If there is one area where the Orlando Magic have shown real promise this season, it is on the defensive end of the court.
This group is young and hungry, and look primed to have one of the best young cores of defensive talent in the league as soon as next season.
In fact, they are ahead of schedule, and after a rough start to the season are showing fans just how good they can be across their entire roster when they lock-in.
With the Play-In Tournament still on their radar this late in the regular campaign, the Orlando Magic are demonstrating they will be elite defensively before long.
Most of the roster, as well as coach Jamahl Mosley, deserve the credit for this. But before we give this team their flowers, we need to highlight one area that is holding them back.
As a young group, it is painfully evident they fail to get up for every game. You cannot beat the Boston Celtics three times in one season, and then follow up those games with abject displays — those two losses to the Detroit Pistons even under difficult circumstances sting.
The Magic have fallen victim to this, with their intensity and desire rightly called into question many times throughout the season so far.
That general malaise is somewhat understandable.
Rookie Paolo Banchero is finding his feet in the league and has done an amazing job, while a lot is expected of second-year player Franz Wagner.
This inability to perform at a high level defensively more often than not is holding them back right now. Just look at how the Milwaukee Bucks throttled their defense 139-117 Wednesday night. The Magic still have nights like these where they let go of the rope and get routed.
But this will change as the young roster grows together.
Onto the good stuff then, and former coach Steve Clifford, himself a defensive-minded individual, could only dream of having a group like this to work with.
Center Wendell Carter is an excellent place to start, and when he mans the paint, the Magic are just better.
His defensive rating of 111.6 is actually down considerably on the 108.8 he posted last season, but both Carter and the Magic have had a whole host of injury problems this season.
Now fully healthy, the Magic rank 18th in defensive rating (113.9), and in their last 15 games with the rotation now in a much better place, they are up to an impressive eighth (111.3).
Even better, in the month of February they rank a superb fourth in the league (108.2), as they posted a 6-5 record to keep their dwindling Play-In hopes alive.
That is as clear as you can get in terms of an upward trajectory, and it is extremely encouraging and should have the franchise bullish the team will be a top-10 mainstay in this category next season.
To give more context to this fantastic improvement, in November the team ranked a terrible 27th (117.0).
The injuries were out of control at that point, and the Magic were in the midst of what would become their 5-20 start. In that month, they went 4-11 and morale was low.
To have rebounded so well in a relatively short space of time is a testament to the job Mosley is doing with these players.
But this team is much more than just Carter’s interior play. Wagner is at this point underrated defensively and is blossoming into one of the best young two-way players in the league.
Jonathan Isaa’cs return has been huge, and although he is out again currently, his defensive rating of 107.7 means the Magic actually have the best rating in the league in the limited minutes he is on the court.
Wendell Carter, Jonathan Isaac, Moe Wagner and the recently added Goga Bitadze are an above-average bundle to build around. But this team is about more than what their big men provide.
Markelle Fultz not only continues to prove he is their point guard of the future, his high IQ means he makes a difference on some defensive plays.
His rating this season of 113.9 is not quite showing that, but everybody seems to be in agreement that when Fultz is on the court, good things are happening on both ends for the Magic.
It gets better than that however, as second-year guard Jalen Suggs is quickly morphing into their irritant on that end. He hounds opposing players and looks like no fun to play against.
His 3-point shooting is improving at a slow pace, much the same as Fultz’s is, and if the two can make an impact defensively and knock down some shots from deep, the Magic will be a tough out every game they play.
Then there is Cole Anthony, this team’s energizer off the bench and a player who averages 4.6 rebounds per game. A good return for somebody who is never going to be the tallest on the court.
If you put all of that together, then we can see that the core group that the Magic have are in a great place defensively, and the numbers back that up.
Banchero is no slouch either and can stay in front of his man with his large body, and both he and Wagner are going to get better.
The Magic may be running out of games to turn this defensive play into the wins required to make the Play-in tournament.
But the organization is trending in the right direction, and quickly, and looks set to become a high-level team on that end of the court as soon as next season.