Orlando Magic’s rookies continuing crash course through the league

Chuma Okeke as had his ups and down as a rookie. But the Orlando Magic forward has shown plenty of positive signs even as the team grows him slowly. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke as had his ups and down as a rookie. But the Orlando Magic forward has shown plenty of positive signs even as the team grows him slowly. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports /

It is all still a learning experience for Chuma Okeke.

The forward has been out of the college game for two years now and spent two seasons at Auburn. His path has not been the typical rookie path. Then again, no rookie has gone down a typical path this season with the pandemic-shortened season, the lack of Summer League and training camp.

Young players have started to assert themselves now just past the midpoint of the season as the rhythm of the season has become normal and players have found their comfort through experience on the floor.

They are all still making mistakes, even the ones playing well. And throughout the league, young players are going through the regular ups and downs.

Okeke is no exception as he not only tries to learn the league but continues to regain confidence after tearing his ACL at the end of the 2019 season.

Oftentimes, he will have a good moment and a bad moment all in the same game. It is all about the progress he is making.

So in one instance, Okeke can display all his defensive awareness and IQ, showing promise as a two-way defender. He can flip a pass over his head to Aaron Gordon for a dunk in transition.

Then he can make a silly turnover, passing from the block back to the top of the key and igniting an opponent fast break as he did in the fourth quarter during the Orlando Magic’s win over the Brooklyn Nets on Friday.

That got the rookie a quick hook in favor of a steadier hand as the Magic tried to hold onto their lead.

This is life as a rookie. A lot of good and a lot of bad. Often at the same time.

Rookie Chuma Okeke has made clear progress in his first year with the Orlando Magic. But like all the young players, there is still a lot to learn as they crash into the league.

Okeke is still going through all the learning processes that come from his first run through the league. He is still trying to glean information from teammates and from each experience on the floor.

"“Sometimes we have talks after the game and I just see stuff that he does,” Okeke said after the Magic’s practice Wednesday. “He sees the floor very good both moving without the ball and with the ball in his hands. He knows how to play the game. Just me seeing him when he cuts off the ball or Vooch has the ball in the post or how he gets open and how he gets in the lane just helps me out a lot. It’s a visual learning thing.”"

Fans are certainly a bit frustrated Al-Farouq Aminu has gotten more minutes than Chuma Okeke. But this is as much part of the learning experience too.

Okeke is trying to soak everything up.

Ups and downs

Becoming a better player will come from testing all this on the floor in his playing time and learning from his teammates during the course of the season.

Chuma Okeke’s averages right now are modest — 4.6 points per game, 3.6 rebounds per game and a 46.1-percent effective field goal percentage. He is averaging 5.2 points per game and 4.2 rebounds per game with a 39.7-percent effective field goal percentage in the five games since the All-Star Break.

For the season has just two games where he has scored more than 10 points — including a breakout performance against the Golden State Warriors at the Amway Center.

Okeke has already proven himself this year as a solid 3-point shooter, hitting 42.0-percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.

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  • While his rebounding numbers are still low, there are signs he can be a solid rebounder from the forward position. Data from Second Spectrum and Basketball Index give Okeke a 75.9-percent adjusted defensive rebound rate, which takes out any possessions where he defers a board to a teammate. That percentage puts him in the 94th-percentile in the league.

    All of his defensive numbers look good too — 3.1 deflections per 75 possessions and 1.2 steals per 75 possessions and a +3.0 defensive RAPTOR.

    A lot of these numbers are still coming in small sample sizes, but his defensive acumen has impressed especially.

    "“The defense is the part that’s harder because of not nothing to do with the coaching but because the players are so exceptional and the pick and roll game,” coach Steve Clifford said after practice Wednesday. “The pick and roll game and especially with all the different things guys do offensively is a bear. There are things you have to do defensively, you have to have Plan A and Plan B that you don’t have to do in a college game. Those things are hard to learn, but he is doing a good job. I think he can be an absolute expert on all phases of the team game, which is critical to being a good player.”"

    The part that will remain frustrating is finding the playing time for him to continue to grow. Okeke has had to play more and in ways the Magic did not want because of the injuries. Okeke earned his first starts last week and even had to play some shooting guard.

    The growing philosophy

    Steve Clifford’s philosophy with young players is to try to put them in positions they can succeed. His goal is to give players their time but in ways that can help the team win and that they can handle.

    If a player is playing and is not helping the team win, are they really learning and developing the way they need to? The answer to that question is certainly up for debate.

    But this sometimes means a young player’s role expands slowly. And it seems unlikely Clifford would put Okeke in a role he has not practiced or gift him minutes late in the season unless he has to because of injuries or absences.

    A big part of the Magic’s culture is that everything is earned. And Clifford does lean on veterans who are steadier and more consistent. Sometimes even to his detriment.

    The Magic are still moving slowly with their young players.

    Steve Clifford said earlier this week that it was unlikely a player like Karim Mane would see playing time outside of spot minutes. Mane is a long-term development project. And while he played fine in the G-League — 5.5 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game in 15 starts for Lakeland — Clifford said it will be more beneficial for him to be around the team and learn in practice and preparation than to be fed to the wolves.

    Orlando Magic
    Orlando Magic /

    Orlando Magic

    Some of that might just be trust and an inability to watch his growth closer in a real practice. In that way, this season has definitely hurt some young players in Orlando specifically and likely throughout the league.

    There is certainly a balance there to be had. But Clifford is always careful with young players and maintaining their confidence and their ability to help the team win.

    That is why part of his development program for players who are injured is to keep them engaged through film study.

    Cole Anthony has been doing some light work on the court this week as he recovers from his fractured rib. But he is still weeks away from returning, although Clifford was hesitant to put any timetable on his return.

    Steve Clifford said they have done some of the same film study he did with Mohamed Bamba during his rookie year and Jonathan Isaac in parts of last season to keep the young player engaged.

    It has been harder this season to commit to that kind of program though because games have come so quickly and there is little practice time to sit down and work with a player on the side. Anthony has been busy anyway with his rehab.

    "“He’s very coachable,” Clifford said Wednesday of Anthony. “He has a real passion for competing and for the sport. the hardest thing about injuries with anybody but particularly with young players who are still developing, that’s what it takes away from is their development.”"

    Okeke for now is the only rookie on the floor for the Magic. And it is clear how much he is still learning.

    The good flashes are very promising. Whether it is a deflection that leads to a steal, a good defensive sequence where he locks down his matchup or hitting a 3-pointer. All the good signs are there. His veterans see it too.

    The progress for Okeke has been slow this year. But that is intentional. It is meant to be a steady drumbeat.

    Next. Orlando Magic exuding confidence they can finish strong. dark

    And Okeke is doing good things that show his promise and that progress is being made.