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Thank you Aaron for participating in our Q&A.
1. The Magic currently hold the league’s worst record. What’s been the biggest reason behind the team’s struggles?
Injuries, more than anything else. It’s hard to begin any conversation about the 2021-22 Orlando Magic without first mentioning games players have missed to injury. These past few seasons have truly been unprecedented across the league when it comes to injuries and/or games missed due to players entering league mandated health and safety protocols. But the Orlando Magic have literally been off the charts when it comes to games players have been deemed unavailable.
Markelle Fultz (recovering from ACL injury), Jonathan Isaac (recovering from ACL injury), Michael Carter-Williams (offseason ankle surgery), and E’Twaun Moore (rehabbing knee) have all yet to play a game for the Magic this season. Rookie guard Jalen Suggs, who recently returned after missing over a month of action, missed 21 games with a fractured right thumb injury he suffered in late November. Starting point guard Cole Anthony has missed 14 games while trying to play through a reoccurring ankle injury. Fourth-year center Mo Bamba has missed eleven games (health and safety protocols, back, toe). Second-year forward Chuma Okeke missed the first two weeks of the regular season due to a hip injury he suffered during training camp (six games), and another five games while in health and safety protocols.
In fact, rookie forward Franz Wagner is the only player that has been active for all 44 regular season games this season. It was always going to be a struggle for the Magic this year, sporting one of the youngest rosters in the league (nine players under the age of 25). But injuries and games missed to COVID/non-injuries have really wreaked havoc on this team’s depth and continuity (as it would with any organization).
2. Franz Wagner looks like a real bright spot for the team this season and is a contender for Rookie of the Year. How has he impacted the Magic on the court this season?
Franz has been Orlando’s most consistent player, and he’s been their most outstanding player through the first half of the season. He’s only 20, and after a middling summer league (combined with a lackluster preseason), I’m not sure what fans were expecting this season from Wagner. Whatever it was, it wasn’t this.
With so many players shuffling in and out of the lineup throughout the season, Wagner has been the one constant taking on more challenges than the game before on a nightly basis. He’s been tasked with defending the other team’s best player, he’s been asked to initiate offense. He’s played on the ball, off the ball; anything Head Coach Jamahl Mosley has thrown at the rookie, Wagner has found a way to make it work this season.
Despite all the losing this season, the Orlando Magic organization could not be more excited about the future for this team, and Wagner is a big reason why. The former Michigan forward is looking like he was an absolute steal for the Magic at number eight in this past draft. He can guard multiple positions, he’s as smart of an off-ball defender as you’re going to find for a player his age, and he thrives playing in transition. Wagner can use his positional size to get to the rim off the dribble, he has plus vision for a forward/wing player, and he can score in volume when needed. I think he will continue to be counted on initiating offense in pick-and-roll situations as his career progresses, so making teams pay for going under screens will be a key swing skill that could ultimately determine his ceiling as an offensive weapon. Wagner has been tremendous this season; honestly, one of the few bright spots on a team that has seen a lot of other things going wrong.
3. What is one thing you want Blazers fans to know about the Magic that can’t be seen through box scores?
I guess one thing Blazers fans should know is that the Magic have been more competitive than their record might lead one to believe? Orlando has lost 17 games since December 1st, including both a seven-game losing streak and a ten-game losing streak. But in eight of those contests, the game was decided by two possessions or less, meaning the Magic were competitive and had a chance to win. In fact, five of their last seven losses have been by six points or less. Whether it’s a late turnover, a disjointed possession, or a failed attempt to get a defensive stop, this team is struggling to execute late in games. But for such a young team, who has been short-handed since Opening Night in October, the fact that they’re continuing to compete and that they’re still in games late is worth noting. 2021-22 may already seem like a lost season for Orlando, a year where guys might be looking ahead to the trade deadline, the offseason, to anything really. But I don’t think that’s the case with this group. They are still very much grinding at this point, just trying to get better each night.
4. If the Magic win this game, what would be the reason why?
Cole Anthony taking on Central Florida product Anfernee Simons is one of the marquee matchups that I’ll be watching Monday. Simons really seems to be coming on strong, scoring over 30 points in three of his last six games. The Magic will have to make a conscious effort to find Simons defensively and not let him have a happy homecoming at the Amway Center. Jusuf Nurkic also worries me in this game, especially if Wendell Carter Jr. misses his sixth straight game with a sore hamstring. Without Carter Jr., that would leave Bamba (who has been battling a sore back himself) to try and get a body on Nurkic in the paint (advantage – Nurkic). This could be another game where we see quite a bit of former Blazer Robin Lopez. And if that isn’t enough, Orlando will also have to account for veteran guard CJ McCollum, who will reportedly be returning to Portland’s lineup for the first time since early December.
5. What is your prediction for Monday’s game?
I realize that it hasn’t been the year Portland fans were expecting so far. But the Blazers have won three of their last four, including a big road win in Washington D.C. their last time on the floor. Again, I can see the Magic being competitive in this game, and perhaps the contest is even close in the fourth quarter (like it has been for Orlando throughout January). Suggs is back and has provided a spark for the Magic off the bench in a reserve role. Veteran guard Terrence Ross can get blistering hot on any given night and put a team on his back. But I think I still have to give the slight advantage to Portland against Orlando Monday, with Nurkic proving to be too much of a load in the post for the Magic to handle. Portland is top-five in the NBA in free throw rate and free throws attempted – look for the Blazers to create and advantage at the line Monday that ultimately proves to be enough to get a win over the Magic.