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Despite years of losing, Magic always believed young core good enough to end playoff drought

When Jalen Suggs was officially introduced less than 24 hours after he was drafted No. 5 overall by the Magic in 2021, he sat in front of a set of microphones alongside fellow first-round pick Franz Wagner, new head coach Jamahl Mosley and president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman.

Mosley had only been hired by Weltman less than three weeks earlier, but there was a sense of confidence at the table.

There was hope.

There was a vision.

There was potentially a bright future ahead for the Magic franchise and everyone there, including Suggs, knew it.

“It comes with expectations being high picks like this,” Suggs said at the time. “But I’m embracing it all. I feel like we can create something special here.”

Fast forward to the present. Suggs, Wagner and Mosley — together — have the Magic back in the NBA playoffs.

Orlando’s young core, which was crafted by Weltman, is set to get its first taste of postseason basketball when it opens with a first-round matchup with the Cavaliers (48-34) at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland on Saturday.

“It means the world,” Suggs said after the Magic (47-35) clinched the fifth spot in the East by beating the Bucks on Sunday, 113-88, for their most wins (47) in a regular season since 2010-11 (52). “This is such a special moment.”

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Before Suggs and Wagner got to this point, however, losses were inevitable during a rebuild.

In Year 1 under Mosley, Orlando only won 22 games before capturing the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft lottery.

Enter Paolo Banchero.

The league’s Rookie of the Year, Banchero helped lift Suggs and Wagner on both ends of the court as Orlando’s win total increased to 34 (six wins shy of the NBA Play-In Tournament as the final team in the East to be eliminated from postseason contention).

Similar to the day Suggs and Wagner were introduced, Banchero knew there was something special happening.

And even before his sophomore campaign began, Banchero had his mind set on reaching the postseason.

“A successful season for Paolo Banchero looks like making the playoffs, being an All-Star and winning the in-season tournament,” he told the Sentinel before the first day of October’s training camp.

Although the Magic fell short of an in-season tournament title, Banchero realized the other two lofty expectations.

A first-time All-Star at 21 — voted as a reserve by coaches — he became the youngest player in NBA history to lead his team in scoring (22.6 points), rebounding (6.9) and assists (5.4) in a single season. The focal point of opposing team’s defensive game plans, Banchero guided the Magic even when Wagner missed a stretch with a right ankle sprain.

“He’s special. I’ll keep saying it over and over again,” Mosley said. “The young man is special because of the way he just wants to win.”

He led the Magic in scoring 44 times, in rebounding 27 times and in assists 42 times while scoring in double figures 78 times, 20-plus points 54 times, 30-plus points 11 times and 40-plus points twice.

And it wasn’t just Banchero who set his sights on reaching the playoffs. It was a shared goal amongst the locker room from the moment last season ended.

“We all expected it,” Banchero said. “After last year we felt like we were good enough to make that jump to this year. It was just a team-wide expectation and we’re all proud.”

And the Magic aren’t happy to just make the playoffs. They want to win as well.

Orlando, however, hasn’t won more than one game in a single playoffs series, let alone an entire first round series, since 2010-11.

This squad, which features just four players with playoffs experience (Joe Ingles, Gary Harris, Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac), feels confident about its chances anyway.

And why wouldn’t they?

Even before Banchero arrived, Suggs and Wagner felt that this was in their near future with the Magic.

It’s what they planned on Day 1. Of course, they could’ve secured a higher seed if they hadn’t lost games to losing teams, Houston and Charlotte, in the final week of the regular season. They’d at least be hosting the Cavs as the higher seed instead, with homecourt advantage.

“Most guys haven’t been to the playoffs,” said Wagner, drafted three spots behind Suggs in the lottery at No. 8. “It’s good to enjoy this but also know we don’t just want to make the playoffs.

“It was a lot of fun [Sunday] and hopefully we can have more games like that.”

Jason Beede can be reached at jbeede@orlandosentinel.com