Orlando Magic need Jalen Suggs to toe the line on defense

Jalen Suggs has established himself as an all-defensive team player. The constant pest is doing what great defenders do: Toe the line between genius and insanity.
Jalen Suggs is controlled chaos for the Orlando Magic. His energy and how he risks everything defensively has helped the Orlando Magic climb the standings and prepare for the Playoffs.
Jalen Suggs is controlled chaos for the Orlando Magic. His energy and how he risks everything defensively has helped the Orlando Magic climb the standings and prepare for the Playoffs. / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

In the third quarter of Tuesday's game against the Charlotte Hornets, Jalen Suggs made sure everyone knew he was not going to back down.

His pestering defense already frustrated Davis Bertans enough to send him an elbow and get ejected from the game for a flagrant foul. Suggs was not done getting under the Hornets' skin.

Grant Williams did what a big man is supposed to do against a pressure-heavy defender, he leaned into a hard screen to knock Jalen Suggs off the path. Suggs matched the physicality. He went right into Williams' chest to knock the 236-pound forward off balance.

Williams did not like this, grabbing Suggs as he tried to get back into the play. The two players needed to be separated and picked up technicals.

After the game Suggs said there were no hard feelings. But he loved the physicality. He loved mixing it up with the bigger player. He seemed to relish that opportunity.

He was not going to back down. That is what his team needed.

"I love it. I ain't going to lie to you," Suggs said after the win over the Hornets. "It reminds me of just hooping when I grew up. I don't have any bad blood toward Grant or any of those guys. It reminds me of playing against the older guys. It's physical. They aren't just going to let you win and blow them out and have a good time when you are out on the court with them. I like physical basketball. I like competitive basketball."

Nothing comes easy when Suggs is on the floor. What has made this season so special is that Suggs has been unleashed. This is who he is and he shows it every night.

Being a great defender is always about toeing that line between composure and madness. Suggs can be a maniac chasing players around screens. He is someone that just annoys everyone.

But that is what a good defender is supposed to do. They are supposed to be constant pest, hounding whomever they are guarding and getting after them.

The fact that what Suggs does -- from his defense to shouting at the crowd after big shots on offense and living up every moment -- energizes everything the Magic do. As several players and coach Jamahl Mosley put it, Jalen Suggs is the head of the snake.

Everything successful the Magic do sprouts from him and his defensive energy.

"He's the head of the snake," Mosley said after the win over the Hornets. "He's the first line on defense. As he's picking up full court, getting to the basketball, that back line is making sure they're protecting him, sticking to our principles and knowing what we're capable of doing. But he starts it all off. His energy, his enthusiasm, it just carries over from him and down to the next guy."

All the numbers suggest how difficult that is.

For the entire season, the Magic have a 111.0 defensive rating with Suggs on the floor. That is not among the best individual marks on the team, but would still rank fourth in the league overall (the Magic are third in the league with a 110.8 defensive rating).

Opponents shoot 46.8 percent against Suggs, according to data from NBA.com (against an expected 46.9 percent, which is among the best marks for guards who have played at least 60 games). Teams do not try Suggs and he does not really allow for shots to begin with.

Suggs is extremely disruptive too, averaging 3.32 deflections per 75 possessions and 1.9 steals per 75 possessions, both in the top 15 percent in the league. All the advanced defensive catch-all metrics place him near the top 10 percent in the league.

Since the All-Star Break, Suggs has seemingly gone into overdrive. Opponents are shooting 38.3 percent against him (with an expected field goal percentage of 45.4 percent).

Orlando, which has the top defensive rating in the league since the All-Star Break at 106.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, is giving up a paltry 99.9 points per 100 possessions with Suggs on the floor.

The numbers back up what everyone knows -- Suggs is a hounding defender who has stepped his game up with the playoffs on the horizon.

"First-team all-defense, that's what that looked like," Mosley said after the win over the Hornets. "I think he had a couple of situations where he actually just stole the ball and it's hard to see. You think it's a foul because of how aggressive he was. He's doing it because he's beating guys to spots. He's so disruptive but it's what he's capable of doing on a consistent basis."

His teammates certainly agree. They all know how important Suggs is to the overall picture.

Suggs being healthy and the Magic's lineups stabilizing has allowed him to unleash all the pent-up energy he has and direct it into the other team.

In the home game against the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, he nearly created an eight-second backcourt violation on his own. He blows up actions with his ability to get skinny around screens and meet players.

More than anything, he sets the tone by never backing down physically. The rest of the team feeds off his energy. So much of what the Magic do starts with letting Suggs loose for all the good and bad it might entail.

Sometimes that means Suggs overextends his defense and crosses the line to draw a foul in a big moment -- that happened in the win over the UtahJazz and the buzzer-beating loss to the Atlanta Hawks in January.

But sometimes that means letting Suggs understand where that line is and adjust. It means trusting Suggs to know where the line is and what he can do throughout a game.

"We have to allow Jalen Suggs to be Jalen Suggs," Mosley said before the Magic's win over the Jazz. "Where he thrives is being assertive and being aggressive and not shying away from who he is. Some of the fouls that he gets will probably eliminate over time as they understand who he is and that level of respect that comes with that. Some of it comes whether it's from a swipe down here or there. That's just the ability to show your hands and keep your discipline in certain situations."

Suggs will still get over-aggressive. But the Magic do not want to contain him. They have to trust that he knows where the line is with his physicality and eagerness to get into players.

With the league seeing the whistle tighten since the All-Star Break, Suggs is thriving even more with his physical, hounding defense. It feels like he was built for this time of year.

Add on the bravado he brings with his improving 3-point shot and Suggs is indeed leading the team's energy and swagger department. They know he is the team's emotional lynchpin and they can reel back his overzealous moments.

Suggs is just not an energy you want to contain.

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Orlando has found a way to channel that in a positive way this year. And it is one of the big keys to their success this season.