The road to Ja (and more of what’s wrong with the Orlando Magic)

There are few generational talents playing in today’s NBA. 

I’d obviously include LeBron and KD on that list.  Throw in Giannis and Steph for good measure.  The younger generation includes phenoms like Luca Doncic and Nikola Jokic.  And I would definitely put Ja Morant on that list.  All Ja has done since landing in Memphis is rejuvenate a franchise that was looking for a new direction.

They found it, in Ja Morant.

Morant is one of the most explosive young players in the game.  In only four years in Memphis, he is the closest thing we’ve seen to Allen Iverson, not only on the stat sheet (he’s scoring 27 points a game along with eight assists and six rebounds) but also the ferocity with which he plays.  Morant is the clear alpha dog on a team (he’s 23 years old) that owns the second-best record in the Western Conference.  If you’re building a franchise and redrafting the league today, there aren’t too many players you’d select ahead of Ja Morant.  Plus, there’s this…

So, when the Grizzlies headed to Orlando for their annual matchup with the Magic, you can bet your grizzled hind parts we were assembling a crew to see this cat live. 

It started with a simple Tweet.

I take it back.  It didn’t all start with a Tweet but that put the caravan’s wheels in motion.

What happens when you get twelve of your closest friends and family members together to attend an NBA game with club level seating?  A good time, that’s what.  Let’s see, there was steak and vino and tuna and, oh yeah… CHURROS!

But I digress.  I can assure you a splendid time was had by all.  What happens in the club level stays in the club level.  Just as the service and spread at Jernigan’s did not disappoint that evening, neither did the star power on the floor.

Not only would this be the first time many of us got to see the young Ja Morant’s high wire act in person, but it would also be the first time we’d see Orlando’s top draft pick and face of the future, Paolo Banchero. 

No pick taken first overall by the Magic (Shaq, Penny, Dwight) has NOT led Orlando to an NBA Finals, so Banchero has big shoes to fill.  That was no more evident against the Memphis Grizzlies, who were 9-10 on the road headed into that game, and who proceeded to manhandle the lesser-aggressive Magic. 

While the Grizzlies, the fifth youngest team in the league, have established a clear identity (2nd in the league in scoring last year, 6th this year), the young Magic (the 4th youngest team in the league) still seek that purpose.  And while it’s unfair to expect this band of young guns to compete at a high level already, there’s no time like the present.  It’s not like you hear those excuses emanating from the Memphis locker room.

The Magic went into halftime down by 22 that night.  They were outscored by 20 in the second quarter.  To add insult to injury, the Grizzlies were missing their second leading scorer, Desmond Bane.  That didn’t seem to matter as Jaren Jackson, Jr. filled in admirably.  The Grizz shot 52% from the floor and Jackson, Jr. did as he pleased.  He led all players in +/- with an astounding +22!

The game seemed out of reach, until Banchero finally got aggressive.  A game that was once out of hand saw the young Magic narrow the lead to six within the final minutes.  But the hole they dug for themselves was too deep and the Memphis Grizzlies proved too tough to stop from scoring.  Banchero finished the game with 30 points.  Ja Morant led all scorers with 32.  Like I said, the star power did not disappoint.

Any way you slice it the Grizzlies are the better team.  They’re better coached, more experienced, and most importantly, despite the minimal age difference, they know who they are.  The Magic are a far cry away from that.

John Hammond remains the general manager of the Orlando Magic.  He’s held this position since 2017.  His claim to fame is that he’s the GM who drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Since landing in Orlando, however, I’m quite certain he hasn’t made the same splashes.  Not that a Greek Freak’s been available for the Magic to draft but their transactions over the years are ripples in a much larger NBA pond.  They scored with both Franz Wagner and Banchero but their other recent draft picks are questionable at best. 

They drafted Jonathan Isaac sixth overall in 2017 (over Donovan Mitchell, Lauri Markkanen and Bam Adebayo), Mo Bamba sixth overall in 2018 (over Collin Sexton and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander), and Chuma Okeke 16th overall in 2019.  Okeke has started less than 40 games and is averaging under 10 points a contest. 

But this isn’t just about draft whiffs (Cole Anthony 15th overall in 2020; Jalen Suggs 5th overall in 2021).  It’s easy in hindsight to second guess the crapshoot that is the NBA draft.  This is about the Magic not making moves other than through the draft.  It’s as if this organization isn’t aware that free agency exists.  I’m not sure how active they’ve been in trying to package players together (obviously not very) but why not put something together for a player they know can make a difference, that can help with some veteran leadership and help establish an identity?

The NBA isn’t about waiting for the right draft pick to pan out year after year.  Sure, that’s worked out well for Milwaukee with Giannis and Golden State with Steph but there are only so many transcendent talents.  Additionally, those teams made moves in free agency.  Even Orlando’s Eastern Conference champions of yesteryear that built (got lucky) through the draft added key free agents to get them over the hump.  Shaq and Penny had Horace Grant.  Dwight Howard had Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. 

Today’s Magic roll out a bunch of young players with NO veteran leadership and it shows.  The Magic have one thirty-year-old on the team (Terence Ross) and one guy who’s 28 (Gary Harris).  The rest of their players are 25 or younger and at one point or another have all had their fake IDs confiscated on Church Street.  Sure, they have some nice wins on the season, but they have failed to show any sort of consistency and aren’t really a threat to do any damage in the post-season, assuming they even get there.  It will be a long while before they can compete in a talented, and considerably more experienced Eastern Conference.  So Magic fans are once again left to hurry up and wait.

Grizzlies fans littered the building that night.  They were loud and made their presence felt.  They cheered on their team.  And why not?  Memphis has given them something to root for.  Magic fans continue to wait for that relevance, still wondering if those making the decisions know what the heck they’re doing. 

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