Jalen Suggs’ defense is something the Orlando Magic can bet on

Jalen Suggs' defensive was the most impressive part of his rookie season. It is something the Orlando Magic can keep building on. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Jalen Suggs' defensive was the most impressive part of his rookie season. It is something the Orlando Magic can keep building on. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images) /

The 2021 NBA Draft class proved to be one of the best classes in some time. It was loaded with tons of talent. Even deeper into the first round, there were great finds.

Whether that was eighth overall pick Franz Wagner, sixth pick Josh Giddey, 16th overall pick Alperen Sengun, 18th overall pick Tre Mann 26th overall pick Bones Hyland. It was a really good draft class.

For the longest time, Jalen Suggs was considered among the class of this draft. He was a surefire top-four pick, the kind of guy that Magic fans were left dancing in the aisles when the team suddenly ended up with him at the fifth pick.

Suggs’ talent is undeniable as were the many highlights he put forward throughout his rookie year. But it was also undeniable how much Suggs struggled in his rookie year.

He struggled with injuries throughout his rookie year. He struggled with his shot, hitting just 21.4-percent from beyond the arc and a 40.0-percent effective field goal percentage on his way to 11.8 points per game for the season. He seemingly got cast to the wayside.

The expectations and ceiling for Suggs may well have been re-adjusted after his difficult rookie year. But nobody is giving up on him by any means. Even with offseason ankle surgery, Suggs can still take some pretty sizable leaps this offseason — he is back playing pick-up runs if you follow him on social media.

But rookie years establish floors and concerns even if they do not necessarily put a cap on players.

It is here where the Magic are still preaching some optimism.

Jalen Suggs had a difficult rookie season and certainly did not live up to expectations. But his defense was something the Orlando Magic got excited about and can build on.

Whether it is Jamahl Mosley, Jeff Weltman or John Hammond, they all express their optimism and faith and optimism for Suggs. While there is plenty of acknowledgment for the work he still needs to put in offensively and with his shot — the Zapruder films from his pick-up runs are already circulating on Magic Twitter — they all make the same remark focused on his defense.

Suggs’ defense puts him uncharacteristically high in the league for a player of his age and experience level. To the Magic and their internal metrics, Suggs already ranks as one of the best defenders in the league.

What those metrics are will probably remain behind the Magic’s paywall and will remain the factoid they use to hype up their second-year player. Because, again, there is no reason to give up on a player in his second year.

And his defense, indeed, is something to write home about. And there are a few stats we can share to show it.

The Magic had a defensive rating of 107.6 points per 100 possessions with Suggs on the court. That was 4.5 points per 100 possessions better than the team’s overall season average. As always, this stat does not attribute everything directly to Suggs, but the correlation is pretty strong.

The Magic were a better defensive team with Suggs on the floor.

Additionally, defenders shot worse than expected against Suggs from every distance, according to NBA.com’s tracking stats. Overall, opponents shot 43.5-percent when Suggs was the closest defender (the expected field goal percentage was 45.9-percent).

Within 10 feet, opponents shot 52.8-percent when Suggs was the closest defender against 58.4-percent expected field goal percentage. And opponents shot 59.0-percent against Suggs within six feet against 63.7-percent expected field goal percentage.

In pick and rolls, the Magic gave up 0.76 points per possession when Suggs was defending the ball handler. Opponents shot just 35.0-percent on 176 possessions against Suggs. That was the best among all the Magic’s perimeter rotation players and put him in the top quarter of the league.

According to data from Basketball Index, he was adept at navigating screens — ranking in the top quarter in the league in ball screen navigation and off-ball chaser by their metrics.

If the Magic are planning on switching a lot this coming season, Suggs will be skillful in navigating these screens and getting back into plays or bottling up opportunities to kick back to his new man.

More impressively, he spent 20.8-percent of his total minutes guarding players with the highest usage, perhaps a product of him playing a lot of point guard. But Basketball-Index also rated him as one of the most versatile defenders in the league.

Suggs’ presence everywhere led to better defensive outcomes — one of the few areas he struggled was defending players in isolation where opponents scored 1.21 points per possession on 24 total possessions, putting him in the bottom 10-percent in the league.

Even then, Basketball-Index still rates Suggs as a plus-defender, ranking him in the 65th percentile in on-ball perimeter defense. And many of his catch-all defensive statistics look good — a +0.9 defensive LEBRON (84th percentile).

As much as the raw counting defensive statistics rarely show how good a player was defensively, Suggs was really good disruptor in that regard.

He averaged 1.2 steals and 0.4 blocks per game. He was an expert at shooting into passing lanes and getting deflections. He averaged a team-high 2.5 deflections per game according to NBA.com’s hustle stats.

His 1.6 steals per 75 possessions placed him in the 94th percentile and 3.3 deflections per 75 possessions put him in the 88th percentile. According to Basketball-Index, he was extremely active in passing lanes (4.4 bad pass steals and deflections per 75 possessions, putting him in the 89th percentile).

Suggs was just constantly getting into passing lanes and wreaking havoc. And his ability to recover are extremely advanced for a player of his age.

Suggs can still force things offensively. But it is easy to see how his opportunism on defense can lead to easy points. Suggs got many of his best moments — whether it was the steal and lob in the early season win over the New York Knicks or the dunk that led to him yelling at Chicago Bulls fans in January — off turnovers he created.

Suggs has incredibly quick hands and knows how to position himself well and how to attack.

For now, the Magic seem comfortable putting Suggs on the top point guards and shooting guards in the league, but he is usually not the primary defender. Franz Wagner or Gary Harris or even R.J. Hampton got a lot of the calls on these top ball-handlers.

Instead, Orlando leveraged Suggs’ ability to get into passing lanes to use him more as a roamer in several key possessions. He would nominally defend the poorest perimeter shooter so he could roam a bit and sit in passing lanes.

The Magic may still use Suggs this way, but he will have to continue improving as an on-ball defender, as good as he is already.

This defensive ability is a great place to start for him and it is something he can indeed hang his hat on. It is something the Magic can build on and develop.

Is it elite? Not yet. But he is also a rookie and prone to mistakes. This is an area where he can get a whole lot better. And should get a whole lot better.

Next. Potential starting lineups for the Orlando Magic. dark

In a rookie season that disappointed and was full of struggle, this is something the team can bet on and use heading into his second season.