Chuma Okeke will be starting sooner than later for Orlando Magic

Chuma Okeke is getting his footing again after missing a month. The Orlando Magic forward will be pushing for more soon. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Chuma Okeke is getting his footing again after missing a month. The Orlando Magic forward will be pushing for more soon. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

When you are a NBA rookie, especially early in your career, teams are looking for flashes of brilliance. Some proof that talent properly directed will turn into something the team can use.

Especially for a player like Chuma Okeke coming off a year away from the game to recover from a torn ACL, every sign of life early is a sign of his ultimate development. Another step in the process.

His rookie season is already full of starts and stops. Some strong play early in the season followed by another month’s wait to recover from a bone bruise to his surgically repaired left knee.

Chuma Okeke has just come back to restart his rookie year anew it feels. So the moments when he looks inspired are a clue to what he can one day become every night.

And even these moments are starting to surprise veterans.

A lot stood out about Okeke in Thursday’s 111-105 loss to the Golden State Warriors. He hit a couple of 3-pointers to give the Orlando Magic a needed offensive boost. But everyone was talking after the game about his defense.

More particularly a steal he had on Stephen Curry. A player who even seasoned defenders struggle to track down, Okeke stood his ground on the multi-time All-Star and all-world shooter and picked his pocket as he tried to drive past.

These are the kind of plays that old rookies over as they learn the league.

Coach Steve Clifford has long praised Chuma Okeke’s defensive instincts. And this was a player where instincts simply took over and the young player made a play. There have been flashes like this all over the game.

"“The more he plays, the more comfortable he gets, the better he will be,” Clifford said after Thursday’s loss to the Warriors. “He helped us a lot in the first half with his shooting. He’s a very good offensive rebounder. I think the more he plays, and the more comfortable he gets, I think he’ll play better and better.”"

All the signs are there for Okeke. The numbers are not quite there yet. But his impact and energy are becoming clearer to see.

Okeke has played just six games since returning from his bone bruise. And he is still getting his feet under him it seems.

But the impact is pretty clear. And while Gary Clark has had his ups and downs and inconsistency — he is coming off a solid game against the Sacramento Kings on Friday — Chuma Okeke is quickly gaining notice and traction.

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  • The Magic are certainly more invested in Okeke than any other young forward on the roster. He is doing positive things on the court and making positive plays. And it feels like only a matter of time before the team makes a chance and adds Okeke to the starting lineup.

    "“Chuma plays hard,” James Ennis said after Thursday’s game against the Warriors. “He has great hands. We definitely saw it tonight. He got his hands on a lot of deflections. He knocked down three threes for us. I feel like he can stretch the floor. He has a huge upside and I’m excited to see him.”"

    Okeke is still focused on himself and pushing to make himself better. After all, his averages are not all that impressive so far — 4.0 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game, 2.4 assists per game and 1.1 “stocks” per game with a 44.6-percent effective field goal percentage.

    Okeke still has a lot of work to do. He would probably be the first to admit it.

    It is not to say he is ready to take on a starting role immediately — barring injuries pushing him into the lineup prematurely.

    His focus is on getting into the flow of things again and finding his place in the NBA. The Magic have to be very pleased with his progress to this point.

    But Okeke’s push for more playing time is certainly coming as he finds consistency and gets better and better. The team is going to end up carving out more time for him because of his versatility.

    And there are issues with the starting lineup that need some fixing to keep the team afloat at least until Aaron Gordon’s potential return in mid-March.

    The starting group of Cole Anthony, Evan Fournier, James Ennis, Gary Clark and Nikola Vucevic has a net rating of +4.9 points per 100 possessions. They have played well. So health plays a major role in any changes to the starting lineup.

    But since Evan Fournier went out, the lineup with Dwayne Bacon has a -6.4 net rating in the first quarter and a -38.5 net rating overall.

    This is not to put all those problems on Clark alone. Anthony himself is a rookie and has had his own growing pains to go through as he has been forced to run and organize the team amidst all the injuries.

    Certainly, there is not yet enough data or information for Clifford to make a decision about changing up the starting lineup with the players available to him. Okeke has not done enough consistently to warrant a major shift.

    And certainly, when Gordon returns in the next few weeks, Okeke will likely retain his spot in the rotation over Clark. Okeke’s potential and even his play certainly suggest that.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    For what it is worth, Okeke is one of four players with a positive on-court net rating at +0.3 points per 100 possessions. Okeke has largely fit in with groups that have played well this season.

    For now, his role is limited to these hustle plays. He is trying to play solid defense, attack the offensive glass and make shots when they come. He has shown the confidence to take a couple of jumpers off the dribble.

    One thing everyone has learned is that Okeke is all about the team.

    "“My approach was just to go out there and help my team in the best way that I could to come away with a win and just go out there and play hard,” Okeke said after Thursday’s loss. “I feel like I played hard, but I missed a lot of easy shots that I should have made. I could have done way better than I did tonight.”"

    Okeke is still going to strive to be better. He is not about to rest on his laurels or believe he has reached the end. He knows he has to play better. And for sure, Okeke has gotten lost a few times defensively as his awareness and processing of the game have had to catch up. Like any rookie, he makes mistakes and has had to play through and learn from them.

    But Okeke is impressing nonetheless. And his time is coming for the Magic.

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    If injuries continue to hit this team and they need to make a change in the starting lineup, Okeke is likely lining up for that bigger role. He just has to keep working to get there.