Sunday, Goga Bitadze played his first game back in Indianapolis after he was unceremoniously waived to help make room for players the team acquired in a trade. It was a poor end for a big man who held a lot of promise and was the 18th pick in the 2019 Draft.
Bitadze got lost in the shuffle it seemed amid a changing team with a new coach and suddenly pushing the pace at breakneck speeds. He was more methodical with a limited offensive game. Perhaps even the need to get acclimated to the NBA.
Three seasons into his career he was set adrift. That is where the Orlando Magic picked him up and found him.
Giving him an opportunity near the end of the season, Bitadze quickly proved he could be an excellent rim and paint defender — he led the team in on-court defensive rating. Orlando picked up the team option on the second year of his contract.
The Orlando Magic gave Goga Bitadze a big chance last year. He earned and built trust with the team, stepping in when the team has needed him this year.
While there was at least some intrigue about whether Bitadze could win the backup spot in training camp, the defensive-minded big was likely going to slot in as the third center on the team. A player to be sprinkled in as needed for foul trouble or to bolster the lineup.
Then Wendell Carter fractured a bone in his left hand against the Utah Jazz. The Magic’s lineup got upended.
And they did not miss a minute defensively, the backbone for this team. And Bitadze proved he could step in and help in a major way.
The trust built up from that cameo appearance last year brought him into the team quickly and Bitadze’s work and determination led him ready to contribute when he stepped onto the court.
"“Being the third string big, all of a sudden you start against those big time players,” Bitadze said after shootaround on Tuesday. “[Coach Jamahl Mosley] trusts you putting you out there giving those really important minutes. You can feel the trust so it’s easier for you as a player. You just have to go out there and do what you can for the team to get that win.”"
Bitadze certainly did the work to put himself in a position to make a contribution. But the Magic have doubled down on defense with that starting group and it has paid off a ton to help the team maintain this hot start.
Bitadze is not going to generate a ton of statistics. He is averaging 7.1 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game (both career highs). He has added 1.4 blocks per game too.
This is more than anyone could have asked for from Bitadze. And everything else tracks too.
Orlando’s starting group of Anthony Black, Jalen Suggs, Paolo Banchero, Franz Wagner and Goga Bitadze has a net rating of +2.4 points per 100 possessions (109.0 offensive rating/106.6 defensive rating).
The Magic have a 102.7 defensive rating with Bitadze on the floor (right on track with Carter’s 101.6 on-court defensive rating). Bitadze has been no drain on the offense either. The Magic have a 118.6 offensive rating with Bitadze on the floor.
Things have just continued to work.
"“I love his confidence and the confidence he is playing with,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after shootaround Tuesday. “I love the joy he is playing with and the toughness he brings to us as well. He does a great job defensively. His pick and roll defense is at a high level. He does a great job of keeping the ball in front of him and as then when he gets back to the big, he does a great job protecting the rim.”"
The pick and roll defense is a big thing.
According to NBA.com’s tracking data, from Second Spectrum opponents shoot only 53.8 percent at the rim against Bitadze. Jonathan Isaac, for reference, is at 52.0 percent in this category (Wendell Carter is at 39.4 percent in an incredible defensive effort).
Orlando’s paint and rim defense has been very good. And Bitadze has played a big role in that.
Offensively, he does all the little things that help a team win even if he is not touching the ball a ton. He sets strong screens, rolls hard to the basket, attacks the offensive glass and scores easily on putbacks. Bitadze works because he does not try to do more than he is capable of — save for a few 3-point attempts which remains a growing part of his game.
Bitadze averages 1.8 screen assists per game and 4.0 screen points per game (that is last among the Magic’s centers but still a solid number).
He simply keeps the team humming and moving.
"“He’s got a high basketball IQ,” Mosley said after shootaround Tuesday. “He studies, he is in there working, he is talking with the coaches and they do a tremendous job with him explaining the things he needs to do to be on the floor. it goes to his credit and the coaches’ credit he has kept himself ready. You don’t know what’s going to happen with certain guys. Each one of these guys who is ready to step in is getting themselves prepared for whatever may come.”"
Bitadze was not quite ready to say he has a high basketball IQ. But he does have the ability to know what is coming and where to go. He finds himself in impactful areas and the Magic have used him and leaned on his skills.
As many Magic fans have noted, it is incredible to see the team not miss a beat and keep growing despite missing two starters — and two key starters in the team’s defensive scheme at that.
Orlando somehow has not missed a beat and that is because of the trust the team quickly built in Bitadze. And how quickly Bitadze has built confidence with this team.
All he needed was the opportunity to show it.
"“I think you’ve got to be patient,” Bitadze said after shootaround Tuesday. “You can’t be chasing nothing. You just have to make the right plays. Even though you might not get a touch at all because there are a lot of great players in the starting lineup. You just have to be patient, get stops and when everyone is playing good, you look good as well. When the team is wining, all of us look good.”"
That patience has paid off. That faith has paid off. And Bitadze is making a major contribution to the team as it grows early this season.