The Orlando Magic have a big problem to solve to take the next step.
The team has a solid defensive foundation based on the ability to protect the paint and rim. It knows it has to clean up its turnovers to solidify that defensive gain and support the offense.
Everyone though knows that offense is the biggest impediment to the team’s success after ranking 26th in the league in offensive rating (111.3 points per 100 possessions). Even taking out the first 25 games of the season (as we often do), the Magic ranked 26th at 112.5 points per 100 possessions.
Even those gains were not enough to give the team a positive net rating despite the sixth-best defense in that time.
Orlando has a lot of work to do to improve on offense. A lot of that will come from internal improvement — whether that is Paolo Banchero’s efficiency in movement or Markelle Fultz continuing his upward ascent or improving the team’s passing and ball movement.
The addition of shooters like Jett Howard and Joe Ingles will surely help too. Everyone recognizes the Magic’s need for shooting.
It is not like the Magic are starting from scratch though. This is not an offense with nothing to build off.
The Orlando Magic have one offensive element they can build with as they develop. Their free throw rate was one of the best in the league, driven by their attacks to the basket and Paolo Banchero.
There is of course the potential star power of Paolo Banchero and the driving abilities of both Franz Wagner and Markelle Fultz. There are elements for this team to keep building on.
But there was one thing the Magic did well offensively last year — their ability to get to the line.
After spending almost every year since Dwight Howard left in 2012 at the very bottom of the league in free throw rate, the Magic suddenly rose to fifth in the league with a 29.0 percent free throw rate. That essentially means the Magic got one free throw for every three field goal attempts.
This is the biggest way Paolo Banchero impacted the Magic.
Most rookies are bad and the Magic had a 111.1 offensive rating with Banchero on the floor for the season, slightly below the team’s season-long average. He got better as the season went on. The team had a team-best 114.3 offensive rating with him on the floor after the All-Star Break.
That is certainly a sign of his improvement and perhaps a preview of what he can be.
But the constant drumbeat of his season was his parade to the line. Yes, he had some rough shooting percentages — 42.7/29.8/73.8 shooting splits — but he still managed a 52.9 percent true shooting percentage. That is nearly a 10 percentage point boost over his overall field goal percentage.
That is because of his free throw shooting.
He averaged 7.4 free throw attempts per game, the second-most by a rookie since 2010 trailing only Blake Griffin. It was the fifth-most free throw attempts per game from someone not named Shaquille O’Neal or Dwight Howard in Magic history (the four Tracy McGrady seasons and Steve Francis’ 2005 season).
This is not something that typically goes away either.
Griffin, the player Banchero is probably compared to most often, averaged 8.5 free throw attempts per game in his rookie year. He averaged 6.9 attempts per game through his final All-Star season in 2019.
Luka Doncic averaged 6.7 free throw attempts per game his rookie year. He has averaged 8.2 attempts per game for his career, topping off at 10.2 last year. Carmelo Anthony averaged 6.4 free throw attempts per game his rookie year with the Denver Nuggets. He averaged 7.2 free throw attempts per game through the 2017 season, his final All-Star season with the New York Knicks.
If we just go by player type, Banchero is in company with players who sustained their free throw shooting for years to come.
This is something that will constantly put pressure on defenses. And while Banchero did a big part in increasing the Magic’s overall free throw attempts, he was not alone.
Franz Wagner got to the line for 4.0 free throw attempts per game (up from 2.8 per game in his rookie year). That is still a number that could increase considering his ability to drive and get to the basket.
Wendell Carter averaged 3.4 free throw attempts per game, staying in line with his averages. Moe Wagner averaged 3.2 per game off the bench. Cole Anthony averaged 2.8 per game. Orlando had at least seven players average 2.0 free throw attempts per game. That is seven players taking at least one trip to the line.
Orlando got to the line because the team was a heavy-driving team. According to data from Second Spectrum, the Magic averaged 48.3 drives per game, the 10th most in the league. They averaged 7.8 free throw attempts per game off those drives (they averaged 25.0 attempts per game).
This is the basis of the team’s offense. They try to get their players downhill and put pressure on the rim and defenses. This is the basis for how everything grows.
As the Magic improve, and add shooting and move the ball more, it will start with this ability to get downhill. And as the team gets better at shooting, that will further open up driving lanes to get downhill and perhaps get to the line more.
Banchero is certainly the center of all of this. It is the kind of offense that is built around the team’s length and versatility. It all starts with this foundation as a free throw shooting team.
This ability to get some pressure is essential to the Magic’s overall goal.