Orlando Magic want Chuma Okeke to play as good as they know he is

Chuma Okeke turned in a career night and is starting to break out of his shell for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke turned in a career night and is starting to break out of his shell for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

It is hard to get too much emotion from Chuma Okeke.

The smooth vibes and his even-keeled nature make him the perfect player for the constant ups and downs in the NBA. He is extremely popular among teammates even if that emotion and personality has not quite been on display for everyone to see.

Okeke lets his game do the talking. But it is not always saying the things everyone knows about him.

Early in the season, Okeke was struggling. His shots were not falling and he was slow bouncing back from a bone bruise in his hip that kept him out most of training camp, the preseason and the early parts of the season. It felt like Okeke was not able to reach the exciting heights he showed in his rookie season.

The Orlando Magic wanted him to stay confident though. They wanted to keep him believing and keep him growing.

On nights like Friday night, it becomes clear just how good Okeke can be and why he still seems so important to a young, rebuilding Magic team.

Chuma Okeke scored a career-high 26 points to help lead the Orlando Magic to a win over the Houston Rockets. It was a needed boost for the team and for a young player growing in confidence.

There he was in the midst of a sluggish start entering the game and making defensive plays, whether it was blocks at the rim or deflections for steals. There he was stepping into open 3-pointers or floating around the perimeter to find space and drain as the defense reset.

There he was grabbing critical rebounds or stepping in to steal an inbounds. If the Magic needed an energy play, they found it in Okeke.

There was Okeke playing as well as the Magic know he can play. And, yes, pushing for more playing time as he continues to grow and build consistency.

Okeke scored a career-high 26 points in the Orlando Magic’s 119-111 win over the Houston Rockets on Friday at the Amway Center. He filled the stat sheet with five 3-pointers in seven atempts, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals.

Okeke was a +27 in the plus/minus column, making a major impact and helping the Magic close out their 14th win of the season.

This is the versatile defensive presence and shot-making player the Magic have hoped for. It is the one they are seeing more and more of late.

"“[T]his is for the whole team, whenever I play good it gives us a better chance of winning as well,” Okeke said after Friday’s win. “Coaches always say this is a make or miss league. So just control what you can control so I know I can always control my energy, my effort and how I play on defense. You can’t control whether shots go in, that happens with the work before games and in the gym after practice and before practice.”"

Okeke has put in plenty of work. Everyone on the team can see it. But it has only just now started to carry over.

Okeke is averaging 8.6 points per game and shooting 32.0-percent from beyond the arc for the season. It is hardly the offensive output anyone saw from him after showing flashes of a diverse offensive game his rookie season.

He started the season especially poor as he recovered from the hip injury he suffered in camp. In his first 27 games, he averaged 7.4 points per game and shot 23.4-percent form beyond the arc.

In his last 16 games, Okeke is averaging 11.5 points per game and making 42.7-percent of his shots. As Okeke noted, the team plays better when he plays better and the team has gone 6-10 during that run.

That boost offensively was something the team needed. Especially to improve a seemingly moribund offense. He has been pushing for more minutes and a bigger role within the team. Especially as they try to map out what the team looks like beyond this year.

Okeke’s defense though is still the central pivot for Okeke and his impact on the floor. That is where he and the Magic got their energy for the win.

He has had plenty of high steal games and that has him among the leaders in the league — his 2.2 steals per 75 possessions is in the 99th percentile in the league according to Basketball-Index and his 3.3 deflections per 75 possessions are in the 88th percentile.

He has a defensive box plus-minus of +1.5, placing him in the 89th percentile too. He ranks far better in some of those catch-all defensive statistics than the team’s defensive rating would suggest.

Okeke is extremely active and can be disruptive.

"“I feel like it feeds it a lot,” Okeke said of his defense after Friday’s win. “When you are doing things on both ends of the floor, you are going to get rewarded. that’s what I try to do is come out and play hard and defense and offense and play an overall game."

Okeke has been able to guard multiple positions and switch to almost anyone. That makes him incredibly disruptive. Coach Jamahl Mosley said his defense was one of the most important aspects for him.

Okeke has always been able to provide that defense and now it seems to be coming to the front even more.

This has always been the constant drumbeat for Okeke even as he tried to figure out his shot. His defense came before his offense and helped him weather that storm.

"“I think his resiliency and ability to stay with it,” Mosley said of Okeke’s turnaround. “Through the injuries, through whether it’s his shooting woes or whatnot, he always stays with it. He comes in the gym, gets his work done and stays as a constant professional. It’s big to see him get rewarded like that. He makes big plays defensively down the stretch. Now that the shot is falling, he is starting to find a bit of a comfort zone.”"

Finding that comfort zone has been the biggest challenge for Okeke.

He is a quiet guy. And as much as that has endeared him to teammates and to fans, it still feels like there is a part of him they are waiting to see burst out.

Wendell Carter had seen Chuma Okeke grow from their days playing AAU together outside Atlanta. He knows just how good he can be.

The question is always whether Okeke believes how good he can be. And whether he will play to that level.

Carter said so much of Okeke’s greatness comes from him feeling confident and comfortable. That has emerged most on defense, but is quickly coming too on offense.

All that work and the pumping up from teammates are starting to help him break out.

"“We see Chuma every day in practice,” Carter said after Friday’s win. “We know what he is capable of. The one thing we try to preach to him is to stop second-guessing. You’re a scorer in this league. We try to preach that to him. I try to preach to him, if you catch it, shoot it. If you can’t, drive it. A lot of people can’t stay in front of him. This isn’t anything that’s a surprise to me. I kind of expect that from him.”"

Okeke has hit those highs on several occasions. That is the part that has been enticing. There have not been many games as high as the one he had Friday night.

This is how good his teammates and the Magic know he can be. This is why fans are clamoring for him to get a bigger role and enter the starting lineup. This is why Okeke is starting to close more games.

The Magic are instilling confidence in their second-year forward. Pretty soon, Okeke is going to realize it too.

Next. Orlando Magic quickening pace, but still seeking balance. dark

When that happens, the Magic know they will get a pretty solid player.