Chuma Okeke recently returned from injury after a 41-game absence, playing on Valentine’s Day in Toronto before the All-Star break. He went scoreless in 13 minutes, attempting one field goal in the contest.
It was an easy dipping his toes back into the NBA waters. But as the Magic’s play-in chase heats up, they are going to need more. More from everyone. And that means they are going to need to tighten their rotations.
For Okeke then, this was not an ideal showing that the Magic would like to see from their former first-round pick. And while he does need some time to get some consistency and stability after returning from such a long hiatus, there are a lot of mouths to feed and players to play on this Magic roster. Not everyone is going to get their chance.
Okeke will have a difficult time finding his offensive groove to finish out the remaining 23 games of the season for this reason.
He has shown flashes of potential throughout his short career, but the Magic have continued to fortify the wing and forward positions since he arrived in Orlando. A large percentage of minutes are already allocated to the starting unit, and Okeke will need to carve out a role if his future remains in Orlando.
Chuma Okeke made a big return from a 41-game absence just before the All-Star Break. But finding minutes for him will be difficult with a loaded frontcourt and the need to focus on the postseason chase.
Consistency has been a constant battle throughout his three seasons in the NBA. That can be attributed to Okeke’s inability to stay healthy.
Okeke has played in only 19 games this season, averaging 5.2 points per game and shooting 29.5 percent from beyond the arc. While Okeke continues to rate well as a disruptive defender, his streaky shooting has made it hard for him to carve out positive minutes.
Injuries have been the story of his entire career and have halted his progress and fight for consistency.
When he was drafted, the Auburn product was coming off of an ACL tear during the NCAA Tournament. The Magic front office knew that he would be a project because he was not ready to play at the start of his rookie season based on his injury. Orlando took a methodical approach giving him the entire year to work out and regain comfort using his newly restructured knee.
In his first season in action, he played in 45 games, but for two very different Magic teams.
Orlando was attempting to reach the playoffs at the beginning of the season with the same core that did so a season prior. Barring injuries to seemingly more than half of the team and playoffs out of reach, a full-scale rebuild was underway.
The roster turnover at the trade deadline allotted Okeke meaningful minutes to showcase his highly touted talent. There was reason to be excited in Okeke for the second half of the season. The roster was stripped of offensive weapons, but Okeke was able to score with finishes in straight-line drives to the basket, mid-range turnaround fadeaways, and catch-and-shoot threes off kick outs and handoffs.
On the defensive end, he was able to keep players in front of him and use his active hands to force players into picking up their dribble or causing a turnover. He displayed his ability to alter shots at the rim and was great in help defense on the baseline. Okeke still shows glimpses of these skills, but at a significantly declined rate.
Of course, even that rookie season was beset by injuries. He played in only 45 games and missed extended time with an issue with his surgically repaired knee. While he played in 70 games in his second season, he missed time in training camp and at the beginning of the season with an injury too.
Okeke has struggled to find consistency and a solid base to grow from for that reason. And now the roster has changed around him, squeezing his minutes and his opportunity to play.
Okeke is still averaging 21.3 minutes per game this year, but that is a career low. And it is hard to see where his minutes will come from the rest of the season.
With Mo Bamba’s departure, the center position is currently lacking depth. Orlando recently signed a former first-round selection, Goga Bitadze. But it seems unlikely he will see the floor consistently. Moe Wagner is the only other center unless Coach Jamahl Mosley envisions Jonathan Isaac playing down low in hybrid, small-ball lineups.
It will be an uphill battle for Chuma Okeke to garner 25 minutes per game as he did in his quasi-rookie and sophomore seasons. He will have to prove his worth and his part in this young core.
The roster has compiled substantial talent since he was drafted, specifically at his position including Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner, Jonathan Isaac, Bol Bol and Caleb Houstan. For now, it seems Okeke will take over Isaac’s minutes when Isaac is sitting out as part of his rest and recovery.
But the team knows it has Okeke in reserve as a solid defender off the bench and a potentially solid 3-point shooter who can get hot and hit threes in bunches. In Okeke’s season-high 16 points in the win over the Golden State Warriors in November, he made 3 of 5 3-pointers.
Finishing out this season will be pivotal as Okeke will seek a new contract as a restricted free agent after next season. If the Magic believe he is a part of their future remains to be seen, and his tenure in Orlando could be coming to a close.
Okeke’s inability to stay healthy has hindered his development. This has been a concern for Magic fans seeing another first-round pick struggle to improve.
Right now, Okeke is fighting to stay in the rotation and make his mark. He can still do that as a shooter. But finding stability has always been the struggle for him during his Magic tenure.