2021 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: How high can Chuma Okeke go?

Chuma Okeke has emerged as a solid player for the Orlando Magic and important to the team's future and rotation. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke has emerged as a solid player for the Orlando Magic and important to the team's future and rotation. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

Chuma Okeke went somewhat under the radar heading into his rookie season with the Orlando Magic.

The 22-year-old had spent a year rehabilitating a torn ACL suffered while playing at Auburn before the 2019 Draft, but the team was confident enough in his ability to take him with the 16th pick and give him the time he needed to recover with their G-League team.

And they were completely right to do so.

While he did not manage to stay healthy for the whole of his rookie season, which will still remain a concern for the team, he played enough to give fans plenty of optimism for the future.

The Orlando Magic waited a year to see Chuma Okeke on the Amway Center floor. If the signs they saw in his rookie season were any indication, the wait will be completely worth it.

Okeke finished the season averaging 7.8 points per game with a 41.7-percent field goal percentage and 34.8-percent three-point percentage. These numbers might seem pretty underwhelming, but a deeper dive into his season shows why there is so much hype around the forward.

As expected, the now former Magic head coach Steve Clifford was extremely patient with Chuma Okeke at the start of the season. His role was largely limited to playing off the ball, as he was given the time to get up to speed with the NBA coming off the back of such a serious injury in college.

Okeke took just 14 shots across his first five regular season games. The team did not run plays for him, instead focusing on maximizing the veterans and Markelle Fultz with the target of another playoff push firmly in the mind of the coach.

And just as he was getting used to his new teammates, injury struck. Okeke was forced to exit the court in the 116-92 defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers early in the season with pain in his left knee, which would later turn out to be a bone bruise. He would miss 16 games in total, as the team’s hopes of a third straight postseason gradually faded away with injuries taking their toll.

For a player already playing catch-up because of the time he missed prior to entering the NBA, the injury pushed him even further back. There were always going to be bumps in the road for Okeke, but having a fairly significant injury so early on in his career was a hugely discouraging start.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

But slowly, Okeke got comfortable and began to make an impact for the team.

He would impress on his return with a 10-point performance off 4-for-5 shooting in a 123-108 loss to the Toronto Raptors in February. The 22-year-old would go on to have his best performance to that point in the 124-120 win over the Golden State Warriors, helping the team to victory with two massive fourth-quarter blocks on Kent Bazemore and Stephen Curry and some clutch three-point shooting.

On a roster decimated by injuries and a lack of options at the forward spots, many fans were left wondering why he was still being confined to a more limited role off the bench as he continued to exhibit solid shooting and great defense.

But that all changed in late March, as the Magic blew up the roster by sending away Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu and committed to a rebuilding path. It would afford Okeke much more opportunity, as his minutes jumped and he was given a starting spot on the team.

And those who called for more Okeke before the trade frenzy would feel vindicated as he stepped up in his new role, scoring a season-high 22 points in the 112-105 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers just two days later which was quickly followed by an 18-point performance in the 103-96 win against the LA Clippers. All while his defense continued to impress — just take his late-game steal in the overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans as evidence.

This was by no means a straightforward season for Okeke, but the fact he continued to impress on an under-manned, struggling team which continued to lose games at a rapid rate shows the level of talent the Magic have in the youngster.

What he did well

It is impossible to talk about Chuma Okeke’s strengths without first pointing to his defense. He is a terrific on-ball defender with the speed, understanding and size to thwart high-level opposition one-on-one.

Although an older rookie, he demonstrated a fantastic understanding of the game on defense. He was able to expertly predict the moves of his opposition and reads danger extremely well, as evidenced through THAT block on Stephen Curry.

It allowed him to notch steals at an impressive rate, recording 1.6 per game in April including four in the 114-110 loss to the Houston Rockets. Having Jonathan Isaac alongside Chuma Okeke at the forward spots really is a fascinating and exciting prospect for next season with their defensive acumen and versatility.

Even when he is beaten to the basket by a quicker man, Okeke demonstrated an incredible desire not to give up on the play and get back in time for the block. He showcased impeccable timing when it came to meeting opposition at the rim and the strength to bat the ball away.

It is no wonder he has drawn comparisons to Kawhi Leonard at this early stage in his career. These are obviously premature, and the lofty comparison does not do him any favors when it comes to having realistic expectations, but it is true he does a lot of things Leonard does well on defense.

He showcased plenty of promise for the future on the offensive end too. Much was made of Okeke’s ability to shoot the three coming into the league, and while a 34.8-percentage is nothing to shout about, there was a lot to suggest that this could climb as he progresses.

Okeke is extremely comfortable in his jump shot and showed his confidence in knocking down the most important shot for a 3-and-D type forward, the corner three. He went 4 for 4 against the Phoenix Suns in March, a joint career-high, and long-term there is certainly room for him to attempt more than he did this past season.

Overall this season, Okeke shot 8 for 22 on corner threes this season. His favored shot was above the break, where he made 41 of 116 attempts (35.3-percent).

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The cleverness he demonstrated on offense was also exhibited on the offensive end with his decision-making. Okeke is fast building a reputation as someone who makes the right play, and he flashed ability as a go-to playmaking option particularly through his on-court relationship with former AAU team-mate Wendell Carter Jr, who he regularly dimed for easy buckets.

He showed he is a player who does not need to just operate off the ball. Instead, proving he can handle the ball and make those around him better with his court vision and passing.

As it stands, his defensive game is ahead of his offensive game but we have already seen him make important strides in the latter. As he grew more comfortable, the range of shots he took expanded to post-up fadeaways, shots off the dribble and monster dunks like the one he dropped on Andre Drummond.

What we need to see more of

Much of how high Chuma Okeke can go depends on these advancements in his offensive game. There have been flashes of him being more confident and attempting different, and often more difficult, shots. But there is certainly room for him to adopt a bigger offensive role if the new coach permits it.

The Magic must find out what they have offensively in Okeke, and if he can do the things we saw glimpses of last season on a more consistent basis. For a team in rebuild mode that desperately lacks offensive talent and scoring, he must be allowed to experiment to find out if he can become a significant scorer.

His shots did increase after the trade deadline, taking a season-high 17 against both the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets, but there were still times when he took less than 10 per game.

There is no reason why Okeke should not be taking at least 15 a game with the team in its current format and seeing his offensive game grow to match his defense and three-point shooting should be a priority next season.

Okeke is naturally an unselfish player, but there are times where this can hinder the team rather than help it. On occasion last season, he was seen passing up a good look from three to find a teammate like Michael Carter-Williams who might have a slightly better one, despite being a lesser offensive talent.

The former Auburn man must realize his own capabilities and use them to make this team better.

And while his ability from three-point range outweighs that of many of his teammates, there is still a lot of room to grow in that area. Okeke hit the rookie wall with his shot at times during the season, failing to hit a three in five of the first six games of April.

Okeke and the Magic cannot afford for his shot to go missing like that. When it comes to shooting from deep, there will naturally be inconsistencies given how small the margin can often be between a shot going in or falling out. But the extremes of his down shooting moments is something which must be eradicated moving forward.

. F. Orlando Magic. CHUMA OKEKE. B+

The flashes of playmaking Okeke showed last season also create an interesting proposition for the Magic’s new head coach. Seeing him run some plays next season could be a way to get even more out of the exciting young forward.

His handle of the ball can, however, look a little awkward at times, and there is certainly room for him to become more confident in his control if he is to become a consistent playmaker.

Next. Evaluations: Aaron Gordon never took the step to become a star. dark

Orlando clearly has a big talent on their hands, but whether or not these developments can be made will dictate whether he will be a fine complement to a star or whether he can be the star himself.