Orlando Magic developing too quickly to embrace the tank

R.J. Hampton had his moment as the Orlando Magic raced past the Detroit Pistons. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
R.J. Hampton had his moment as the Orlando Magic raced past the Detroit Pistons. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

119. 38. 112. 64. Final

It is sometimes really easy to forget just how young the Orlando Magic are.

Not only is this a team short on playing experience still, but this is a team where its veteran players have not hit 30 and even in some cases 25 years old. These are still young men finding themselves in the world, let alone in the NBA.

So who would begrudge them a little bit of fun? Especially in the midst of a rotten season filled with injury.

The Magic locker room was boisterous as Cole Anthony stepped off the court Saturday, having hit the game-winning three in that game. Markelle Fultz provided the celebration on the court by dumping a bottle of water on the rookie as he conducted the now famous interview with Bally Sports Florida.

Anthony had just completed a masterful fourth quarter that all but clinched April’s Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award, topped off with the second buzzer-beating 3-pointer of his short career.

Monday it was R.J. Hampton’s turn.

After recording his first career double-double with 16 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds — coming off a career-high 18-point performance Saturday — R.J. Hampton received a giant bear hug from his fellow rookie before Cole Anthony, along with Wendell Carter and Gary Harris, planned a water bottle attack for the postgame presser.

Hampton deserved every bit of it for leading the Orlando Magic to a 119-112 win over the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on Monday. He was decisive in the biggest moment, whipping a pass to the corner to newcomer Ignas Brazdeikis for a 3-pointer that made it a six-point lead again.

The Orlando Magic are seeing their young players lead the way and find joy to end the season, even if that ruins their chances at the Lottery. These guys are too good to be that bad.

Hampton played under control, using his speed as a deadly weapon against an overmatched Pistons team.

This, in other words, was a whole lot of fun as this young team starts to come into its own in these late stages of the season.

"“Winning is fun,” Hampton said after Monday’s game. “So when we win everyone has a smile on our face. Those are the things we have to do to win. To have fun, we have to play together and stay together. There will be more water baths coming in the next seven games if we do that.”"

The dual goals

The Magic organizationally were looking to accomplish two goals in this final quarter of the season after the trade deadline.

The first was undoubtedly to position the team as best it could for the NBA Draft Lottery. The Magic had already sunk to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and put themselves in line for a top pick in the Draft. The Magic made the team significantly worse just by getting so much younger.

But part of getting younger was also going to be about seeing those players develop. Coach Steve Clifford talked about how he wanted to see players continue to improve and get better as the season went on. They were not simply going to abandon these games.

Finding moments of joy during a season like this is important just for coping. But celebrating the little victories is also important for a young team that is growing and planning for its future.

Part of the Magic’s approach since the trade deadline was to focus on these little victories to help these young players grow. Inevitably, the team would win a few games along the way. If a team is truly getting better, it will reap the rewards.

It is at this final stage of the season, even with the team continuing to face significant injuries, that things have started to come together. The team has not had any mind to that first goal that occupies fans more than anything else.

They are simply trying to get better and play better.

"“I think these guys are starting to believe in themselves and each other,” acting coach Tyrone Corbin said after Monday’s win. “They are bonding together the more they play, especially our young guys. R.J. is getting more confident with his play on the floor. Mo is starting to get more consistent with his play on the floor. They are starting to feel they belong and ow they have to play for us to play better and get going the right way.”"

Exactly what the Magic want

This is exactly what the Orlando Magic want to see from these young players.

They wanted to see Hampton grow to the point where he was able to better control the pace of games. That is the kind of thing that only happens with experience. Seeing him do that and well enough to put the team in a winning situation is a dream considering where he started from when the team got him.

They wanted to see Cole Anthony continue to grow as a scorer and point guard. Anthony is likely to win the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April because of his consistent play and the highlights he created with a couple of clutch shots.

They wanted to see Chuma Okeke continue to look comfortable with more minutes. Before his injury last week, he was breaking out of his shooting slump.

They wanted to see Wendell Carter and Mohamed Bamba grow more comfortable in the post as the defensive anchor. Bamba especially has grown in confidence without much restrictions or pressure to play anymore. He has started to put up numbers.

But Bamba knows he still has to improve defensively. He is not as impressed with his stats as with his improvement on the defensive end. A sure sign the young player is focusing on the right things.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The team still has a lot of room where it has to grow. And even these three wins do not change the bigger problems the Lottery question was meant to resolve.

End of season context

Steve Clifford said it can be difficult sometimes to judge players in the latter stages of the season. Context matters and some teams are not trying as hard as others. Numbers can be inflated or relatively meaningless in those cases.

The Detroit Pistons certainly were a team that some of the numbers might be meaningless. They are sitting most of their veteran players and fully committed to tanking.

The Orlando Magic tried to follow suit. They sat their starters for most of the second half and the entire fourth quarter. It is hard to say the Magic were not trying to match the chicanery going on.

Orlando though is simply too good to be that bad. Their young talent is developing and blossoming. And they want nothing to do with losses or a losing culture.

This group is growing and developing and having fun in the process.

"“I think the biggest thing the last three games is the win column,” Bamba said after Monday’s win. “We want to win. We don’t necessarily want to take any excuses that we’re down or anything. We are a young, hungry team that wants to win.”"

No one should fault a young team for being hungry and trying to win. That is what they should be trying to do. And what has become clear is this team is too talented to lose forever. When they play well, they have real NBA players who can contribute to winning.

This team is not here to lose — as several players made clear online as fans began to complain about a win that hurt the team’s lottery chances. And the team should want young players who stick their nose up to this idea of losing, even as the team seems to disadvantage them.

The Magic may add to those disadvantages.

It sure looks like Okeke is out for the year with the sprained ankle suffered last Wednesday. Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams remain out with injuries and their returns should be considered doubtful. James Ennis remains in and out of the lineup. Wendell Carter has been on a minute restriction and Gary Harris is headed that way after he pulled himself from the game in the second quarter.

There are going to be plenty of losses the rest of the season. These wins will not be so meaningless but they are not meaningful for the long term.

Next. Gary Harris scratching the surface on impact. dark

But Orlando is going to go out and finish the season as strong as they can. Their young players are too good and developing too quickly to just drift quietly to the end of the season.