Jalen Suggs’ development is a tricky case for the Orlando Magic

Jalen Suggs has returned from injury and picked up where he left off defensively for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Jalen Suggs has returned from injury and picked up where he left off defensively for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports /

Jalen Suggs is an invisible connector for the Orlando Magic.

A look at his box score will tell the story of a player who is not contributing a whole lot. He does not score a whole lot. He is not a particularly good shooter — defenses are happy to let him shoot from beyond the arc.

And he is not even the most interesting young player on the roster anymore — that would go to Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner at this point and even would extend to the excitement surrounding Jonathan Isaac’s return.

It is easy to ignore Suggs.

But he is there. He is still a bit of a chaos agent. A dogged defender who comes in and goes at 100 miles per hour to both his benefit and his detriment. So much of the early part of his career, it seems, has been about control and playing at a slower pace.

Still, if there is one piece of disappointment for the Magic in what has been an otherwise exciting and enticing season for a group of very young players, it is Jalen Suggs. He certainly has not lived up to the hype of his freshman season at Gonzaga or the fifth overall pick in the draft.

Jalen Suggs has returned to the court and picked up where he left off defensively. But the Orlando Magic guard is still struggling to find his offense, clouding his role and his development.

It has been a difficult season for Suggs. As the Magic continue to “level up,” continue to improve and continue to climb into the postseason chase, they will more clearly define their roles and focus themselves.

And that could leave a player like Suggs behind. Or, perhaps better put, could force him to focus his development on specific areas that help the team rather than his general game.

In the end, this might help Suggs gain that control he has struggled to play with early on in his career. This could end up being a good thing.

That process may already be happening. And that could be confused very easily with inactivity or a further downturn or slowing of his overall development.

Suggs returned from his ankle soreness injury on Jan. 5. In the nine games since Suggs has averaged 5.1 points per game on 35.9 percent shooting and 16.9 percent 3-point shooting in 14.1 minutes per game. His numbers are down completely across the board.

Far from the potential starting shooting guard he started the year at, Suggs has become something of a changeup. He comes in and provides tons of defensive energy and that is about it.

That is still evident in his numbers.

Since his return, the Magic have a 115.4 defensive rating overall. With Suggs on the floor, the Magic have a 106.5 defensive rating. No other regular rotation player has a better on-court defensive rating than Suggs (the Magic posted a 90.5 defensive rating in Jonathan Isaac’s 10 minutes on the floor Monday).

It actually is not even close with Moe Wagner the next-best player in that mark at 109.3.

On top of this, Jalen Suggs is second on the team in deflections per game for the season with 2.8 per game (trailing only Markelle Fultz). But since his return, he is still averaging 2.3 deflections per game despite his minutes dropping to just 14.1 per game, a significant drop from his season average of 23.1 minutes per game.

Even further since his return, opponents shoot just 43.9 percent when Suggs is the closest defender. That is 2.6 percentage points worse than expected. That number can be a bit misleading (Cole Anthony is the leader in the last nine games, which may not pass the eye test completely).

But the point is to show that Suggs has returned with full force and steam defensively. He is active and energetic and frankly disruptive. That has not skipped a beat in the nine games since he returned and at the very least, Suggs’ defense is the big NBA-ready skill that will keep him in the rotation as the magic focus on winning.

The issue is obviously on offense where the Magic may be looking to redefine his role or Suggs has been searching for the right way to contribute.

Suggs’ shooting remains the biggest issue, especially since he has dramatically decreased his driving.

For the season, Suggs is averaging 4.0 drives per game. If there was one thing that Suggs was accomplished at offensively, it was his ability to get downhill and toward the basket.

But that also came with not only some decent finishing around the basket (58.5 percent shooting from less than five feet this year compared to 54.7 percent last year) but also turnovers. He averages 2.3 turnovers per game this year and has an 11.8-percent turnover rate on drives this year.

Since his return on Jan. 5, Suggs is averaging just 1.4 drives per game. That is still where he gets into trouble as he turns the ball over on those limited drives at a 13.6-percent turnover rate according to Second Spectrum.

The decrease in his drives though are significant because it takes away one of the big areas of Suggs’ attack. If it feels like Suggs is less assertive and aggressive since his return, it is clear as day in the numbers.

That has put more pressure on Suggs to find his elusive shot. He is averaging only 4.3 field goal attempts per game since his return and has just one game with 10 or more field goals, going 4-for-10 for 14 points in the loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Suggs is simply not looking very much for his shot since his return.

Not that he is shooting so effectively, but the Magic still need Suggs to be aggressive to develop. Even if he needs to find that balance and comfort in the end.

Suggs has proven himself more effective this year shooting off the dribble and in the mid-range. But those improvements are still fairly marginal if not worth continuing to explore.

That is probably the most important thing for Suggs. He still needs the space to explore and grow his game. But the Magic right now seem to be more focused on limiting his role and trying to find his comfort working more off the ball and as a defensive specialist.

That would certainly help the team and Suggs could certainly benefit from playing this role. But it has definitely knocked him a bit off course. And until Suggs develops a more consistent shot, it is going to be hard for him to be more than an energetic defender.

For now, that is the role he is playing though. Whether that is because he is still working back from the ankle injury and getting comfortable or if this is truly a reduction of his role because of the new realities of this roster is something that is unclear and may yet still develop over the second half of the season.

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Clearly, Orlando has something the team can develop and use in Suggs’ defense. But his offensive struggles and now seemingly his offensive reticence are slowing the team down some.