Making Magic Happen
Plus, a look at the early success of Gary Payton II and Ricky Rubio
The Magic’s Starting Five, Competing
One of the most startling things from this season: the Magic’s starting lineup of Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter, and Mo Bamba is actually good! They’re scoring 107.5 points per 100 possessions, which is fine, and only giving up 93.8, which is great! This is really weird!
The oldest player in that starting five, center Bamba, is 23 years old. He’s finally getting consistent playing time in his fourth season, and he’s responded by putting up career-high numbers across the board. His rebounding is inconsistent but generally strong, he’s blocking everything, and he’s shooting 40% from three while taking care of the ball.
Carter and Bamba were supposed to be fighting each other for minutes, but instead coach Jamahl Mosley has them playing well together. Carter, too, is hitting the glass at a career-best rate, shooting 39% from three, and even dropping the occasional dime. This ain’t Lob City-era Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan, but if you squint, you can kinda, sorta see what the Magic are hoping to do here. Carter’s offensive versatility was never in question, but it’s clear his confidence is back after a rough stint in Chicago, and it’s unlocking all sorts of exciting things in his game.
Rookie Franz Wagner has outperformed event the rosiest pre-draft projections. I commonly saw phrases like “not an above-the-rim athlete,” so I don’t think too many people knew that he was capable of mass murder:
Highlights aside, so far this season, he’s been better than expected at the things he was supposed to be good at and not as bad at the things he was supposed to be bad at. Defense has been fine-to-good on the rookie curve, he’s shooting 42% from three, and he’s not fouling or turning it over much. If he never gets better than this, he’s already a good NBA player, but nine games into his NBA career, there should be a lot of growth still to come.
The Magic’s other highly-touted rookie, Jalen Suggs, has had a much rockier start to the season. It’s safe to say that 30% shooting (23% from three) is not what he or the team envisioned. He’s had some solid defensive moments and a few games where the shot fell, but it’s clear that missing much of summer league and preseason with injury and illness has impacted him. Suggs is learning on the fly, and I expect him to acclimate slowly but surely as the season progresses.
Cole Anthony ended his rookie season with a bang: 37 points and eight rebounds in the last game of the year. He’s picked up where he left off, exploding for 19 points, seven rebounds, and five assists per game and shooting 40% from deep. The rebounds, especially, are intriguing. When Anthony hauls in a board, it allows the Magic to immediately get downcourt and run in semi-transition, an important scoring avenue for a team ranked 25th in half-court offense.
The problem for the Magic is that pretty much any other combination of players is disastrous. It’s also likely that their collective shooting will regress a bit. But for a young team that’s still learning how to play and has zero expectations of winning this year, the success of their core pieces together has to be an encouraging sign.
Gary Payton II, Warriors
This man learned defense from one of the best to ever do it, The Glove himself, so it’s no surprise that he’s an absolute lock-down defender. Look at what he does to poor Ish Smith, who dared to dribble the ball near Payton:
And he did it again to Ish later that game! It’s rare to just pickpocket a guy like this and rarer to do it twice in a single contest, after they’re on their guard. It’s unheard of to do it twice in one game to Ish Smith, who, as I wrote previously, literally is in the 100th percentile for turnover rate among point guards.
However, Payton’s always been a good defender. What’s much more interesting is that he’s starting to get a little more run from coach Steve Kerr. Last year, he only cracked ten minutes once and only played in ten games total. This season, he’s logged two games with 17 minutes of playing time and has played in every game this year. He’s shot the ball well on an extremely limited sample (12-18 overall, 4-6 from three) and had a monster dunk against the Hornets Wednesday night. But if you’re an end-of-the-bench guy, making the most of your limited opportunities is how you earn a coach’s trust.
The Warriors are already appointment watching thanks to Steph, and if Payton can start getting a consistent 15 minutes of action each game, even their defense will be must-see.
Ricky Rubio, Cavaliers
The Cavaliers have been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises despite uneven performances from their two starting guards, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton. A big reason for that is the success of Ricky Rubio.
The passing savant has come to Cleveland and done typical Rubio stuff. He shoots poorly, plays hard-nosed defense, and passes the heck out of the ball. Despite unimpressive superficial statistics (11 points per game on 35% FG%, 33% from three), Rubio has a monstrous +15.6 on/off point differential1 per 100 possessions, in the 83rd percentile for the league.
He’s always done this. Rubio has never been below the 49th percentile in on/off point differential in 11 seasons, and he’s been above the 80th percentile eight times. In a league where the vast majority of players want to get buckets, a guy who’s happy setting the table and playing tough defense can go a long way. Teammates cut harder and more purposefully when they know they have a point guard who will reward them. Watch below as the wonderful rookie Evan Mobley, who’s not even in the frame when Rubio drives to the basket, keeps running the court because he knows Rubio will see him:
At no point does Rubio even turn his head towards Evan; it’s unclear when he realizes Mobley is coming through. The poor defense doesn’t know what hit them.
Side note: This isn’t really important, but Rubio’s three-point shooting is consistently better in even years. Look at this spooky stuff:
I wonder if he’s a Giants fan.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
Meaning, the Cavs have a 15.6 point diff erential between when he was on the court versus when he was off. The breakdown: they score 3.8 more points, and they give up 11.8 fewer points with Rubio on the court. That’s pretty good!