It wasn’t even halftime and the Orlando Magic were two points shy of a twenty-point lead. Everything was falling into place: rookie guard Victor Oladipo, the 2013 draft’s second-overall pick, hit two threes and was pacing the Magic offence. Twenty-one-year-old forward Tobias Harris was aggressive on both ends of the floor, filling the lane and blocking shots when his own weren’t falling. Arron Afflalo—a “veteran” on this club with six seasons under his belt—couldn’t miss a shot, while baby-faced big man Nikolai Vucevic was a force in the paint.
What happened next was all too predictable, though: Orlando watched their 54-36 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers evaporate thanks to the brilliance of Kyrie Irving and a 16-point fourth quarter from top pick Anthony Bennett. The Magic lost the game—a seemingly meaningless pre-season contest, and just the first of many… losses, that is.
With a fair share of intriguing prospects on their roster, there’s a lot to like about the Magic—just not this season. But only one year removed from the Dwight Howard era, in which the team fielded a perennial Eastern contender year after year, the Magic have gone about the rebuilding process as well as any franchise in recent memory. Oladipo, Afflalo, Vucevic, Harris, Andrew Nicholson, Mo Harkless. With no gut-wrenching contracts to swallow (at least once Orlando severed ties with Hedu Turkgolu this summer) and a glut of draft picks in tow, the Magic have a clear direction and plan.
Looking back, general manager Rob Hennigan doesn’t get nearly enough due. Hired less than two months before Howard was shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers , his club nevertheless managed to turn Superman’s depature into a a top-five centre prospect (Vucevic, who at 22 averaged 13 and 12 in 77 starts for the Magic last season), a tough, effective, starting-quality guard (Afflalo), Harkless and a first-round pick in each of the next three drafts.
Factor in the Big Baby Davis/Brandon Bass trade (Davis averaged 15 and seven in 2012-13 before an injury cut his season to a close) and the J.J. Redick trade with the Milwaukee Bucks that yielded Tobias Harris (more on him later), and you’ve got yourself quite an impressive track record.
Right now they’re among the favourites in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, but Orlando will be a competitive team with plenty to be optimistic about. This club just doesn’t have the experience, or the personnel, to close out many games.
Victor Oladipo, Jason Maxiell, Ronnie Price
Beno Udrih, Al Harrington, DeQuan Jones
In Sportsnet magazine’s NBA Preview (hitting newsstands on Thursday), we have Oladipo as the favourite to win Rookie of the Year. And it’s easy to see why. A defensive-stopper with the offensive skills to take over games and finish with the best of them, Oladipo has the very real potential to become one of the NBA’s best shooting guards—like, soon.
- Don’t eff this up: There has been a lot of discussion around the idea of playing Oladipo major minutes at point guard to start the season. There is a need at the position, with the aging Jameer Nelson holding down the spot at the moment, but Oladipo lacks the playmaking ability and is perfectly suited for the two. Here’s hoping the Indiana standout can avoid an identity crisis this early on in his career.
- Oh Canada! Coming off a FIBA Americas tournament in which he held his own as a primary scoring option suiting up for Canada, Missisauga, Ont.’s Andrew Nicholson will have the opportunity to make his presence felt across the league in his sophomore campaign. With Big Baby still sidelined, Nicholson is likely to see more floor time, and his expansive offensive game will be much needed.
Tobias Harris. You’re entirely excused if you happened to miss out on Harris’s stellar run since joining the Magic at last year’s trade deadline. But the third-year forward immediately established himself as the go-to-guy in Orlando, averaging a team-leading 17.3 points to go along with 8.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks a night in his 27 games in Magic blue. He’s a league-wide candidate for Most Improved Player and a potential star in the making at the SF position.
Indecent. There are enough pieces to make Orlando a promising team with plenty of options in trades and free agency in the years to come. Unlike teams like Charlotte and Toronto, the Magic already bit the bullet on what will be a very slow build. A fun, watchable team, soon to have Oladipo’s fingerprints all over them, Orlando will still struggle to rack up wins this season. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?