Sometimes first-round picks find themselves in the wrong situation.
They may not be ready for the work it takes to make it in the NBA. There may be other developments on the roster. Or there might not be a coaching change that leads to a player getting lost in the shuffle.
The talent though never goes away. NBA scouts rarely miss on talent, it is just developing that talent and predicting how players will react to the NBA that becomes the challenge.
Goga Bitadze was one such player. He was still figuring things out when he arrived to the Indiana Pacers as the 18th overall pick in 2019. He struggled to find playing time and as Rick Carlisle came in and started ramping up the pace, the bigger Bitadze struggled to keep up.
He needed a fresh start. And the Pacers waiving him to acquire Serge Ibaka (whom they promptly waived) at least year’s trade deadline gave Goga Bitadze the chance at that fresh start.
The Orlando Magic gave Goga Bitadze a fresh start and a chance to grow his game. His defense made an impat and helped him carve a role for the team entering this season.
The Orlando Magic added Goga Bitadze shortly after the trade deadline to replace Mo Bamba’s minutes as a third or backup center. There really were not many expectations. The team had itself set with its center rotation.
All Bitadze had to do was wait for his opportunity. That was just the continuing story for him.
He found that with the Magic last year. He got more than just a look, he raised some questions about what the Magic’s rotation should be. And what was a two-year deal that Orlando easily could escape turned into a deal the team had to keep around.
Bitadze played really well in his short stint with the Magic and earned a good look to get minutes as the team’s backup center, giving the team some necesssary interior defense and rim protection.
In 15 minutes per game across 17 appearances, Bitadze averaged 5.8 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game. That equated to 13.8 points and 12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes, for whatever that is worth.
That still suggests Bitadze made an impact. Plenty of his other stats do too.
The Magic had a team-best 104.8 defensive rating with Bitadze on the floor. Even with a poor 107.7 offensive rating, the Magic had a +2.9 net rating with Bitadze on the floor.
Further, according to data from Basketball Index, opponents shot 9.60 percentage points worse at the rim than expected when Bitadze was the primary defender and Bitadze had 1.08 rim points saved per 75 possessions. According to data from Second Spectrum, opponents shot 53.8 percent at the rim against Bitadze.
These are small sample sizes so take them for what they are worth. But it does suggest some positive play. Bitadze was an excellent rim protector.
And this is something the Magic were sorely missing. If Bitadze needed to find a way for him to get on the floor, the Magic’s defensive schemes of repelling shots in the paint seemed to fit his eye really well.
Orlando was excellent at stopping shots in the paint, but the team really struggled defending at the rim. This was something Bitadze was seemingly the only player on the roster capable of doing consistently.
That makes him valuable. And that value showed as his time with the team continued.
By the end of the season, Goga Bitadze and Moe Wagner were getting backup center minutes almost by committee. Bitadze played his way into the rotation that much.
Bitadze played at least 12 minutes in 10 of his final 11 games. He averaged 6.2 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game and 1.1 blocks per game in 16.8 minutes per game.
That is the battle ahead for Bitadze. The Magic have some flexibility with the lineups they can play — whether that is playing Paolo Banchero or Jonathan Isaac at center or trying Moe Wagner at powre forward. But ostensibly, the Magic will have a little bit of a battle for the backup center minutes between Bitadze and Wagner.
Essentially coach Jamahl Mosley will have to decide what he needs on any given night: Moe Wagner’s offense and floor-spacing or Goga Bitadze’s rebounding and shot-blocking. The Magic may need something different.
In the background of all of this is the realization that Wendell Carter is not typically reliable from an availability standpoint. He has never played more than 62 games in any season. Orlando is probably going to have to prepare to miss him for somewhere between 15-20 games.
For this reason, Bitadze seems more likely to fill in as the starter when Carter has to miss time to preserve the Magic’s bench lineups and bench groups. Goga Bitadze never played alongside Franz Wagner (or Moe Wagner for that matter) but had 50 minutes alongside Paolo Banchero with fairly poor results — 121.0 defensive rating and -20.0 net rating.
Bitadze usually provides a good defensive boost, but the next area of growth for him is to be a greater impactor on offense. This is where his game still needs a lot of work.
He did a lot of his scoring on simple post-ups, dump downs and second-chance points. That is the bulk of Bitadze’s offense. He has shown some ability to hit from the outside but it has not been something he leans on nor something he turns to.
There are still areas where Bitadze has to get better if he wants to find a consistent role with the team. The Magic are likely to lean on Moe Wagner for the backup center minutes. Bitadze is not a good option.
That is a big step up for a player like Bitadze. He was on the fringes of the NBA and seemingly unclear how to make good on his first-round potential. The Magic gave him an opportunity and he jumped at the chance.
He found his place. The question is how does he expand that role and how does he contribute to this team?
Bitadze clearly can. And even if it is for spot minutes, Bitadze will fill a critical role at some point for the Magic this season. It was incredible to see how easily he fit in with this team. And it means he has a place somewhere on this team at some pointt his season.
There will be at least a small battle and debate throughout the season for who should get the backup center minutes. If Bitadze improves his offense — and he looked very comfortable working from the high post with Georgia at the FIBA World Cup — then he could really push for minutes, especially if the Magic center their identity on defense.
Bitadze found a place where he can be comfortable. Now he has to work to expand his game and make good on the promise he showed that brought him back to the Magic after last season.