Orlando Magic’s youth point to a brighter future as Playoff dreams get officially snuffed

R.J. Hampton continued to show improvement as he gets comfortable playing for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
R.J. Hampton continued to show improvement as he gets comfortable playing for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

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It is hard to reach back into the annals of Orlando Magic history and find something similar to the run Cole Anthony is on right now.

Anthony is all bravado and confidence. But, more importantly, he has the game to back that up.

It would have been enough to watch Cole Anthony hit his second late go-ahead basket of the week with a tough step-back 3-pointer over the taller Kyle Anderson to complete a 20-point second-half comeback and a 15-point fourth quarter. But then Anthony went to the Bally Sports Florida interview and made it clear this was his moment.

Anthony said he was bred for this. This is the moments he lives for and seeks out. With the clock ticking down and the Magic down by two points, the rookie said he was not going to lie, he wanted the iso. And he was going to iso no matter what to get the last shot.

He has already garnered a reputation for emotional and off-the-cuff interviews that give soundbites worthy of someone with supreme confidence. Several players around the league are already taking notice of this young rookie. Anthony has almost assuredly clinched a spot on the NBA All-Rookie team.

The Orlando Magic’s distant playoff dreams are officially over. But their young players continue to surprise as they figure out the league and point to a brighter future.

This is not how a rookie is supposed to be. This is not how a Magic guard is supposed to play.

This is the confidence and bravado for the big moments that is reserved for the precious few elite guards in Magic history — Jameer Nelson, Steve Francis, Tracy McGrady and Anfernee Hardaway. Anthony is not on those players’ level yet. But it is hard not to believe Anthony thinks he is there.

"“Extremely confident. Uber confident. Very very confident,” Anthony said after Saturday’s game. “In crunch time, I want that ball and go get it for my team. Whether that means making the right play to get it to someone else or taking that big shot. I just want to get that dub for the team.”"

The Magic were officially eliminated from postseason contention on Friday. They knew the Playoffs were not a possibility for a while now.

Even a coach like Steve Clifford had shifted his focus away from strict winning or losing as a sign of growth. He is focused on developing young players and putting them in positions where they can learn and grow.

Orlando is seeing that throughout its roster. So while the present is no longer the priority, the team’s future is in focus and getting brighter with each game.

Anthony has been the biggest and clearest sign of the team’s growth. He is playing with improved patience and looking far better than his rookie experience.

More than that, he has stepped up his game in the fourth quarter, playing with a fearlessness both for the opponent and for the moment that is rare with a young player. There is a reason why those great names in Magic history.

Newcomer Moritz Wagner said Cole Anthony has the “right amount of craziness in him.” That was seemingly a compliment of his confidence as the rookie still finds his place in the league.

But Anthony is not alone.

R.J. Hampton has slowly put more pieces together, turning his speed into something more useful and consistent on a basketball floor. He certainly can still hit the jets and get to the basket when he needs to. Hampton’s success will depend on his ability to control his pace and hit shots.

Right now, he is making up ground after starting the year buried on the roster of a contending Denver Nuggets team.

"“It’s a lot of fun getting back to playing basketball consistently all the time,” Hampton said after Saturday’s game. “It is giving me the opportunity to be out there in those big moments, in those crunch-time games and learn from my mistakes and learn from my experiences. I think that’s invaluable.”"

Acting coach Tyrone Corbin said the difference for R.J. Hampton in Saturday’s win as he scored a career-high 18 points was his decisiveness and purpose to attack the basket with the intent to score.

Mohamed Bamba also has started showing signs of life, playing with more energy defensively and on the glass but also shooting and scoring more confidently. He still has a long way to go, but he is making a positive impact for the team.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

All the pieces are not there yet. There are still limitations this team faces — an inconsistent offense is chief among them. Orlando still likely needs that top pick they are getting this offseason to deliver and inject some top-end talent and Saturday’s win may not help on that front.

But the team is seeing the exact progress they want from these young players. There may be a stinker thrown in there — such is the inconsistency of youth. But what the Magic want to see in that time is for these young players to improve and for the group as a whole to learn from their mistakes and continue to fight.

It may not always end up with a win — in all likelihood, it will not — but the team wants to see its basic principles play out and for the team to fight.

They certainly showed that coming back from a 20-point second half deficit and fighting back from late deficits of seven and eight points in the fourth quarter. The team made every play it needed and got every stop it needed after a lackluster first half.

"“We showed a lot of character,” Corbin said after Saturday’s win. “They stuck together and stayed with the game plan and picked it up a bit when things didn’t look well. they didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They found from within their body and their mind to fight their way through it and give themselves a chance. And good things happened as a result of it.”"

It is hard to say they are not doing so with how they have closed out games recently. It is hard to say they have not done that with Anthony’s continued confidence or Hampton’s continued development or Bamba’s growing comfort. On top of everything else.

While Orlando’s playoff hopes were officially snuffed after Friday’s loss to Memphis, the team saw its future and potential on full display Saturday.

Excuse this very young team for having a bit of youthful confidence and believing their own hype for the moment.

"“I like this team a lot,” Antony said after Saturday’s win. “It tells you a lot about us. We’ve been shorthanded all season. You look at our record and look at our game, it doesn’t add up. Everyone is hungry on this team. We had some dudes step up today, it was a great overall team win.”"

Next. Orlando Magic's young players learn best in close games. dark

If that is the first — or next — step, there is a lot to get excited about.