Orlando Magic are thirsty for a star and for relevance

It has been a long time since the Orlando Magic have a star. Paolo Banchero seems like the one to deliver. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
It has been a long time since the Orlando Magic have a star. Paolo Banchero seems like the one to deliver. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports /

It has been a long time for the Orlando Magic.

It has been 19 years since the team’s last crack at a No. 1 pick. It has been 13 years since the Magic had a non-center make an All-Star team (Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson in 2009). It has been 18 years since the team last had a non-center (not Dwight Howard or Nikola Vucevic) average 20 or more points per game (that would be Steve Francis in 2005).

Like I said, it has been a long time.

Magic fans have always had a somewhat unhealthy obsession with what the national media thinks and says about the team.

Some of it is the attention that showered on the team very early in the franchise history with Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway strapping the rocket ship on just three and four years into its existence. Some of it is Orlando’s position in the state as the “theme park” town in search of its own identity and the relative youth of the city compared to the other major cities in the state.

The Magic as a franchise have always fought for relevancy. They quickly rebounded after losing Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway to strike in free agency for Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. After McGrady forced his way out, the team picked Howard with the first pick.

In 33 years, Orlando has always been on the periphery of relevancy, making the Playoffs with a superstar player.

But it has been a long time. Everyone has been hungry to get back to that level.

The decade after Howard left has been a failed attempt to bounce back quickly. The Magic’s get-rich-quick scheme never materialized. And impatience only made things worse.

It has been a long time.

It has been a long time since the Orlando Magic last had a star that demanded relevance and attention. Excuse fans for being a bit excited after their first look at Paolo Banchero.

So the Magic winning the top pick in the 2022 Draft felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt like a chance to get themselves back on track.

If Orlando fans seem a bit over-excited after that, it went into overdrive after Paolo Banchero, the team’s somewhat surprising selection at No. 1, took the court in his first Summer League game.

It is easy to overreact with so few data points to glean from. A bad game in one of these Summer League games will raise equally loud alarm bells.

Summer League should always be a mixed bag. Nobody should read too much into one game or any of these games. Still that first impression was a big one.

It is not the final stat line for Banchero — 17 points, 5-for-12 shooting, six assists — that stood out for Banchero, as impressive as it was. It was the way that he did it.

It was the way he kept the Houston Rockets off balance with a mix of his deliberate style dashed with the speed at the point of the attack. He drew fouls on the perimeter, something the Magic have not been able to do consistently for nearly a decade.

It was how he whipped passes quickly to cutters sometimes before even they were ready. It was how he looked admittedly sluggish defensively but still was able to make an impact with a big block on Jabari Smith at the rim and several deflections — a game-high six according to NBA.com’s tracking stats.

It was how he quickly demanded the Rockets double team him in his first Summer League game because they simply had no answer for him when he wanted to assert himself.

It has indeed been a long time. The Magic clearly had the best player on the floor in Thursday’s game.

Banchero said after the game he still felt a bit sluggish. He is using Summer League to get himself back into playing shape and he fully admitted that he needs to get his lateral quickness back defensively most of all. Banchero certainly did not look like he had the same explosiveness to get to the basket, he settled a lot for jumpers and using his brute strength on switches.

In other words, as good as Banchero was it is apparent this was just him dipping his toe in the water and he still has work to go to get ready for the regular season and the next phase of his development.

We will have to wait and see whether Banchero can match his debut performance and build upon it. There may well be a game where he struggles and shows his limitations.

But the fact Banchero just looked so comfortable and made it clear he was the best player on the court very quickly understandably got everyone excited.

The Magic have long needed a player with this kind of gravity and attention. They have long needed someone whom they could center their offense around. They have long needed a star player.

This was ultimately what derailed the post-Howard rebuild. The Magic never found their star to center their roster around.

It was even a problem with the Magic’s championship run with Howard. Orlando struggled to find a second star — settling on Vince Carter at the beginning of his sharp decline — and eventually fell out of their championship window in that search.

Stars still win in this league. While the super teams are struggling to find their way, it is still Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James largely dictating titles. Teams need players at the highest level to compete for the ultimate prize.

No one should lose sight of that. And having a star player brings with it all the attention and importance a team seeks.

Orlando fans have had to go a long time without that kind of feeling. It is still the biggest thing holding the franchise back. And that is what the promise of the top pick always brings. That is why there was special hand-wringing over this top pick.

For now, it looks like Banchero can deliver. And it has raised all the hopes in Magic fans.

Time will tell whether Banchero can become the All-Star this franchise has been waiting for. Those early returns are certainly encouraging. And the Magic are eager to foster and help Banchero reach those heights. But we still have to see how he fits with the main roster — or how the main roster may ultimately fit around him.

It is easy to get excited. Fans are more excited about this team than they have been in quite some time.

That is what the promise of a star brings. And that is what the Magic are hungry for most.

Next. For Orlando Magic's Summer League: Less is more. dark

Somewhere and in someone the Magic will find it. Right now, it is easy to get excited about it with how Banchero plays and the promise he brings.