Paolo Banchero spent a good chunk of his offseason learning how to be a role player.
His job for Team USA was not to be a dominant scorer. His job was to set screens for his teammates, crash the glass and defend.
That was not something the Magic necessarily expected him to master last year. The team put him in a position and a spot to learn and make mistakes. He was not necessarily there to be the complete picture for the team.
Banchero though was stunning defensively. He rose up and blocked shots and was strong enough to be the backup center for the team as Steve Kerr hoped to have a playmaking big coming off his bench.
For whatever you want to say about the U.S.’s disappointing fourth-place finish in the tournament, Banchero was solid in his minutes and showed a lot of promise.
He certainly raised the expectations for what he can bring to the Orlando Magic with his performance in the Philippines this summer.
Every player on the Orlando Magic has shown significant improvements on defense or at least a willingness to defend. That has helped the Magic play well on that end to start the season.
So how is he doing? No one better to ask than Jonathan Isaac, the Magic’s resident ace defender:
"“I would definitely say he is growing in that regard,” Isaac said after practice Sunday. “It is definitely something he has worked at during the summer. I think he has definitely grown as a defender.”"
That is the operative word for a player like Banchero. He is growing and getting better. But he is willing to commit to the Magic’s growing defensive identity. And that is a big step for a player who dealt with criticisms that he was not a strong defender coming up through the draft process.
Every player on the Magic likely has that same feeling. They all seem to have a chip on their shoulder and a lot of pride in their potential on defense.
They do not have to be as dominant defensive as Jonathan Isaac can be — his block of Jalen Green to end the third quarter will certainly be one of the highlights of the year — but they all have to do their part for the team.
They all know that their defense is their ticket to achieve the things they are aiming for this year. Everyone is trying to make their mark on that end right now and change a lot of minds to start the season.
"“I think defense is effort,” Markelle Fultz said after practice Sunday. “I think that is something I can impact the game on. Going out here and making it tough on the other team’s guards or whoever I’m guarding. I definitely think I’m an underrated defender. I don’t think I get the recognition I deserve. As long as we are winning and as long as I am doing everything I can to help my team win, that’s all I’ll worry about.”"
The Magic as a team have been strong defensively to this point.
Orlando ranks third in the league giving up 95.8 points per 100 possessions. The Magic have held their first two opponents to fewer than 100 points.
The Magic’s main defensive focus is on protecting the paint. Orlando is second in the league in that category for the early season giving up 35.0 points in the paint per game through the first two games. That is a mark the Magic hope will continue.
Further, opponents have found it tough to score at the rim. According to data from Second Spectrum, opponents are hitting 46.4 percent at the rim against the Magic, the third-best mark in the league. Wendell Carter alone has allowed only 3 of 12 shots against him at the rim.
Moe Wagner even blocked a shot in a key moment against the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday — he led the team in charges last year and tallied only 13 total blocks (he has two already this season).
Even further, the Magic are giving up just 47.9 percent shooting on 35.5 attempts per game within eight feet of the basket. Orlando has had some solid paint defense.
But it is not merely just the interior that has been strong. The team has truly been disruptive defensively on the perimeter too.
Jalen Suggs has been hounding opponents and creating steals and other opportunities for the Magic to get out and run. Fultz has been solid as a physical perimeter defender keeping opposing guards from getting to the interior.
Cole Anthony has even gotten in on the action. He has long been used to provide token pressure as the ball comes up. But he has been more than solid at more than just that.
The important part is that everyone is willing to compete and challenge themselves. The Magic have built a lot of trust in each other on the defensive end.
"“We have a lot of great defenders,” Fultz said after practice Sunday. “But me and Jalen are starting right now, so we go out there and our goal is to make it as tough as possible on the two guards. We know our bigs are going to do their job and make it tough on the guard. If we do that, it’s going to be tough for the whole team. I think that’s something we both pride ourselves on.”"
The Magic’s starting group has indeed set a tone this season.
In 38 minutes together on the floor, the Magic’s starting group has given up just 94.7 points per 100 possessions. That has helped Orlando play from ahead in both of its games to this point.
That is always an advantage for any team.
But in each game, the Magic have had to withstand runs and their offensive shortcomings. They have had to battle back and buckle down.
And each time, the Magic have succeeded in doing so, often leaning on the defense to keep the lead and spark the offense.
This is who the team ultimately wants to be.
"“When this team is locked in defensively and our mentality is where it needs to be, it’s a difference maker,” Isaac said after practice Sunday. “It just makes it hard for teams. When you have guards like Jalen, like Cole, like Markelle who are going to step up and not just leave it to the bigs behind me and they are going to lock down, it makes our job easier.”"
There is certainly cohesion to what the Magic are doing so far. If there is one place their continuity has shown itself, it is in this trust. Orlando knows what it wants to do defensively and now the team is playing with more urgency and confidence defensively. It has shown itself throughout these early games.
The Orlando Magic’s defense will face its first significant test in Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers (although the Lakers are struggling with a 106.4 offensive rating so far this season even with a 111.4 effort in an overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings on Sunday). They still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis as great equalizers in any game.
Everyone is going to have to band together again to stop those superstar players — on a team that is hungry to win as they struggle through the first week of the season at 1-2 on the season.
But right now, everyone is making their mark on defense. It shows in the way the team is playing. And that is something the team hopes they can build on the rest of the season.