Orlando Magic need to trust their process as they aim for the NBA Draft

John Hammond and Jeff Weltman share a type in the draft and they are still hoping to strike gold for the Orlando Magic.(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
John Hammond and Jeff Weltman share a type in the draft and they are still hoping to strike gold for the Orlando Magic.(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

On the podium following Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, flanked by the Larry O’Brien Trophy on one end and the Bill Russell Finals MVP Trophy on the other, Giannis Antetokounmpo reflected on everything that put him on that podium.

He thanked his former coaches and each person who helped build the foundation that put the Milwaukee Bucks on the path toward their first title. That included the man who drafted him.

As Giannis Antetokounmpo held court over the league that he now rules — a two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP and, most importantly, NBA champion — he thanked current Orlando Magic general manager John Hammond for believing in him.

Someone was going to draft the scrawny 18-year-old Greek forward in the 2013 NBA Draft. Hammond was just the first one willing to take the plunge. But it was no guarantee that Antetokounmpo would develop into this player. It took a lot of work from both the player and the organization.

By the time John Hammond departed the Bucks, eventually joining Jeff Weltman with the Magic, Antetokounmpo had become an All-Star and the Bucks were bobbing in and out of the playoffs. They began to take their steps to contention after he departed when his contract ran out.

Hammond laid the foundation for this initial ascent. And surely, he is receiving some satisfaction that the player he took a chance on has panned out so magnificently.

It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime thing to get a pick like that right. And chasing the same kind of pick and the same kind of success could be folly.

John Hammond made a once-in-a-lifetime pick in grabbing Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has stuck to his pursuit of length as he tries to help the Orlando Magic find their version. And there is no turning back from that philosophy.

Yet, as the Magic prepare for the NBA Draft next Thursday and try to find that player to center their roster around, they are searching for their player to orient the team. They will inevitably be taking a chance on a young player and trusting him to develop and grow to one day lead their franchise deep into the playoffs.

All that pressure should not be heaped onto a player’s shoulders immediately. But it is hovering in the background.

And finding a player is not easy. It was no sure thing Antetokounmpo would become the superstar he became. And it is not a guarantee the player the Magic take at No. 5 turns into anything either.

All the team can do is trust its decision-makers and its development culture to find the right guys. that is how a player like Antetokounmpo develops. It is a mix of individual drive, the faith and belief the organization puts in that player and the environment they create.

It takes a perfect storm to create that. And copying it is not always easy.

Hammond — and by extension Weltman, who is actually making the decisions for the Magic now — has gotten criticized for a seeming obsession with length. But that is their way. They are not going to deviate now.

Physicality and whether a player can actually make it in the NBA should be a consideration, but it has become a common joke to look at players’ wingspan and immediately check off that the Magic are going to chase them.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The team is still rolling the dice hoping to find the same luck that delivered Antetokounmpo. Finding a player that matches the skill with the physical profile is a difficult thing to do. It is a narrow needle to thread.

But it is the start the Magic and their front office seemingly prefers.

As a general manager, Hammond has always carried a philosophy of drafting players with length. Among his draft picks during his time as general manager from 2008-17 are: Joe Alexander, Luc Mbah A Moute, Brandon Jennings, Jodie Meeks, Larry Sanders, Tobias Harris (acquired in a trade), John Henson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon.

It is not a murderer’s row of great draft picks in his ledger.

Brandon Jennings showed some initial promise but was ultimately traded to the Detroit Pistons in the move that brought Khris Middleton to Milwaukee. Harris was a solid scorer who blossomed in Orlando and then elsewhere as the Bucks tried desperately to stay in the playoff picture — an apparent order from ownership.

Big men like Sanders and Henson were solid but not special. Brogdon became the first second-round pick to win rookie of the year. And Parker was a second overall pick derailed by multiple knee injuries.

The promise Antetokounmpo provided was a saving grace in the back half of his tenure as general manager for the Bucks. It is amazing how one transcendent player can completely change how someone’s draft history can be.

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There are still a fair amount of misses in that group nonetheless. And a lot of major busts among them — Parker was the second pick in the draft, Alexander went eighth, Maker went 10th. At least, four players Hammond selected as the head man for the Bucks are still playing — Harris, Antetokounmpo, Henson and Maker.

Every general manager likely could count misses among their draft records if they go long enough.

Weltman’s draft record is still fairly short. So far, he seems like he has the same type — targeting length with the hope of developing any skill gaps internally. Length is something that cannot be taught and the league values that disruption more than ever. And the team is right to seek it out.

But skill has to take some primacy. The lack of shooting has hampered the Magic significantly during their playoff push.

Finding someone with a mix of length and shooting would go a long way for this team.

Weltman’s record as the man in charge of the Magic is not nearly as spotty. It is also not nearly as long.

His first-round picks — Jonathan Isaac, Mohamed Bamba, Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony –mostly follow that push for length. Anthony was really the only exception to that rule.

Only Isaac has graduated off his rookie contract and so the jury is still out whether Weltman’s guiding philosophy will deliver him that central player. So far it has not. Then again, so far, he has had only two top-10 picks to spend.

He will double that number this year. And that guiding philosophy that led him to make his previous picks will surely lead him again this year. It would be easy to check off length as a requirement for anyone the Magic pick.

Orlando is hoping that the bet will work out and that the culture they are building will unlock the most of the physical tools they are targeting.

At the end of the day, the team needs skill to match the length they seek. That will ultimately what lifts them up.

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But their guiding philosophy certainly will not change.