Orlando Magic rookie Chuma Okeke is finding his confidence and comfort

Chuma Okeke turned in another carer-best performances as the change on the Orlando Magic roster has helped him grow. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke turned in another carer-best performances as the change on the Orlando Magic roster has helped him grow. Mandatory Credit: Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports /

38. Final. 112. 34. 105

Chuma Okeke is still getting his feel for life in the NBA.

To the media, he is still a quiet team-first guy. Getting him to smile or show some emotion or go beyond the team’s talking points is a bit of a challenge. Having to talk to him over Zoom is not making it any easier for the home media to get to know the rookie forward.

It was hard not to see Okeke smile a bit over two things in Friday’s session.

The first was a question about former AAU teammate Wendell Carter, who now joins the Orlando Magic as part of the team’s restructuring that took place at the trade deadline.

The other came when he was asked about his personal growth.

In the Orlando Magic’s first matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 9, Chuma Okeke got matched up on several occasions with veteran Carmelo Anthony. The veteran and former All-Star took the rookie to school, twice getting him to bite on a pump fake and drawing a foul despite Okeke’s solid defensive instincts.

Okeke had the right idea to use his physicality to try to match Anthony and stayed down on the first and second fake. But at the critical moment, the veteran baited the rookie.

A month and a half later, Okeke saw Anthony again. The two had their duels but the rooie did not make the same mistake. There were no fouls and Anthony, who scored 23 points on 7-for-16 shooting in that first matchup, had only eight points on 4-for-9 shooting in Friday’s 112-105 loss to the Blazers at Amway Center.

Okeke is having moments big and small as he continues to develop and grow. Friday’s game was proof of how far he has come and how far he still might go.

Chuma Okeke’s second career-best game is a buildup of small moments as the Orlando Magic rookie is piecing things together with the opportunity ahead of him.

A rookie season is full of ups and downs. The progression of a player is ultimately what counts as they find their place in the league.

If the last few games are any indication, Okeke is starting to find his place in the league. The growth is obvious in big and small ways.

"“It’s just me sliding my feet and trying to beat my man to the spot,” Okeke said after Friday’s game. “Just keeping my hands off him and not fouling as much when I first came and even into the season I kept fouling. I just want to stay solid and if he makes the shot, he makes the shot and it’s good defense.”"

All that is easier said than done. Anthony still largely got the better of Okeke in their matchups this year — scoring 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting with Okeke as his matchup, according to NBA.com’s tracking stats.

Even with Okeke’s improved defense against him, Anthony still hit his share of tough shots over him.

And there were plenty of moments like this one where the rookie got the best of the probable Hall of Famer.

For rookies, it is these little moments and victories that are the surer sign of growth. The ability to learn from experience and get better are key to their success.

The little moments are the ones a coach like Steve Clifford would point to as why he is slowly gaining more trust in the rookie. Or signs Clifford’s development plan for Okeke is coming together.

The big moments do not hurt either.

Okeke followed up a career-high 17 points in Wednesday’s win over the Phoenix Suns with a 22-point, six-rebound, four-assist effort. He made 9 of 15 shots and four of six 3-pointers too.

"“I feel like I’m getting real comfortable,” Okeke said after Friday’s game. “I’m just taking the shots that are given to me. My teammates just do a good job of penetrating, drawing the defense in and kicking it out. I just have to make the shot.”"

Okeke’s role is still a secondary one. Despite him leading the team in scoring, the Magic were still running a lot more of their offense through drivers like Dwayne Bacon and Michael Carter-Williams. He still needs them to set him up.

But with more opportunity likely heading toward young players after the trade — and certainly in this game with the team down to eight active players — Okeke has the chance to take off and build on this confidence.

That will be part of the Magic’s plan for the rest of the season. And it is helping Okeke gain confidence to expand his game beyond spot-up shooting.

Before Friday’s game, Clifford said he plans to use Okeke more in the post as the next way to expand his game now that his role has been a bit settled.

If it produces results like this, the Magic will be very pleased:

Clifford’s philosophy with rookies is certainly about keeping things simple and expanding their roles and responsibility as they master the basics.

He has been careful with Okeke throughout the season both because he was returning from a yearlong absence from the court because of a torn ACL but also because of the massive absences on the team. He wants Okeke learning the right habits and mastering the basics of playing in the league and within his system.

Clifford has repeatedly said players grow best when they are put in positions where they can succeed and contribute to winning. That is the guiding light of his philosophy.

Clifford wanted to keep Okeke’s role simple at the power forward position, giving him set responsibilities to master. But he has had to play Okeke at small forward — 63-percent of his minutes at power forward and 33-percent of his minutes at small forward, according to Basketball-Reference — more than he would like.

That may have slowed the addition of these small moments into big moments like that last two games. Simplifying and focusing Okeke’s role might well have helped him find a bit of a breakthrough.

"“One of the things that has hurt him is he had to play for a stretch there at a position he never even practiced at,” Clifford said after Friday’s game. “He’s back to playing what he is now. I think he can play the 3 as he gets older. This is allowing him to play one position and concentrate on those things and those details. Some games he has had to play two positions and that can be very difficult.”"

The fact Okeke has taken this all in and still played relatively well — even if it is just defensively, where he rates highly in deflections per 75 possessions and other activity metrics — is a sign that he is accepting that coaching and getting more comfortable and confident in his role.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Okeke has presented himself publicly as a quiet, humble hard worker. There is nothing to dispel that. The team seems happy with his development and are clearly hoping to use the rest of this season to focus and grow that development.

There is still a lot of work to do for Okeke. After all, he is averaging only 5.4 points per game (roughly 8.8 points per 36 minutes) on a 52.1-percent effective field goal percentage. There are only small signs of what he can do as his role expands.

But that is the normal up and down for a rookie. It is about capturing the little moments and turning them into big moments.

So far this season, Okeke’s shooting potential — he is shooting 40.5-percent from beyond the arc — has been his biggest asset. Slowly, he is starting to get the confidence to drive and attack the basket. The Magic are hoping to set him up with post-up opportunities.

He has handled it all very well. And soon those small moments will add up as they have the last two outings.

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That should make everyone smile a bit. . . even Okeke.