In 2012, the Orlando Magic traded Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers, a team well known for acquiring star talent from small-market teams and turning them into gold. While the Howard trade may not have worked out as well as other superstar acquisitions have for Los Angeles, it still sent the Magic down their ugliest stretch in franchise history. Since they traded Howard on August 10th, 2012, the Orlando Magic have the worst record by any team in the NBA at 275-526. At that time, they ranked last in three-point percentage and points per game. With that in mind, it is no surprise that many casual fans have lost all hope in this team ever becoming something viable.
But what if I told you that for the past few seasons, the Magic have slowly built one of the most talented young cores in the game? Under the surface of all the losing that Orlando has done in the last decade, the Magic have uncovered diamonds in the rough. This unlikely gang of cast-offs, lottery picks, and presumed busts is truly on the verge of something special, and it has all culminated in blue chip prospect Paolo Banchero joining the squad. So, allow me to introduce you to the special players that make up the Magic’s young core.
With the first pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, the Orlando Magic selected Duke forward Paolo Banchero. At 6’10, 250 lbs, with elite shot creation and playmaking, Banchero is a superstar talent, fully capable of living up to the billing of a top pick. With averages of 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists, the Duke forward wowed college basketball fans with his unique mix of skill and strength. Not only is Banchero great on paper, but he also has the confidence and pedigree of an NBA superstar. When he was 17, Banchero was a sensational high school basketball star in Seattle, already gaining acclaim from Riccardo Fois, the Director of Player Development for the Phoenix Suns, and overseer of the recruitment of Italian-U.S. prospects. “He’s a winner,” Fois proclaimed. “He’s been a winner his whole career. In high school when he was a sophomore, he led the team to a state championship. Same thing with his AAU team.”
In college, Banchero was tasked with making up for a lost 2020 season in which Duke went 13-11 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1995. The true freshman met that challenge, leading the team in scoring and rebounding, finishing 32-7, and falling in the Final Four of the March Madness Tournament. Duke assistant coach Chris Carrawell said of Banchero’s work ethic, “I say this about Paolo because you know these general managers call you, scouts call you: Paolo is a gym rat. He’s the guy who you got to kick out of the gym. For a young guy, playing 38, 39 minutes a game, he’ll come back and want to practice and get extra work done.”
"That is a winner right before your eyes" 🗣️
— The Volume (@TheVolumeSports) July 14, 2022
Lost in the Rookie of the Year discussion in 2021, Franz Wagner was arguably just as good as frontrunners Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley, and Cade Cunningham. Wagner quietly averaged 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game. Even more impressive, he did so on .468/.354/.863 shooting splits, numbers that we rarely see from rookies in the NBA. At 6’10 with guard-like ball-handling and impressive shooting touch, coupled with an underrated ability to defend the perimeter, Wagner was electric as a rookie. Recently, Dennis Schroder raved about Franz’s talent after playing with him on the German men’s national basketball team. Saying “He’s very, very strong on defense and offense. We’ve never had anyone like that on the national team.”
Furthermore, Wagner was good at almost everything as a basketball player as a rookie. He ranked in the 73rd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler, the 95th percentile as an isolation scorer, and the 99th percentile as a cutter, where Wagner thrives. He will undoubtedly form a lethal one-two scoring punch next to Banchero in the coming years, and his cutting ability will gel incredibly well with Banchero’s passing ability.
Wendell Carter Jr.
There may be no player in the NBA more underrated than Wendell Carter Jr. After being selected with the seventh pick in the 2018 NBA draft, Carter Jr. was largely written off as a bust by many Chicago Bulls fans. During the disastrous Jim Boylen era in Chicago, Carter’s development seemingly stalled, and he averaged 11.3 points and 9.4 rebounds in the 2019-2020 season. These are solid numbers for an interior “big”, but when Carter Jr. left Duke, he projected as a very skilled post-playmaker with a smooth jump shot that projected to extend to the perimeter. Those flashes did not appear in Chicago—but boy oh boy did he blossom as a player in his first full season with Orlando. A cast off in the trade that sent Magic All-Star Nikola Vucevic to the Chicago Bulls, Carter Jr. has played with a chip on his shoulder ever since arriving in “The City Beautiful”.
In the 2021-2022 season, Carter Jr. averaged 15.0 points per game, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.8 assists, all career highs. He also shot much more efficiently from the mid-range and the three-point line. Carter Jr demonstrated skills that are incredibly valuable in today’s NBA, creating for himself, hitting threes off the catch, and shooting pull-up jumpers, while still being an effective force in the paint and on the glass. With talent like that, it is easy to see why he enjoyed such an under-the-radar breakout last season, and will likely continue to get better.
Much like Wendell Carter Jr., Markelle Fultz was cast off as a bust, especially considering the unimaginable hype surrounding him after he was selected with the first pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. However, Fultz struggled to stay on the floor for the Philadelphia 76ers and was the subject of much scrutiny from fans and media heads alike. Furthermore, the 19-year-old’s jump shot became a viral sensation for the worst reasons. Fans and analysts alike were dumbfounded, as Fultz’s shooting form looked completely different from the natural and fluid one that it was in college. It was later revealed that he was struggling with thoracic outlet syndrome, a neurogenic injury that affects nerves between the neck and shoulder, thus severely limiting his ability to shoot the basketball. Nevertheless, the 76ers traded Fultz to the Orlando Magic for a package of Jonathan Simmons, and a top 20 protected first that ended up being Tyrese Maxey. Suffice to say, the 76ers have been thrilled with Maxey’s production thus far, but Fultz has had his own admirable resurgence in Orlando, and he could be on the verge of a major breakout.
In the 2020-2021 season, Fultz was enjoying a nice season as a starting point guard, averaging about 13 points and 5.4 assists per game, while shooting a career-high 89% from the free throw line. However, eight games in, his career took yet another sharp turn, when Fultz tore his ACL. Nearly 14 months later, Fultz returned, and quietly experienced another breakthrough in his development. In his first game back, Fultz played only 16 minutes, putting up a respectable 10 points and six assists. Fultz would go on to average a career-high 5.5 assists per game in only 20 minutes per game. That puts his per-36 averages at 19.5 points, 9.9 assists, and 4.9 rebounds while shooting a career-high 47.4% from the floor. After showing a diverse array of finishing and passing touch, Fultz has a chance to emerge as a strong candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award next season, if he can stay healthy.
Speaking of staying healthy—Jonathan Isaac may be the biggest, ‘what if?’ story, not only on the Magic but in the entire NBA over the last few years. Isaac is listed at 6’11, but rumor has it he actually sits at 7’0, with a 7’0 wingspan. Isaac is freakishly tall for a small forward, and he is incredibly gifted on the defensive end. In 2019, the last time Isaac played, he averaged 12 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks per game. For comparison, Giannis Antetokounmpo, often regarded as the NBA’s best defensive player, averages 1.2 steals and 1.3 blocks per game for his career. With Isaac’s ability to play defense on the perimeter, block shots, and handle and pass in transition, he has the potential to be an incredible talent. But Isaac has not played in two years since tearing his ACL in the bubble and has played less than 35 games in two of three active seasons in the NBA. If Isaac can continue to evolve his game offensively and maintain his unreal defensive prowess, he has legitimate superstar potential.
The Magic are bursting at the seams with untapped potential, and if they can put it all together they could shock the entire NBA world. In addition to the above pieces, the Magic still have their fifth overall pick from the 2021 NBA draft, Jalen Suggs, a defensive pest with natural passing skill and the bounce ability to jump out of the gym. Cole Anthony, once considered a top five prospect, fell to the 15th pick in 2020 and averaged a team-high 16.3 points per game with a solid 5.4 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. As a crafty and athletic combo guard, Cole can truly provide a huge boost to the Magic next year, especially if he can become a more consistent finisher and shooter. Mohamed Bamba has proven to be a very solid NBA “big”, averaging 10.6 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game, while also shooting 38% from three. Franz’s older brother Moritz Wagner has settled in as a solid three-point shooter off the bench, Chuma Okeke is a capable shooting and defending forward.
Gary Harris is a reliable veteran presence along with longtime Magic shooting guard Terrence Ross, and rookie Caleb Houstan showed flashes of being an excellent 3-and-D wing in the NBA Summer League. Not to mention R.J. Hampton has yet to fully harness his impressive mix of athleticism and skill into consistently valuable basketball. Meanwhile, Bol Bol, an intriguing prospect who has not played much in the NBA, chose to re-sign with Orlando after being traded around a bit, and G-League Finals MVP Devin Cannaday is back at full strength after suffering an ugly ACL tear not long after being called up to the professional league. There is something to love about almost every single player on this Magic roster. The Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and Cleveland Cavaliers have all gone from afterthoughts to playoff contenders, seemingly in the blink of an eye. If the Magic can stay healthy, they are fully capable of doing the same.