Orlando Magic 2023 NBA Draft Preview: Jett Howard has to prove he’s more

Michigan guard Jett Howard (13) attempts a 3-point basket against Michigan State during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.
Michigan guard Jett Howard (13) attempts a 3-point basket against Michigan State during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023. /

The NBA world is still feeling a bit of shock by the Orlando Magic’s selection of Michigan guard Jett Howard with the 11th pick in the draft.

Everyone sensed the Magic would target shooting with this second Lottery pick, but the consensus seemed to center on Kansas sharpshooter Gradey Dick. Howard was hardly on anybody’s board for the Magic because of the inconsistency he showed outside of his shooting.

We did not even write his draft preview until now — a day after the Draft. That is how low we were on him.

As president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and coach Jamahl Mosley spoke about their selection, they said Jett Howard had all the attributes they look for in a player. They praised his basketball IQ and his defensive potential in addition to the gravity he would create with his shooting. They said an ankle injury held him back — and Howard confirmed when he spoke with Orlando media — and prevented him from showing everything he could.

So what do we make of Howard then?

The Orlando Magic’s shocking selection of Jett Howard helped the Magic get the shooter they needed. Whether this pick makes sense will depend on whehter Howard can become more.

Was this an inexcusable overreach? Did the Magic pass up on better shooters? Or did the Magic know something or believe in something everyone else did not — or perhaps everyone else quietly did?

At the end of the day, Howard is the shooter the Magic have been looking for and the shooter the Magic needed. Orlando accomplished a draft day goal in grabbing that need.

The question Howard will have to answer — and what will ultimately determine whether this was a genius pick or an overreach — is whether he can deliver something more.

There is no doubting, Howard is one of the best shooters in this draft class. He averaged 14.2 points per game and shot 36.8 percent from beyond the arc and 80.0 percent from the foul line. He was named to the Big Ten’s All-First Team and All-Freshman team.

For as much criticism as he took for his play throughout the season, he was still among the very best players in the Big Ten.

The place to start is with Howard’s shooting. He had a strong field goal percentage from deep to go with an impressive free throw percentage. There are not many people who doubt his shooting will translate to the NBA.

He shot 38.6 percent on catch-and-shoot situations but also showed the ability to shoot on the move. There are not many outsid eshot scenarios that he is not solid at — even at times his pull-up game from deep (he hit 38.1 percent of his pull-up shots).

He has a quick and repeatable release that allows him to get his shot off quickly and even under pressure.

Listed at 6-foot-8, Howard has the size the Magic like too. He is not slinking around screens trying to create space, he is capable of getting space just base don his size and can shoot over late closeouts.

That allows him to have some really stunning games, a potential that other shooters in this draft did not have. Howard had four games of 20 or more points including a 34-point game where he made 7 of 13 threes in a loss to Iowa (more on this point in a bit). Howard had four games making five or more 3-pointers and seven with four or more 3-pointers.

The Magic needed shooting and volume shooting — Howard took 7.3 3-pointers per game. And they got one of the best shooters in this draft. You can argue that pehaps there were better shooters out there, but Howard is in the conversation for best shooter in this draft regardless of the final conclusion.

The question then for Howard is all the other stuff. This is where people probably started to ask why the differentiation between him and other players who seemed to be higher on media-led draft boards.

The other stuff for Howard is a big question.

The Wolverines had a 113.1 offensive rating and 106.2 defensive rating with Howard on the floor, according to Sports-Reference. Overall, Michigan had a 106.4/101.0 split. Howard certainly helped boost their offense, but may not have been as effective for them defensively. Still that is a sizable gap.

That gap shrinks in conference play. In the rough-and-tumble Big Ten, the Wolverines had only a 107.4 offensive rating and 106.3 defensive rating with Howard on the floor. How much of that was the injury? But his effectiveness certainly went down under the stiffer competition in the Big Ten.

Howard’s defense is going to go under the biggest microscope. It is the reason he sank down draft boards despite his shooting proficiency.

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Howard struggled a ton defensively. He gets beat a lot to his spot and does not provide a ton of resistance for drivers. He may stay in front, but he is not exactly impeding their progress either. Even though he has good size, he can still be overpowered by stronger opponents.

A lot of this is technique issues too. He comes out of his stance a lot and gets caught flat-footed, leaving him vulnerable to blow bys and screening actions. He will often overplay a drive on close outs or set up, giving up a lane to get by him too.

This is all attention to detail — knowing the right angle to close out, getting down in a stance and keeping your feet moving to stay in front. This seemingly goes against a lot of what the Magic value.

Even offensively, he will have to prove he is more than just a shooter.

Howard showed some advanced one-on-one skills and he makes quick decisive moves to create space, especially sidestepping at the 3-point line. But he has a long way to go as an attacker at the NBA level and he probably will not be relied on with the ball in his hands as a scorer or playmaker attacking downhill.

But like everything else, this is an area he has shown enough flashes to invest in. He understands his shooting gravity and uses it well to find teammates and make reads in the pick and roll. It is an area to explore.

And that will be the point with Howard. There is a lot of untapped potential quite clearly in him. It is just about what he is able to show.

The Magic got their shooter on draft night. There is no doubt about that. And that part should not have caused controversy.

What did cause controversy is the Magic invested in the hidden things in Howard’s game and bet heavily on there being more.

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Whether Howard ends up being the right pick for the Magic may well depend on whether Howard can prove himself a capable defender or a better playmaker. The other skills are clearly on an NBA level and elite for this draft class.