3 observations from the first half of the Orlando Magic’s season

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Orlando Magic, Steve Clifford

The Orlando Magic put winning at home as one of their bigger goals for this season. It might well determine their season. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando Magic fans need not be reminded of the tumultuous start to the season. It feels like more than a mere two months since the loss of Markelle Fultz, and even longer since the Magic started the season 4-0 and 6-2.

The dreams of a complete roster able to take the next step up the playoff ladder are all but finished.

The team sits at the midpoint at 13-23, 14th in the Eastern Conference. They trail the Indiana Pacers by 3.5 games for the final spot in the play-in tournament. But the Magic will also face the second-most difficult schedule in the second half of the season by opponent win percentage.

The Magic’s playoff chances are shrinking quickly — only a 2-percent chance according to FiveThirtyEight — and the team’s stats are not helping matters. The Magic rank 28th in net rating, getting outscored by 6.6 points per 100 possessions this season.

Rather than recounting the obvious, this is an in-depth look at three facets of the early season that were memorable, either because they were surprising, peculiar, or a source of frustration.

The Orlando Magic have started the 2020-21 regular season outside of the playoff picture. These three observations try to explain their suboptimal start.

Chuma Okeke’s versatility

It appears the Orlando Magic had the right idea in selecting Chuma Okeke with the 16th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft even after the then 20-year old was sidelined with a recently-torn anterior cruciate ligament. Other than Nikola Vucevic, Chuma Okeke has been the Magic’s brightest spot in what has undoubtedly been a disappointing start to the season.

During the month of February, Okeke shot 46-percent from beyond the arc, per Cleaning the Glass, led by strong shooting on more difficult non-corner 3-point attempts.

His outside shooting has been an answer to the Magic’s prayers for additional floor spacing alongside Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic. But even more importantly, his individual defense has been stellar — a sign that he will be an optimal pairing with coach Steve Clifford.

Watch his tenacity against Jerami Grant, the Detroit Pistons’ leading scorer and All-Star nominee:

 

It is rare for a rookie to possess that level of lateral quickness and understanding of the use of angles. He contains multiple drives from Grant by beating him to the spot. Only after going under the screen, and still making a contest on the jumper to increase the difficulty, does Grant finally score.

Okeke shows his frustration at the end of the clip, all too characteristic of a young player.

His play against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco in early February showed how far he had come in his two-plus months as a professional player.

His highlight steal of Stephen Curry’s dribble in the pick-and-roll showed his high basketball IQ and coordination. But there were multiple instances during the contest that should excite fans about Okeke’s future potential.

His combined versatility and handle on this possession, at a pivotal moment in a close game, shows the level of intangible talent he possesses:

 

Okeke’s steal figures are among the league’s best regardless of which source you use. His foul rates are also so, which points to the next development he will need to make on the defensive end of the floor.

The prediction is that Okeke will be able to expand his role during the Magic’s remaining thirty-four game schedule, after showing a full recovery from the rehabilitation that sidelined him last year. His strong early play and the continued injury concerns should give Clifford even more reason to maximize his development this spring.

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