Jalen Suggs’ battle for consistency, comfort key to reaching his potential

Jan 28, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs (4) looks to pass during the second half against the Detroit Pistons at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 28, 2022; Orlando, Florida, USA; Orlando Magic guard Jalen Suggs (4) looks to pass during the second half against the Detroit Pistons at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

Jalen Suggs has been through a roller coaster in his early basketball career.

There was the high of leading Gonzaga to the national championship game — with that famous half-court buzzer-beater that came with it — followed by the shocking “low” of getting passed over for the fourth pick. Orlando Magic fans were plenty happy for that believing they had secured a future perimeter star and one of the consensus top-four picks in the Draft.

Suggs’ rookie season did not go as planned either. There were plenty of good moments that kept everyone optimistic. But a nagging ankle injury — one that would require surgery in the offseason slowed him down.

His second season also faced several false starts. He had ankle issues early in the year and could not ever seem to keep himself healthy as his breakneck pace had him flinging himself into defenders and into traffic.

When Suggs finally found a pocket of health he started to look a lot more comfortable. He started to look different.

Like so many players for the Magic, once the team was able to establish its rotation and carve out roles later in the season, everyone seemed to flourish. And no player seemed to thrive more with that consistency than Suggs.

Jalen Suggs still displays the talent that made him one of the most sought-after players in his draft class. Finding consistency and comfort is the key to the Orlando Magic seeing the best version of him.

Time marches on though.

As much as Suggs can be a dominant defensive player and a thorn in opponents’ sides, he has a lot to grow. The roster gets more full — the team drafted a similar defensive-minded, questionable-shooting ball-handler in Anthony Black — and patience to wait and develop grows thin on a crowded roster.

No team should give up on a 22-year-old guard with his defensive and offensive potential. Suggs still has a place in this team.

But what place is that?

That is among the many things the Magic have to try to figure out in this season of discovery. Suggs could be a player who either takes a supreme leap and becomes a key player in this rebuild. Or he could remain an interesting role player with diminishing value the more he settles into a bench role.

Like with everyone else, Suggs is going to get the chance to prove his worth on the court through training camp and into the season.

"“I think really the word of this offseason for me and where my mental at is just consistency,” Suggs said at the team’s exit interviews in April. “Just getting my flow, getting my rhythm. The same way I started the year and how comfortable I was. Just maintaining that and keeping that night in and night out is going to be big time.”"

Suggs indeed had a roller-coaster season.

He averaged 9.9 points per game and just 2.9 assists per game as his minutes decreased coming off the bench. He had shooting splits of 41.9/32.7/72.3. That overall picture continues to raise questions about him.

But injuries are a big part of that story too. He struggled to stay on the court. If we carve out the time that he was hurt early in the season and give him a month to get back into the flow, his numbers suddenly look different.

From Feb. 1 to the end of the season, Suggs averaged 10.7 points per game with shooting splits of 43.0/38.0/75.4. That showed some steps forward, especially with his outside shooting. But there are still plenty of areas to improve, particularly with his ability to finish at the rim — 59.3 percent in the restricted area for the season but just 37.3 percent in the paint outside the restricted area.

That at least hinted at a bright offensive future. And Suggs acknowledged he will need to continue to get consistent as a 3-point shooter as part of his offseason work.

But a lot of Suggs’ battle, he said at exit interviews back in April, is about getting himself back into the flow and in rhythm.

"“It was big time because before it I was feeling really confident, I had a great rhythm and flow going,” Suggs said at the team’s exit interviews in April. “I was hooping and having fun. I was really just being me.“That’s the hardest part about the injuries. It is not coming back, it’s not the toll it takes on your body, but how it messes with the rhythm and the flow. At the time that I went out, everyone else is coming back in. Just trying to find my way back into the team and find my role again. It’s been great to play a big stretch and not have to worry about sitting, rehabbing, anything hurting and just being able to go out and play basketball night in and night out.”"

Hope remains for Suggs because of his defensive impact. That is hard to deny.

The Magic had a 111.0 defensive rating with Suggs on the floor this season. Perhaps more intriguingly, the Magic had a +1.4 net rating and 111.6 defensive rating with their starting lineup. But if you take that lineup and replace Gary Harris with Jalen Suggs, the team’s net rating rises to +11.3 with a 102.4 defensive rating.

There is at least some evidence — the sample size is obviously much smaller — that Suggs can make a positive defensive impact with the chaos he brings defensively while not detracting too much offensively.

Individually, he rated as one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. According to data from Basketball Index, Suggs recorded 3.7 deflections per 75 possessions (placing him in the 93rd percentile) and 2.0 steals per 75 possessions (placing him in the 97th percentile). He had a +0.58 on-ball perimeter defense rating, placing him in the 80th percentile.

He had a +3.2 Defensive RAPTOR, ranking him in the 94th percentile. He was near elite at least in all the defensive catch-all stats.

Suggs can be a bit of a gambler for sure. He makes his pay by pressuring offensive players and going for these steals. But he has all the tools to be a dynamic and pesky defender. Especially in a bench role, that amount of chaos is valuable to the team in those minutes when the team needs some energy.

This is still what the team is banking on as much as anything. But what could make him really valuable is that offensive growth.

He has flashed it plenty of times like in a 26-point showing including two clutch 3-pointers in a November win over the Golden State Warriors or that game-winning basket to save a victory over the Chicago Bulls a few weeks later (he had 21 points in that game).

Suggs has never been afraid of the moment and those peaks into his talent and potential keep giving the team plenty to come back to.

Now it is just about getting that consistency — the consistency to stay on the floor and avoid injuries (sometimes it really did feel like Suggs was only held together with duct tape and glue with how he flung himself straight into defenders and dove on the floor with reckless abandon) and the consistency to produce and play.

This summer is an opportunity to start putting that all together.

"“I’m excited. I can’t wait for it,” Suggs said of his offseason plans following the Magic’s final home game on April 6. “I can’t wait to work. I can’t wait to be around family, be around freinds and try to continue to perfect my craft and get better. Just the improvements I made from last year to this year mentally, physically, gameplay-wise, shooting all of that. I can’t wait for the summer. It’s going to be fun. A lot of work is going to put in and I’m going to get a lot better.”"

Suggs at least previewed some of that work at Twin Cities Pro-Am earlier this week.

Take these pro-am videos with all kinds of grains of salt. But Suggs certainly seems to have taken advantage of a healthy summer to build strength and improve his shot. Only time will tell if all the pieces have come together.

If they have, then Suggs becomes an entirely different player. One who can be a potential starter and major impact player on the team.

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Only time will tell what kind of card Suggs will be and what role he can play for this team this year and in its future.