-round series loss to the Milwaukee Bucks after a season filled with minor injuries that slowed him down. Moreover, Mohamed Bamba was sent home from Bubble with conditioning concerns after catching COVID-19 earlier this year and is still building up his conditioning. Meanwhile, Al-Farouq Aminu missed most of the season with a torn meniscus in his right knee and after a setback is still entering the final stages of his recovery.
Both Bamba and Aminu are still experiencing problems and have not been taking part in contact training, with the latter likely to be out for some time yet after undergoing further surgery on his knee.
Wiz of Awes
Injuries are a part of basketball, but the Magic have had it worse than most. Staying healthy will be vital if the team is to progress and this has to be the aim for Chuma Okeke, who will play an important part in the forward rotation because of Isaac and Aminu’s injuries.
The former Auburn forward averaged 12.0 points per game in his sophomore year before suffering his injury against North Carolina during the NCAA Tournament. Okeke looked like a terrific prospect on both ends of the court having also shown plenty of positive defensive play, a key focus of what the Magic are trying to build around.
A torn ACL is a serious enough injury to have a significant impact on a player’s career. Many players have struggled with knee problems after tearing an ACL, having a serious effect on their careers and ability to reach their full potential. This is also the concern with Isaac.
Most players make full recoveries and have few incidences of recurrence.
There is a good chance Okeke could enjoy a healthy career and grow into the player Orlando hopes he will become, a two-way threat from the perimeter that can also cut to the basket and score. It will just take time for him to get back into the swing of things. This year will be a season of recovery before he can begin working on his skills again.
Many had tipped Okeke to go higher than the 16th pick but his devastating injury caused him to fall in the Draft. For the Magic, the hope will be that they managed to get a guy who shakes off his early injury woes to become something of a steal having been selected outside of the lottery.
Chuma Okeke has been taking part in full-contact practice with the Orlando Magic over the past couple of days. Footage of him sinking a three-pointer on Twitter will no doubt excite fans, who will hope he can provide a threat from deep for a team that desperately needs better shooting from beyond the arc.
Okeke at this point is just happy to be back on the court and eager to learn everything he can.
The point Okeke makes is an important one. These are very early days for a player coming off a serious injury that is yet to play an NBA game so patience will be required.
But the early signs are encouraging. Steve Clifford has spoken of his satisfaction with Chuma Okeke so far and believes he and other new additions Cole Anthony and Dwayne Bacon will provide the team with more flexibility and depth.
Clifford has, however, revealed Okeke will be used primarily at the power forward position to start with. One of his strengths is the versatility he possesses, meaning he could have a future at either the 4 or the 3. To start with, it seems we will see him provide valuable backup to Aaron Gordon.
At 6-foot-8, Okeke is probably slightly undersized for the position but possesses a slightly different skill set to Gordon which will help the Magic. Okeke will provide more of a perimeter threat than Gordon allowing him to stretch the floor better, opening up avenues for the likes of Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony.
If Okeke can stay healthy, he will receive some vital minutes backing up Gordon at power forward with the possibility of moving to the small forward position later in the season, somewhere the team is especially lacking.
The team’s last two first-round picks have presented something of a risk, but risks are what is needed if this team is to move forward. Okeke could become a big player for Orlando in the years to come and that starts with staying healthy and getting some important minutes under his belt next season.