Orlando Magic’s next task: Leveling up and improving the little things

Wendell Carter took on a calming leadership role for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter took on a calming leadership role for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

Wendell Carter understood how much the Orlando Magic were growing and going through the process of improving in the midst of the season.

Even at 22 years old (he turned 23 earlier this week), he was viewed as one of the veteran players on the team and someone who provided a good heartbeat. It was a role that fits his game as much as anything else as a solid backstop defender and pivot for the team offensively.

His demeanor helped too. Carter was always on the level — minus getting frustrated enough to throw his glasses when he got hit across the face.

The key moment in this growth was revealed publicly following the Orlando Magic’s 114-95 win over the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 23. That was the game when Jalen Suggs shouted at Bulls fans in the Amway Center that this was a “Magic city” and the team seemed to take a stand against the frustrations of the year.

But Orlando was up 16 at the half and this was a team that had struggled in third quarters. It was in the halftime locker room that Carter said he spoke up and the team came together to focus on coming out of the locker room and maintaining their lead. It was not the coaches who spurred the team.

There was ownership and leadership over that team. Orlando did have some struggles in that third quarter but held off Chicago for a blowout win — one of the few this season.

But this moment, and countless more as the season winded to its close, showed how much these Magic players had ownership over this team and their belief in what they are building. They were not as concerned with the results — a 22-60 record — as the process of getting there.

The next step of that process is the winning part. It is the accountability to improve and the ownership to be more than a rebuilding team.

The Orlando Magic felt good about the foundation they laid. The task this offseason is to “level up” and improve to compete for something more.

As coach Jamahl Mosley put it after the team’s season-closing win over the Miami Heat, it is time for the team to “level up” and take the lessons learned from this season of growth and push it forward.

The Magic know the talent they have. Their task now is to tie it all together.

"“The one thing that we’ve talked about with these guys is the foundation is set when we talk about competing, getting better every day, having fun while doing it,” Mosley said after the season ended last week. “Now it goes into the little things, the tiniest of details that they have to understand that when we hold their feet to the fire that they understand that night in and night out.”"

The good vibes and attitude were a part of the charm of this team. The players on the team view that as a strength for them moving forward. They see that as giving them the ability to push each other in the offseason and holding each other accountable.

That was something that was developing throughout the course of the season. The team hopes the camaraderie they developed this year and the undeniable chemistry allow them to be honest with each other and tell each other when they are doing something wrong without being combative.

It enabled the team to have those moments where they could talk honestly and openly with each other. It will be something that they need to continue to develop as they improve and as the pressure to win ramps up.

But that is something the team welcomes. It has to if it wants to achieve the things they believe they are capable of.

Welcoming the challenge

To a man, every player said they have confidence in what this team is building, the talent on the team and in each other. Getting there will take a lot of accountability to each other.

"“I think the sky is the limit,” Markelle Fultz said after last week’s finale. “I think it’s whatever we want it to be. It’s not going to be easy at all. I think we all understand that. It’s going to take putting in a lot of work, trusting each other and continuing to build on our core group and what we believe in. I truly believe we can do something very special. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of trust, a lot of learning and getting better each and every day. I think we’re all ready for that challenge.”"

Jamahl Mosley said leveling up one more level will take improved conditioning now that many of the players have been through their first full season. Franz Wagner said he needed to work on his body and add strength. Cole Anthony said similar things about his offseason goals.

Nobody is hiding from the long work they have ahead of them. Even as they remain optimistic about what they are capable of doing.

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It will take a level of detail and focus that young teams often struggle with. It is the level of detail and precision that was often missing this year.

That is where the team is going to dig in as much as they are going to dig into getting stronger and improving their bodies.

The Orlando Magic felt like they got some big picture concepts down. The team displayed defensive consistency in the second half of the season and played its best basketball toward the end of the season. That was something to build on. But carrying that over to an 82-game season and performing at a higher level to compete eventually for the playoffs and more.

"“I think the next step is starting to focus on the little things,” Jalen Suggs said after Sunday’s finale. “I think we did a great job of taking that culture shift and really running with it and getting guys to buy in. The coaching staff did a gerat job preaching it and harping on it. We really listened. I think we got the big picture down. We’ve got the main thing of coming in everyday, working and getting better and keeping a godo mindset and sticking with each other.”"

Suggs said he will be focused on improving his ball-handling as the key to increasing his scoring and shooting. Everything will branch off from there. That kind of skill development will help smooth out those edges.

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‘Potential is just potential’

The encouraging thing about this team and this group has been their seeming investment in the process to get better. And their investment in each other.

Both Franz Wagner and Cole Anthony said (since they did their exit interview with the media together) that “potential is just potential.” Nobody is under the impression that their ascendance is assured.

The Orlando Magic feel like they have a lot of potential, but it will come down to how hard each one of them individually works to improve and then how things come together with a new group playing under new expectations and new pressures.

"“I think every great team has that level of accountability,” Mo Bamba said after the season ended. “It’s not always pretty. The No. 1 team in the East [the Miami Heat] went through whatever they went through a couple of weeks ago. But look at them. They did that out of passion. They did that because they are holding each other accountable and they want to win. I truly believe in my heart we will get to that level. There are little things we have to do to get there.”"

Whether the team can get there is truly up to them. If the Magic have laid the foundation and the culture to be one of those teams, it will take only improvement individually and perhaps the right influx of players to push the team over the top.

The team hopes its chemistry will be able to supercharge that growth. The Magic certianly hope they have the right players to put in that work and show it on the court next year.

Orlando as an organization is not putting pressure on the team to make the playoffs quite yet. President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said he wants to see the team improve but there is no win total in mind for next year. What the team can do is as dependent on the Lottery and offseason maneuvering as it is the team’s improvement.

But the Magic are confident they are on the right track.

"“The sky is the limit,” Suggs said after the team’s final game. “I mean that wholeheartedly. I don’t say that with fake confidence. I say that because I truly believe in it. . . . As hard as we want to work and as much focus and dedication we want to give, we will get out. I know that’s everyone’s mindset out here. it makes me anxious thinking about next year because of how special we can be.”"

Just how special this team can be is still unknown. But the Magic know they need to level up to get there.

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The players on this team seem ready to do that work and eager to do it for each other.