Chuma Okeke has to find confidence in himself to fit the Orlando Magic

Chuma Okeke has had an up-and-down start to his career. But the Orlando Magic forward can still right the ship. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Chuma Okeke has had an up-and-down start to his career. But the Orlando Magic forward can still right the ship. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The moment Chuma Okeke had waited on all year finally came at the end of the season.

The Orlando Magic were eliminated from postseason contention with three games remaining and it was clear the team was going to start scaling itself back. They were going to rest some starters after a long season. Coach Jamahl Mosley said he wanted to reward players for their work at the end of the bench.

Okeke had been working hard with that group. Grinding through constant rehabs and starts and stops to his career.

The once-promising forward has struggled to find his footing through a constant cycle of injuries and the constant churn that comes from a young roster constantly drafting and replacing players. Okeke’s rookie contract has been characterized by brief glimpses of promise only to get thrown back by injury.

So these final three games represented a potential to build a bit of momentum after a lost season. He scored 21 total points on 8-for-26 shooting (30.8 percent) with 15 total rebounds. It was good to see him get out on the floor and he saved his best for the season finale with 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting, four rebounds and five assists.

Of course, this was a meaningless game for both teams. It was just Okeke returning to the court and finding a rhythm before his offseason began.

Chuma Okeke struggled through injuries last year and enters a contract season with the Orlando Magic where he has to find his confidence and compete his way onto the floor.

What ultimately matters for Okeke is finding confidence so that he can compete for those precious few minutes that exist on this suddenly deep team. All while preparing for the final year of his rookie contract.

A lot is indeed on the line for Okeke.

"“This is going to be a big offseason for me to continue to learn about my body and continue to get stronger. I’m always going to put in the work on the court,” Okeke said during the team’s exit interviews in April.“My biggest part is probably just confidence. Not just on the court but off the court too, like how my body is feeling. Being that I was hurt a lot this season, it just gave me more to learn about my body and what to do and what not to do, what makes me feel good, how to prepare for a game, how to prepare for a practice, whatever the case may be. I think I learned a lot in that area.”"

Certainly, injuries are the biggest part of Okeke’s story. He appeared in only 27 games last season, predictably averaging a career-low 19.2 minutes per game and 4.2 points per game. He again was a heavy 3-point shooter, taking 70.5 percent of his total field goal attempts from beyond the arc and making only 30.2 percent of those shots, also a career-low.

A lot of this has to do with the fact Okeke did not play. He dealt with injuries midway through the season and then struggled to break back into the rotation.

He was in the rotation early in the season as the team dealt with injuries, averaging 21.8 minutes per game, 5.4 points per game and 36.8/30.0/76.2 shooting splits. It was clear the Magic would move him down the depth chart once the team was healthy again.

Okeke had to wait and hope for an opportunity. But that did not come. Even when Jonathan Isaac’s 11-game stint ran dry, Okeke remained on the bench and struggled to stay healthy enough.

Everything about him starts with this confidence in his body to go out and perform before he can do anything, let alone start to climb the depth chart.

He has had to climb a lot of hills that other players his age might not have to — even starting with taking a gap year to recover from a torn ACL suffered in the NCAA Tournament with Auburn. His recovery nearing an end just as the pandemic stopped, putting a halt to everything did not help matters.

Neither did the bone bruise he suffered his rookie season, the coaching change that saw his role and usage change dramatically — under Steve Clifford in 2021, Chuma Okeke took 43.5 percent of his shots from three but in the last two years under Jamahl Mosley, Okeke has taken 65.5 percent of his shots from three — or the hip injury that derailed the start of his sophomore season.

Okeke’s entire career to this point has seemingly been one false start after another.

"“I would say it is tough because any time you are not playing, you want to play and it is going to be tough on your mental,” Okeke said after the team’s exit interviews in April. “I understood everything. I understood I was going to have to earn my minutes back to get back into the rotation. I had the mindset of keep putting in the work and whenever my name is called, hopefully, I will be ready and my body will be ready and that’s what happened.”"

Still, it is easy to see why the Magic might still be invested in him.

Okeke can make a chunk of threes — just ask the Golden State Warriors whom he again victimized with 16 points, nine rebounds and three 3-pointers in the one-point win in November.

He is still a really strong defender — he averaged 1.3 steals per 75 possessions and 2.6 deflections per 75 possessions according to data from Basketball-Index. He posted a positive defensive LEBRON and defensive Box Plus-Minus rating too.

Okeke remains a potentially disruptive defender who can hit from the outside. That is what he promised coming out of Auburn. And even though the Magic have greatly reduced his post-up opportunities, he has good size and footwork to operate in the mid-post at the very least.

There is still something to work with. And Okeke is right, he just needs the confidence in his body to play consistently and show what he can do.

He said back in April his goals for the offseason were to improve his 3-point shooting and his explosiveness, both things that a lack of rhythm and health have taken away from him. That potential is all still there.

"“When you work so hard for something, you can’t just give up automatically,” Okeke said after exit interviews in April. “You’ve got to keep on pushing and believe that things will get better and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. When you have that mindset and people supporting you like they were doing with me, you just keep pushing not only for yourself but for your team, your family, your coaches.”"

There is obviously still a big uphill climb for him. He is down on the depth chart behind Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner. Jonathan Isaac is a more disruptive defender and a better shooter at this point even with his injury history. Joe Ingles will likely lay claim to some minutes at the 4 too.

Okeke has a path to play with the injuries that will inevitably hit the roster. And Orlando has made it clear internal competition is a big part of the team’s culture and plan for next season. Whether Okeke will get that opportunity is another question entirely.

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But he has to start with himself to get there. And then see what he can earn in October.