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How Kyle Lowry Emerged as a Star in Toronto
Kyle Lowry has never lacked confidence. For the first eight seasons of his NBA career, he wasn’t named to the All-Star team and often flew under the radar. This frustrated the point guard, as he felt he was on the same level as the players who were being selected to the midseason classic each year.
“Of course I thought I was as good as those guys,” Lowry said with a grin.
Instead of getting upset about the lack of recognition he was receiving, Lowry used the slight as extra motivation and pushed himself so that one day he’d be recognized as an All-Star-caliber player (by someone other than himself).
“Every year I tried to get better and I tried to continue to grow as a player,” Lowry said. “[I] wanted to get better and continue to grow to be as good as those [All-Star] players.”
In his ninth year and on his third team, Lowry finally did it. Not only did he make his first All-Star appearance this season, he was a starter for the Eastern Conference team. That’s a testament to how far he has come as a player and how popular he is among NBA fans. Lowry received 805,290 votes to start in the East’s backcourt, beating out big-name guards like Miami’s Dwyane Wade (789,839) and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving (535,873).
“It’s my first time being here and it’s as a starter,” Lowry said in disbelief. “I don’t think you can draw this script up much better.”
While that script has a happy ending, the early pages would detail how Lowry’s journey to stardom wasn’t exactly easy. Remember, it wasn’t long ago that Lowry was known as a stubborn point guard who had a reputation for butting heads with coaches. He had gotten into it with Kevin McHale when the two were together on the Houston Rockets and he even had issues with Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey in their first season together. Lowry was talented, but there’s a reason he bounced around the league and was sometimes benched for other point guards.
He was traded twice before landing in Toronto, and they weren’t blockbuster deals. The Memphis Grizzlies named Mike Conley their starting point guard one year after drafting Lowry, making the latter expendable. He was traded in a three-team deal with the Grizzlies and Orlando Magic, in which Houston sent out only Rafer Alston and received Lowry and Brian Cook while Memphis landed Adonal Foyle, Mike Wilks and a future first-round pick. When Houston traded him to Toronto, the Rockets received just Gary Forbes and a future first-round pick.
Lowry was almost traded for a third time just last year, when the Raptors considered moving him prior to the deadline. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri had just dealt veteran Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings and thought about parting ways with Lowry too in order to start rebuilding around the team’s young players. Lowry’s name kept surfacing in trade rumors and, according to reports, he was nearly sent to the New York Knicks in exchange for Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and either Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. or a 2018 first-round pick. However, Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly vetoed the deal.
Toronto is lucky that the trade with the Knicks didn’t go through, as Lowry soon emerged as one of the best two-way point guards in the league and led the Raptors into the playoffs with a 48-34 record despite their ugly 6-12 start to the season. The veteran floor general and his teammates were outstanding in the second half of last year’s campaign, climbing the standings and ultimately earning the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Ujiri and Lowry went on to develop a strong bond and now it’s clear the point guard is the face of the franchise as well as the heart and soul of the Raptors.
More importantly, the baggage that Lowry carried around for much of his career has suddenly vanished and he seems like a completely different person these days.
Lowry’s transformation began prior to the start of last season, when he got married and had a son, which clearly helped him mature and changed his priorities. He also became very serious about taking his game to another level, even cutting his honeymoon short so that he could start his offseason training earlier at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas. Lowry started taking better care of his body, hiring a private chef and adjusting his diet. The veteran point guard knew that these were the kind of changes that players make when they want to go from being good to being great, and he was looking for any little edge he could get so that he could make the leap to stardom.
Perhaps the biggest change for Lowry was his attitude. Rather than being closed off, he was happier and much more approachable. Rather than focusing on himself and his individual goals, he put the team first and wanted to be the Raptors’ leader. He started taking some young players under his wing and has even opened his home to them.
When Lowry was a rookie in Memphis, the team’s veterans really took care of him. Mike Miller gave him the pass code to his house and told him he was free to come over anytime. Damon Stoudamire gave him suits and clothes to wear since he was ballin’ on a budget. Now that Lowry is the veteran leader in Toronto, he wants to give back and do the same things for his young teammates. It’s clear that Lowry at 28 years old is very different from the young man who entered the league back in 2006.
“It was just me growing up and understanding that at some point I would have to take on more responsibility and [start] looking in the mirror,” Lowry said. “It was [me] becoming more mature. I was just working and not settling for anything – never being satisfied and just going out there and doing my job.”
Lowry’s changes have really paid off and he’s seeing excellent results on and off the court. His leadership has been huge for the Raptors, keeping them in contention despite dealing with injuries to key players, such as DeMar DeRozan. Individually, this has also been the best season of Lowry’s nine-year NBA career, as he’s averaging 18.6 points, 7.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals.
The advanced numbers also show how productive Lowry has been throughout this season. His efficiency rating (20.4) is the highest of his career and ranks 14th in the league, and he’s seventh in offensive plus-minus (4.8), ninth in value over replacement player (3.1) and 13th in offensive win shares (4.6).
While Lowry’s lifestyle changes significantly helped his career, he believes that his increased role with Toronto also played a significant part in his success. On other teams, his role was very different and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever have the freedom and increased responsibilities he has now. He’s grateful that Coach Casey and the Raptors have given him this opportunity and put him in a position to be successful and earn this All-Star honor.
“I think once the opportunity came, I took advantage of it,” Lowry said. “Until then, before the opportunity came, I was just trying to figure out when the opportunity was going to come. Yeah, there were ups and downs that were definitely in the way, but at the same time I just knew if I kept working as hard as I know I can work, I’d get here.
“I think that they just gave me the keys to drive the car and they believed and trusted in me and that’s why I think we have a great working relationship right now. I think we have a great team and a great organization along with a great group of guys and coaching staff. Everything seemed to have just worked out perfectly right now.”
Lowry admits that initially, he didn’t think Toronto was going to be the place where everything came together for him. He had doubts and wasn’t sure if things were going to work out on the Raptors.
“Well no, honestly I didn’t think [this is where everything would work out],” Lowry said of Toronto. “But with all the hard work I put in and the commitment they made to me, everything just kind of came into fruition and it worked out.”
Now, Lowry couldn’t be happier in Toronto, which is why he just signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Raptors last summer to remain with the franchise for the foreseeable future. The love and support he has received from everyone in and around the organization has meant a lot to him.
“Our fan base in Toronto is crazy; every single night we sell out,” Lowry said. “The fans come out and support us and they do a great job of just coming out, cheering loud, showing their passion and electrifying the building. … The advantage of playing in Toronto is you’re not just playing for one city, you’re playing for a country. We know that and we appreciate it. You’re not just playing for one city in Toronto, we’re playing for Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton. You’re playing for a whole country.”
Even when the Raptors have gone on the road this season, Lowry and his teammates have noticed that there are large sections of Toronto fans throughout their opponent’s arena.
“Honestly, Canadians are all over the world and when they get a chance to support their team and show up, they do it,” Lowry said. “They’ve been doing it and we appreciate it. It’s fun when our fans are in other peoples’ buildings chanting our names.”
Just as Toronto has fallen in love with Lowry, he has fallen in love with the city.
“Right now, it’s home,” Lowry said. “Toronto is the place that supports me and the entire country of Canada is a place I call home right now. It’s the place I live and play majority of the year in so right now it’s my home.”
In the past, there was the belief that the Raptors would have trouble attracting free agents to sign there since they play in Canada and it’s different from what some players are accustomed to in the U.S. However, Lowry doesn’t believe that free agents are opposed to signing with Toronto. He thinks that the team’s winning culture will make them an attractive destination for available players.
“I think winning changes your culture and your image so if you win and you keep on winning, players are going to want to come and play,” Lowry said. “If you’re winning, they’re going to want to come and join that.”
Toronto is certainly winning, and it seems like they have as good a shot as any team to come out of the Eastern Conference this year. Lowry believes they have what it takes.
“I think we have the opportunity and the potential to go really far, but we still have to go out and do it,” Lowry said. “I can say it all I want until my face turns blue, but at the end of the day we have to go out there and tie our shoes and go do it on the hardwood.”
While other teams may be better on paper, Toronto’s chemistry and balanced attack make them very hard to beat. The Raptors currently have the league’s fourth-best offense, averaging 108.9 points per 100 possessions, which is even more impressive when you consider that they don’t have a single player averaging 20 points per game. Lowry is their leading scorer at 18.6 points.
The fact that they don’t rely on one player to lead them every night is actually a strength since their balance is hard to slow down and a new player can step up to defeat their opponent on any given night. Toronto currently has five players averaging in double figures (as well as four more players averaging between 8.0 and 9.9 points). The Raptors are one of the deepest teams in the league, as their bench scores 39.9 points per game (which ranks fifth in the NBA).
“We’ve got a good team,” Lowry said. “We got a full group. One man went down and the next guy kind of stepped up and that’s how we roll on our team. If one guy goes down, we’re not out of it. The next guy steps up and that’s what makes a good team.
“Oh and [our chemistry is very important]. We’re very strong as a unit – one through 15 – so everyone has their own voice and their own say. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why our team is such a good team. No one is above one another. “
Coach Casey deserves a lot of credit for the team’s success, as Toronto has gotten better each year he has been on the sidelines. He played a crucial role as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks during their 2011 championship run, which allowed him to land the Raptors’ head coaching job. As previously mentioned, he and Lowry didn’t get along at first, but their issues are behind them. Now, Lowry has developed strong relationships with Casey and Ujiri.
“He’s all about defense,” Lowry said of Casey. “He really wants us to always focus on defense and hang our hats on defense because, at the end of the day, that’s how you win games and that’s where he comes from. He’s just a defensive-minded guy.”
Perhaps the scariest thing about this Raptors squad is that their best basketball is likely still ahead of them. After all, center Jonas Valanciunas is just 22 years old, DeRozan is 25, Terrence Ross is 24, Patrick Patterson is 25 and Bruno Caboclo (the team’s 2014 first-round pick) is 19. Toronto still has plenty of room for growth as their young players develop, or they could use these talented young players in a trade if they want to try to land another star to put alongside Lowry.
Even if the team stands pat and doesn’t make any moves (although rumor has it that they’re looking for a big man to bolster their frontcourt), Lowry believes Valanciuas has what it takes to be a special player and perhaps even an All-Star someday.
“He is going to continue to get better,” Lowry said of Valanciunas. “He’s been very instrumental to our team. He’s been a great rim protector and he’s had more double-doubles this year than I believe any other year so far. I think he’s just going to keep developing. He’s only 22 years old, so I think he’s just going to continue to get better, figure out his game and have fun with it. Once he learns to just have fun with it, he’ll be really good… I think he has an opportunity to be an All-Star because he can be a dominant big.”
The biggest question mark on the roster is Caboclo, who is extremely raw and seems to be a few years away from contributing. He was drafted as a project so he’s going to take some time to develop, but he has a ton of potential and Lowry has been impressed with the teenager’s work ethic thus far.
“I think Bruno is going to keep getting better,” Lowry said. “He’s still so young, he’s so raw and you can’t really pinpoint what he’s going to be. That work ethic has been unbelievable though; he’s in the gym every night, two times a day and I think he has the work ethic that he needs to be a good pro.”
Lowry has accomplished his goal of being an All-Star, but he’s not satisfied just yet. Throughout the rest of the season, he wants to continue playing at an All-Star caliber level to prove that he deserved to be in the game and that this was no fluke selection.
“[I want to show] that I belong and that there is a reason that I was voted in as a starter,” Lowry said. “That’s one of the things that’s going to keep me motivated [throughout the year]. I’m always going to be motivated.”
Lowry has nothing left to prove, as he has shown over the last two years that he belongs among the NBA’s elite. Now, he’ll focus on his biggest goal: bringing a championship back to Toronto. He’s determined to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy and pop bottles with his Raptors teammates, and he’s doing whatever it takes to achieve that – even if it means transforming who he is to better himself on and off the court.
Did You Miss the All-Star Events?
We understand that this was a busy weekend for a variety of reasons. You had Valentine’s Day, so you may not have been able to sneak away from your significant other and enjoy the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend.
We know our readers have a lot going on in their lives, and that not everyone can sit in front of their television and take in all of the All-Star festivities from New York throughout the weekend.
Fortunately, we here at Basketball Insiders have you covered. Our experts Steve Kyler, Jessica Camerato, Moke Hamilton and Tommy Beer were running around New York throughout the weekend and freezing their butts off to compile the best All-Star coverage possible.
To see all of our interviews and articles with this year’s All-Stars, Rising Stars, Dunk Contest participants and Three-Point Contest shooters, be sure to click here.
A number of the players talked about their upcoming free agency, where their team stands at the unofficial halfway point in the season, their growth as a player and much more.
We also posted recaps of every night, so you know can find out what happened in each event.
Did you miss the Rising Stars Challenge that featured young U.S.-born players facing off against young international players? Here’s our Friday night recap.
Did you miss the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Contest and Dunk Contest? Here’s our Saturday night recap.
And if you missed the main event, the 2015 NBA All-Star game, here’s our Sunday night recap so you know who played well and what happened during the event.
NBA Daily: Playoff Implications In Week One
Douglas Farmer takes a quick look at a few matchups this NBA opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.
When the Los Angeles Clippers lost to the New Orleans Pelicans in last season’s first week, they had no way of knowing how costly the defeat would be. Flipping that 116-109 defeat, or any single one of the Clippers’ other 33 losses, would have kept Los Angeles from the buzzsaw of the Golden State Warriors in last spring’s first round.
That seems obvious now when every game feels important because it has been so long since any game has happened. But in no time, this week’s games will be diminished with “early season” qualifiers. They should not be. An October win has the same worth as an April victory. Losing before Halloween is as costly as falling after St. Patrick’s Day.
Some nights heighten those stakes even further. Facing the closest competition in the standings can have double the effect. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at a few matchups this opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.
Tuesday: Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – TNT.
To err on the side of obvious, as this is arguably the most-hyped game of the week, more than inane home-court advantage could be on the line in the second game of the league year. Neither Los Angeles team will have its full arsenal at its disposal, but that is part of the importance to the game: Both the Lakers and the Clippers have distinct hopes of managing their workloads this season. Getting off to a strong start is crucial to those intentions.
Consider last year’s Houston Rockets: If they had not struggled so mightily in October and November (not getting above .500 until Dec. 17), they would not have had to go pedal to the metal throughout the spring just to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Better seeding or fresher legs may have spelled better postseason fortune.
Wednesday: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers – 7:30 ET p.m. – ESPN.
The Eastern Conference pecking order is expected to separate these two, the Celtics among the also-rans while the 76ers chase the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 seed. For both, though, each game will matter. Boston will have the Toronto Raptors, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat all looking to slip by it, while the Bucks will inevitably rattle off enough wins to make Philadelphia’s pursuit a difficult one.
On top of that, studying how the wings of the Celtics fare against the size of the 76ers could be informative for both seasons.
Wednesday: Denver Nuggets at Portland Blazers, 10 p.m. ET – ESPN.
Perhaps only out of deference to continuity, both the Nuggets and the Blazers are trendy picks to finish among the top-four of the West. A year ago, they finished a game apart, only one game separating second-seeded Denver from falling to fourth in place of Houston.
Putting too much emphasis on one game the second night of the season may sound absurd, but the head-to-head matchups in this series will very likely determine playoff seeding among the league’s best. That is as true on Oct. 23 as it is on April 9.
Friday: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics – 7 p.m. ET.
Activate your League Pass subscription. While the defending champions may have lost a lot this summer, they still have playoff aspirations. By no means do those expectations equate to slipping in among the Eastern Conference’s barely-competent middle class. The Raptors anticipate fighting for home-court advantage. The Celtics hung on to such by one game last season. There is no reason to expect that gap to be bigger this year.
Friday: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans, 8 p.m. ET – ESPN.
The legitimacy of these playoff hopes may as much hinge on fall-off elsewhere in the West as the progress of these upstarts, but the odds of both the Mavericks and the Pelicans reaching the playoffs are slim. With or without Zion Williamson this week – and it’ll be without – New Orleans will need to boost its record while knocking Dallas’ early if it wants to find the postseason at the dawn of the Zion Era.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, are looking to prove the viability of the Luka Dončić and Kirstaps Porzingis pairing. Floundering into the draft lottery will not do much in the eyes of prospective free agents.
Friday: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – ESPN.
Much akin to the Nuggets and Blazers, the Jazz have stayed in the contention conversation because of continuity more than anything else, while the Clippers jumped into it via their active offseason. At some point, some of these teams have to end up in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoffs. That’s just math.
Last season, two games separated the fifth seed from the eighth. Los Angeles may be without Paul George right now, but how it does without him will thus directly impact what awaits George in the spring.
When the Clippers lost to the Pelicans 12 months ago, their leading scorer was Tobias Harris, who tallied 26 points yet was still a minus-3 while on the court. By the playoffs, Harris was working for the 76ers, but his showing in October still altered Los Angeles’ spring.
The same can be said of many games this week, early season or not.
NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch — Pacific Division
Shane Rhodes takes a look at players in the Pacific Division that have a great chance to take a significant leap in the upcoming season.
Anything can happen in the NBA.
Every season, there are so many things that seem to come out of the blue, whether it be a team that was or wasn’t expected to be competitive or big trade that no one saw coming. There is just too much randomness involved in the day-to-day to be certain about anything.
But, if there is one thing consistent in the NBA, it’s that there are always a few breakouts every season.
Pascal Siakam, Montrezl Harrell, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Jokić are a few that have made stepped out from behind the curtain and made their way to the NBA’s center stage over the last few seasons.
Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers
After the Philadelphia 76ers traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, Landry Shamet shined in a primary role. And now, after the Clippers’ serious roster improvement, the game should come even easier to Shamet in his sophomore season.
In 25 games with Los Angeles, Shamet averaged 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists while he shot 41.4% from the floor and 45% from three-point range with relatively little room to operate. On the season, he shot 42.2% from three, good for 11th-best in the NBA.
Now with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard expected to draw much of the defensive attention, Shamet – and the entire Clippers’ roster on the whole – should have plenty of room to operate.
Given weapons of George’s and Leonard’s caliber, opposing defenses should be stretched quite thin against Los Angeles; although he proved he was a plus-shooter, Shamet may find that other teams pay him relatively little mind when he has the ball. And, because of that, a jump in efficiency is firmly in Shamet’s range of possible outcomes in 2019, however hard that is to believe.
The Clippers won’t need Shamet to be a world-beater, just good enough to keep defenses honest when faced with George, Leonard and others. So, he may not see a meteoric rise in his total touches or field goal attempts per game, but it would be a surprise if there wasn’t a leap in his counting stats, namely points and assists.
If Shamet can take that boost and maintain a spot near the top of the league in three-point percentage, expect the NBA to take notice.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Deandre Ayton had quite the impressive rookie season for the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, it went unnoticed by most because of the hype machine that was Luka Dončić.
Now in his second season, his first with a capable point guard on the roster, the NBA may not be ready for him.
Ayton averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.3% from the floor as a rookie in an offense that lacked a floor general and, outside of Devin Booker, struggled to create space. While Ricky Rubio isn’t an elite guard, he is more than capable of injecting some life into a Suns offense that was one of the worst in the NBA, both in terms of scoring and turnovers.
What does that mean, exactly? Some cleaner looks underneath should allow for a few more field goals, while the added spacing from Rubio, Cameron Johnson, Dario Šarić and others should open things up even more down on the block.
While he isn’t a marquee addition, Aron Baynes could also play a pivotal role on the Suns if he can get Ayton to buy in on the defensive end.
If he can step up his game on that end of the court, and take the necessary steps that are expected of him on offense, Ayton could prove one of the best young players in the NBA this season.
Bogdan Bogdanovič, Sacramento Kings
Like Ayton, the Sacramento Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovič had quite an excellent, if not under the radar, rookie season. The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in his second season and played a major role in the Kings’ turnaround after years of poor results.
That may seem like a breakout in and of itself. But, unfortunately, Bogdanovič’s play went largely unnoticed on the national stage because of his teammate, De’Aaron Fox, who had a breakout season of his own a year ago.
That said, with another offseason in the books, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Bogdanovič elevate his game further.
Bogdanovič should spend much of his time with the second unit. And, as the leader of the bench, he certainly shouldn’t lack for touches. Likewise, against opposing second units, Bogdanovič should come into his fair share of open shots or easy plays.
With Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes clogging up space in the starting lineup, Bogdanovič may never see enough time to break out to a more national audience — barring a sixth-man role rise ala Lou Williams. That said, if he can maintain his efficiency, Bogdanovič’s play should prove competent enough to put him squarely in the conversation for Most Improved and, maybe, even Sixth Man of the Year.
And in his third season, if that isn’t a breakout for Bogdanovič then what is?
Avery Bradley, Los Angeles Lakers
It’s been an arduous journey for Avery Bradley.
In his last season with the Boston Celtics, Bradley was regarded as one of the NBA’s premier defenders and was more than capable on offense as he averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
But since? Bradley has bounced between three different teams while his stats have dropped off and his defense has worsened. In two seasons between the Clippers, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies, Bradley managed a meager 11.8 points per game while he averaged a defensive rating of 113, by far the worst of his career.
That said, Bradley’s stint with the Los Angeles Lakers could see a return to form. While the “best shape of his life” story is a yearly cliché, Bradley may truly be in the best shape of his life, having lost 40 pounds between his trade from Los Angeles to Memphis and the start of free agency.
Alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a healthy Bradley should prove more than capable as a secondary scorer, a role which would afford him enough energy to wreak havoc again on the defensive end.
He may not post a career year, but expect Bradley to once again look like the player he was for seven years in Boston as opposed to the question mark that has taken the court over the last two seasons.
Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors
Marquese Chriss, the No. 8 overall pick back in 2016, has been a flop to this point in his NBA career. But with the Golden State Warriors, Chriss may be in line for his best season as a pro and a potential breakout year.
There’s a reason the Suns regarded Chriss so highly as a prospect too — while at Washington, he showed he had the tools necessary to play the role of the NBA’s modern, floor-stretching big. He averaged 13.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and shot nearly 57% from the field and 35% from three-point range.
In Phoenix’s always dysfunctional system, Chriss struggled. After a production dip between rookie and sophomore seasons, the Suns cut bait and he bounced from the Houston Rockets to the Cleveland Cavaliers. There, Chriss showed some of that spark that made him a top pick, thought
Now with the Warriors, Chriss has impressed enough in training camp to push Alfonzo McKinnie from the roster. With little frontcourt depth beyond Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein, there is a clear opportunity here and a role for Chriss to fill.
If he can take advantage, Chriss would certainly prove a worthwhile gamble for the Warriors and a nice surprise this season.
Any player could find themselves on the fast track to NBA stardom. Fox, Harrell, Siakam and D’Angelo Russell represent a few prime examples from a year ago; players can come out of nowhere to make their mark on the NBA stage, and that could prove true again this season.
But these players, via a combination of opportunity and or talent, would seem to have a greater chance to do so – maybe more so than anyone else – in the Pacific Division. If they step up or show out, don’t be surprised – their respective teams certainly won’t be.
How Magical Can Orlando Be?
In an Eastern Conference full of unknowns, the Orlando Magic stand out as one of the most prominent in that category. Matt John takes a look at the three players who should play a role in their progress this season.
As it stands right now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.
It definitely has its favorites, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But even they have their question marks.
There are teams who could be at that level, or possibly higher should things break their way, like the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. But, that remains to be seen; how they do depends on if their previously injured stars are back to normal and how much their young talent progresses.
Then there are others like the Brooklyn Nets, who honestly may have to wait a year before they’re put in the conversation, and the Miami HEAT, who just got their biggest free agent since LeBron James and could sneak their way into the conversation if they make the right moves.
And then, there’s the Orlando Magic.
There’s a lot of optimism coming out of the Magic Kingdom. And why shouldn’t there be? Orlando made its first playoff appearance in seven years, they had one of the best records in the league following the trade deadline (18-8) and they brought pretty much everyone back and even some reinforcements.
And yet, of all the teams in the East, Orlando’s the one that has no consensus. Or, more specifically, no one knows where they will fall in the conference. They might just be the biggest wild card in an Eastern Conference that already has plenty of them.
If all their hopes and dreams come true this season, the Magic could very well be right up there with the Bucks and the Sixers. If it goes the opposite way, they could find themselves back in the lottery.
But this Orlando team is good. They can make the playoffs, but they should be wary of their other competitors. The Toronto Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard but, as of now, they’re not going anywhere. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons. There is also a lot of buzz around two particular and young up and coming teams- the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.
If the Magic are to prove themselves better than those teams and as good as those aforementioned ones, they’ll need contributions from several particular players. They already know what they’re going to get out of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Wes Iwundu and DJ Augustin, but for the following players, Orlando’s odds of getting to that next level depends on their individual progressions.
Aaron Gordon has already proven himself an above average player. He’s an excellent athlete, a hard-nosed defender, has improved his three-point shot over the years and, in this past year alone, has shown improved playmaking ability, as his assist percentage shot all the way up to 16.6.
But now, entering his sixth season in the NBA, he still has yet to prove that he’s a truly special talent. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years to see an explosion from Gordon, the transition from raw talent to the superstar we anticipated he’d be. It’s not entirely his fault; previous Orlando management forced Gordon to play out of position for too long, which may have hurt his growth as a player.
It didn’t ruin his career, but it didn’t help one bit. Two years later, Gordon has some playoff experience under his belt. His first go-round was honestly quite solid for a playoff rookie. 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists while putting up 47/40/52 splits is promising, but those are satisfactory stats for a complementary player.
Gordon’s ceiling right now is still that of a future star. And, at 24-years-old, there is still plenty of time for him to reach that level. Last season, Steve Clifford wanted the young player to be more a defensive specialist, a role in which Gordon performed very well in. Now with higher expectations from the team, Gordon should be expected to take his game another step further.
We got an explosion from an athletic, defensively stout power forward who showed off the three-point range last season that we keep expecting from Gordon, but it came from Pascal Siakam. If Gordon is to take that next step, he should look at Siakam’s last season as an example to build his game on.
Jonathan Isaac is only 22-years-old. He’s 6-foot-10. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He plays more like a wing but does things on the court that any big would be capable of doing. When people think of Isaac, they think of raw talent.
Following an injury-plagued rookie season, Isaac did okay offensively in his first full year, averaging 9.6 points on 43/32/81 splits while also averaging 5.5 rebounds. Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about, as Isaac averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals while also putting up a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.13.
With his insane physical measurements, there’s a lot to like about Isaac’s game and potential. His body frame has garnered comparisons (albeit unfairly) to Kevin Durant, but the potential he has makes it hard not to see a great future for him.
He knows how to use his length to bother his opponents; there are just too many advantages he has physically to not already be a good defender. Offensively, he’s not at the same level. But, every so often, Isaac showed he was capable on that end. There were even times where he took over games last season.
As of now, Orlando already has Vooch, Fournier, and Ross to handle the scoring load. If they want to take that next step, Isaac’s offensive progression would not only vault them higher in the standings, but it would also add a whole new dimension to the team.
There’s no rush for him to become a star, but if Isaac can show even more improvement in year three, then the Magic should become a lot harder to stop.
Now this is where the Magic’s ceiling gets interesting.
Markelle Fultz was a project from the day it was announced that he was traded to Orlando. It was clear he no longer fit Philadelphia’s timeline and that he needed his own timetable to get his game back on track. That said, he’s a project worth investing in; Fultz was a top overall pick for a reason.
Unlike Anthony Bennett, whom Cleveland reached for back in 2013, Fultz has the tools to be something special. It’s only been injury and mental gymnastics that have held him back. Now he has a fresh start and a team that can afford to be patient with him.
Because of all the off the court drama that was going on with Fultz, there’s no concrete data to support anything that he could do this season. All we have now are just preseason videos to see what Fultz can do. But, in the few preseason games that we’ve seen, the returns look promising.
With or without a reliable jump shot, Fultz is definitely an NBA-caliber player. He has good court vision.
Nice assist from Markelle Fultz! pic.twitter.com/JSFSXE4Nss
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) October 10, 2019
He can attack the basket.
Markelle Fultz attacks the rim, makes the tough finish over Joel Embiid! pic.twitter.com/IMtT5iN6u4
— beyond the RK (@beyondtheRK) October 13, 2019
And he has shown good instincts on the defensive end of the floor.
Jump shot or not, Markelle Fultz can be a very productive player in the league. pic.twitter.com/0pf8hJmXw7
— Bryan Oringher (@ScoutWithBryan) October 14, 2019
Then there’s his jumper. His jump shot looks… better? It doesn’t look like it’s completely fixed, but when your jumper is so ugly that it would have made Shawn Marion grimace, you have nowhere to go but up.
We’ll have to see how his new and improved jump shot will fare when the real competition starts. If it’s for real, then Markelle becomes a much more lethal scoring threat. He’s already shown that he can be a useful tool in the offense. His abilities as a scorer would make him all the more dynamic.
The reason why Fultz’s potential could pay more dividends than Gordon or Isaac this season is that the one area where the Magic desperately need improvement is at the point guard spot. DJ Augustin had one of his most efficient seasons ever last season, but that didn’t exactly take Orlando that far. If Fultz is to show that he was worth the top pick – which, at this point, may be unrealistic – then Orlando becomes so much better.
Gordon’s and Isaac’s improvements would definitely take the Magic up a notch. Fultz could vault them up so much higher.
We’re not going to include Mo Bamba on this list because, as long as Vooch is around, Bamba won’t be relied on to do much besides be a back-up five. Even in that role, he has some competition.
Now say these guys all progress enough to stay promising, but not enough that the Magic would take a major leap forward. Then comes the possibility of trading some of their youth for an established star.
Orlando has the assets to acquire someone good. Players like Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal could be had if they have an offer sweet enough to entice their respective teams, but it all depends on the progress of the roster as a whole. They may have to decide whether to try and open a win-now window by pairing Vucevic and Fournier with an established star or to build for a more glorious future around Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.
Either way, this Magic team should be up next. What is left to be determined is how “up next” they truly are.