2021 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: James Ennis must play the shooter role

James Ennis' toughness and defensive grit proved valuable for the Orlando Magic's playoff run. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
James Ennis' toughness and defensive grit proved valuable for the Orlando Magic's playoff run. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool) /

The Orlando Magic are hoping to find better offensive balance. That will have to include seeing a better shooting performance from James Ennis.

Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford loves players like James Ennis.

These are grinders who put in the work and do the dirty work that makes a team go. The kind of players that do not ask for the ball and find ways to impact the game without creating shots for themselves. They defend and get dirty, filling in the gaps on a team.

James Ennis has been through the NBA ringer plenty. Everywhere he has gone, he has played. Ennis has played at least 50 games in five of his six NBA seasons, eclipsing 60 games in four of his six NBA seasons. He has averaged 20.1 minutes per game and started nearly 30-percent of the games he has played.

Yet, Ennis has bounced around the league. He was out of the rotation by the midpoint of last season with the Philadelphia 76ers and used his virtual no-trade clause to approve a trade to the Orlando Magic.

Immediately, the Magic needed him to step into the starting small forward spot with Jonathan Isaac out of the lineup. It helped set everything right for the team. Aaron Gordon moved full time to the power forward spot and the team’s offense took off — from the time the Magic acquired James Ennis to the season’s suspension, the Magic had a 115.2 offensive rating (third-best in the league) with a 108.6 offensive rating with Ennis on the floor.

That gets to the central contradiction of Ennis.

Throughout the entire season, Clifford praised Ennis’ shooting, yet the shooting never came. He fills in gaps, but is not a true difference maker. Ennis seems valuable more for his ability to competently fill minutes rather than as someone who will make a true impact.

With this Magic team, those can have big effects considering how small the team’s margin for error remains.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

With Isaac out for the year, the Magic were certainly happy to see Ennis pick up his player option. that gave them someone they can trust to start for the season. The Magic did not have many resources to find another starting-level small forward.

So that now that he is here and he has a full season to prove what he can do rather than simply a post-trade-deadline tryout, Ennis has to fulfill the promise of being a strong supporting player.

More importantly, he has to become the shooter Clifford promised he could be to help give the Magic some space on offense.

Ennis is a career 35.0-percent 3-point shooter. That is not much to get excited about. But for a Magic team that is still devoid of quality outside shooting, even that little boost can help the team tremendously.

Yet, Ennis shot only 28.6-percent on 3-pointers for the Magic last season (18 for 63). Inside the bubble, as Ennis recovered from COVID-19 and got more comfortable with a larger offensive role thanks to all the injuries, Ennis shot 26.7-percent from beyond the arc (even though his scoring jumped to 11.0 points per game).

In the Playoffs, Ennis shot 25.0-percent from beyond the arc. His 3-point shooting never came around even with the chance to get into a rhythm and get experience playing with new teammates.

Ennis was actually a much more effective pull-up 3-point shooter, hitting 38.5-percent of his pull-up 3-pointers according to stats from Basketball Index. Still, Ennis still largely gets ignored at the 3-point line — his gravity measure according to Basketball Index is about at the league median.

More from Orlando Magic Daily

It is perhaps too much to focus on his 3-point shooting. Ennis’ real value likely comes in how he defends and works off the dribble in pull-ups against rotating defenses. Ennis is the definition of a grinder, someone who just fills gaps in a lineup rather than being a force within it.

Ennis’ real role is to defend his position, hit the open shot when it comes to him and cut into space when the opportunity arises. Ennis is not going to have many plays run for him — barring massive injury. He simply needs to be ready when the attention others bring frees him up.

Terrence Ross is still going to be the one finishing games at small forward — or one of the wing positions. Ennis is there to get the team started with the right intensity and attitude to get to that closing lineup.

But Ennis still has a critical role to play.

That inevitably then gets back to the shooting question. And whether Ennis can provide the shooting to support this lineup properly. The Magic are still without shooters and that will greatly decrease the spacing and the margin for error for players who are on the ball.

Certainly, the prospects of putting Markelle Fultz on the ball more will relieve some of that pressure. It gives Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier more opportunity to be threats from the outside rather than creators.

It will help and it might help give Ennis more space. When teams do not have to worry about Fournier’s spot-up threat in that starting lineup, it greatly congests the paints and forces some of the wild shots Fournier gets trapped into.

But that all still leads back to the inevitable question of whether Ennis will shoot reliably enough to create this space.

Clifford already likes what Ennis brings defensively and within the scheme and culture the Magic play. That much is clear. He is a grinder, and every lineup needs those players.

But it also needs shooting. And Clifford keeps promising that Ennis is a better shooter than he has shown in his time in Orlando.

Next. Mohamed Bamba has to prove he can earn time. dark

The statistics bear that out. But now Orlando needs to see it on the floor. And that likely will determine the success or failure of Ennis’ first full season with the Magic.