Orlando Magic Daily Playbook: Wendell Carter’s passing will become a key weapon

Wendell Carter emerged as a key player for the Orlando Magic last year. He will have to continue growing as a passer to to take the next step. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Wendell Carter emerged as a key player for the Orlando Magic last year. He will have to continue growing as a passer to to take the next step. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic are like most teams that bank on their versatility — they are trying to upend the NBA in a major way. Or at least go against what observers think the way basketball should work.

Orlando has a big lineup. In the team’s projected starting group, Markelle Fultz at 6-foot-3, 209-pounds will be the smallest player out there. But that is not what will make the Magic’s lineup special and difficult.

The team has size, but it also has skill. And it is what stands out.

Its potential was on display even in Summer League with the way the team used Paolo Banchero as its nominal point guard and center at the same time, bringing the ball up and directing the offense with pinpoint passes. It was the most impressive thing from an impressive run in Summer League.

He is not the only one. Franz Wagner showed incredible playmaking chops — in addition to being on the receiving end from smart cuts.

What the Magic are seemingly trying to build is a lineup where all five players on the court are capable of making plays and capable of impacting the game in multiple ways. They want everyone to be able to make a play and put pressure on defenses.

That includes at center where Wendell Carter will be one of the biggest weapons for the team.

The Orlando Magic are trying to build a versatile lineup with playmakers at all positions. That includes at center where Wendell Carter’s passing could be the thing that unlocks the whole project.

Carter acted as something of a fulcrum for the team throughout the season. The Magic used him out of the high post and in dribble hand-offs. Orlando put a lot of decision-making in Carter’s hands. The team trusted him a lot.

He was stupendous offensively, averaging 15.0 points per game and added a 3-point shot to his game — he still shot 32.7-percent from beyond the arc, but it was enough to get defenses to pay attention to him. He had a career-high 57.6-percent effective field goal percentage and 60.1-percent true shooting percentage.

All this while his usage rate hovered just more than 20-percent at 20.9-percent. Hard to believe considering his overall impact.

Orlando may keep that egalitarian notion to its offense. But it is because so much of this team are willing passers.

Carter took a lot of leaps last season. One of his biggest was working as that fulcrum on offense.

His assists per game jumped from 1.9 to a career-high 2.8 per game. He jumped from 48.6 touches per game (29.5 front-court touches per game) after the trade to the Magic to 60.6 touches per game (36.5 front-court touches per game) this year according to Second Spectrum.

He averaged the most front-court touches per game this season for the Magic, showing how central he was to the team’s offense and getting it moving.

Carter stayed a key part of the offense at least to initiate it and create movement. Without a clear one-on-one threat, the Magic reasoned their best way to create space to attack and get into the paint was through dribble hand-offs and screen and rolls. Carter was central to all of this.

He did have 12 games of five assists or more, showing his ability to move the ball and find scorers.

The question in this new Magic environment is how the Magic will take advantage of Carter’s skills both to spread the floor and to spring others free. And whether he too can fit into the team’s passing mentality.

The first place to start with Carter’s passing ability is that he, like so many on the Magic’s team, do not try to do too much. He tallied a career-high seven assists in a December loss to the LA Clippers and most of his passes were quite simply the right play, where he absorbed attention and kicked it to the next guy.

Often that was Wagner cutting into open space and within Carter’s sight line. Here, the Magic start with Carter in the high post and try to set him up for a post-up. He gets the switch onto Terrence Mann, but Reggie Jackson comes up to help immediately.

Carter makes the read of the double team and spots Wagner cutting directly to the basket.

This is a typical play for Carter and shows exactly how Wagner worked off of Carter throughout the season. Carter is patient and deliberate with the ball and reads the double teams well to find the open man or keep the ball moving.

That is where he operated well in the high post too.

The Magic did not run a lot of the traditional high-low sets — where one big operates from the high post or elbow area to pass down to the other big in the low block. Under Steve Clifford, Orlando often started games with a possession where Nikola Vucevic set up Aaron Gordon for a post look.

This may be something the Magic implement a bit more with Banchero in the lineup able to work down low.

But what this high-low setup does is create space to cut through the lane. By drawing the center out above the free throw line, it takes the team’s rim protector away from the paint. And because Carter is a capable jump shooter, his defender has to go with him.

That was on full display throughout the season. Carter was able to read defenses and pinpoint passes to the perimeter or into the lane from the high post. Another area he was effective.

In this play from an early season win over the Utah Jazz, the Magic get Carter the ball at the high post. With no other bigs on the floor, he pulls Rudy Gobert out to the perimeter and creates a lane for Gary Harris to cut along the baseline. Carter makes a great bounce pass to Harris for the lay-in and the easy two.

Considering how the Magic seem like they want to spread the floor next year, this could be the kind of passing and the kind of sets the team uses more. Carter’s ability to pinpoint passes and make these reads will be vital to the Magic’s offense.

The best use of Carter’s passing may still be on dribble handoffs going directly into pick and rolls. This is where he puts the most pressure on defenses.

He is able to hand the ball off cleanly and immediately go into a screen and roll where the Magic score 1.06 points per possession. That is still slightly below league average.

With Carter’s ability to stretch the floor and how smart the Magic’s big ball handlers like Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero are, it is easy to see where Carter’s good decision-making could come into play.

Plays like this show not only Carter’s potential as a passer and a continued fulcrum in the offense. But it also shows how the versatility of the Magic’s forwards can create pressure on defenses. Carter’s passing, in this way, will also make him an offensive weapon as a scorer too.

The Magic’s success will depend on not only the improvement of the individual players but also in how creative Jamahl Mosley is in using all these various players. Last season was still fairly rudimentary tactically. This season, he has some latitude and the roster to be a bit more creative.

The center position is not a foundry for strong passing stats. Carter’s 2.8 assists per game were 15th among centers. There are still a lot of areas for him to improve. And having more offensive weapons and a system that aims to spread the floor out more could open spacing for Carter to be more involved as a passer.

Still, it feels like this is a weapon they could unlock. Especially with how the Magic are going to try to play after adding Banchero to the fold, spreading out defenses, Carter’s ability to work out of the high post and above the 3-point line will be more important than ever.

Carter’s passing will be key to whatever the Magic try to accomplish offensively. It will be essential to unlocking the rest of the team. Just as others may have to play the same role.

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Of all the things Carter showed last year, his passing likely remains the biggest thing left to unlock. And perhaps the biggest step forward this entire team can take.