LAS VEGAS — The post-Dwight Howard Orlando Magic have pressed the reset button and changed philosophies more times than Howard has changed teams since their ugly divorce in 2012. The separation hasn’t gone especially well for either side, but the Magic have at least determined the best way to move toward rekindling the, um, magic of that Howard era is to go big. Better yet, make it a double.
With Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, the Magic are attempting to prove that while the NBA’s current trends have shifted toward a smaller, more perimeter-oriented, position-less style, the future could very well be won by skilled, versatile giants. What’s better than one 20-year-old shot-blocking specialist? Two. What’s the best complement to a big man who loves to make his presence felt inside, but isn’t afraid to shoot the three? How about a playmaking wing who has similar height and an improving mid-range game.
That’s what the Magic have in Isaac and Bamba — an intriguing, dripping-with-potential duo that gives fans in one of the NBA’s forgotten lands something to get excited about for the first time since Howard grabbed his Superman cape and forced his way out of town. “When you can put two guys together like that, it kind of excites your imagination a little bit,” Magic president Jeff Weltman told Yahoo Sports.
Since assuming control of an organization that had been rudderless — drafting and squandering lottery talents on desperate whims — the Magic braintrust of Weltman and general manager John Hammond has sought an identity that emphasizes long, rangy players with the ability to switch and guard multiple positions. Weltman and Hammond have been friends and co-workers for much of the past two decades, crossing paths with the Los Angeles Clippers, Detroit and Milwaukee, where Weltman, in one of his most significant acts as an assistant to then-Bucks general manager Hammond, famously suggested they head to Europe to scout a relative unknown prospect named Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Reunited in Orlando, Weltman and Hammond have used their first two lottery picks on Isaac and Bamba, essentially throwing a challenge flag for the duration of this rebuild to the concept that the best teams can only be effective with one nimble, rim-protecting center on the floor at any given time.
“Everyone is looking for switchable defenders and versatile types of players, and we just believe that Mo and Jonathan have that component,” Weltman told Yahoo Sports. “They’re long, they can play either the four or the five. But they have really good feet, they’re very skilled, they’re both going to be very good shooters, and they have high IQs.”
Isaac had an injury-riddled rookie season that limited him to just 27 games but showed enough flashes that the Magic are demanding more from him. Summer league often has the feel of summer school for second-year players who didn’t complete all of their coursework as rookies. For Isaac, this experience has also been about expanding his game and becoming more comfortable in a role as a go-to player, something he regularly avoided in an effort to blend.
“It’s a process, obviously. It’s something new to me. It’s a process, man. I’m working on it every single day, and I think my offense is going to be really something special in the future,” Isaac told Yahoo Sports. “It just speaks to their belief in me and my ability to make shots and being a playmaker and making decisions out on the floor. Even when I wasn’t making shots, they were still calling plays for me to get the ball. I’ve got to continue to uphold that confidence in myself.”
Bamba’s offense mostly comes from rim runs and lobs, but he has been working hard since the end of his freshman year at Texas on becoming a stretch big who can step out and hit 3-pointers. He is learning to play off Isaac but there is little overlap with their specialties, which should help the combination develop. Defense is currently where most of the hope lies with these two.
Driving inside will be second-guessed with Isaac and Bamba — a combined 14-foot-11 wall of wingspan — waiting around the basket to clean up any mistakes. Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. got to experience a rare double-block when Isaac and Bamba both elevated to swat a floater in the lane; Isaac with the initial tip and Bamba with the intimidating volley spike. Only Isaac got credit for the rejection, but both delivered the same message: Don’t come in here unless you really mean it.
On the night of the draft last month, Isaac didn’t see a threat with the Magic’s selection of Bamba, only a frontcourt partner who is already a tremendous help defender. Isaac’s response on Twitter was simply stated, “Scary!”
“It’s hard not to see the potential and the damage we can do in this league together,” Bamba told Yahoo Sports. “Before I was even drafted, Orlando was one of those teams where I thought it was the best fit because of the front office and the current team. I just knew right away.”
The Magic endured the worst five-year run in franchise history before taking a different path under Weltman. Falling victim to impatience — shipping out players like Tobias Harris and Victor Oladipo in a shortsighted attempt to expedite the team’s push for relevance and watching them thrive elsewhere — is something Weltman and Hammond don’t plan to repeat.
“We’ve been saying in Orlando, a lot, we’re going to do it right, we’re not going to do it fast,” Weltman told Yahoo Sports. “We want to bring these guys around the right way. And part of that is protecting them from a lot of what comes in the NBA and pushing them into a lot of what comes in the NBA. You don’t want to coddle a player. You don’t want to overly insulate him from the realities of the NBA, the physicality, the toughness, the grind. But you also don’t want to just throw them to the wolves. Where we are right now, we’ve got to find that balance and that means surrounding them with the best people organizationally and developing long-range plans. To not switch gears in the middle takes patience and it takes a commitment to the vision that we’re trying to project.”
Aaron Gordon is one of the few remaining holdovers from the previous regime, but was retained this month with a four-year deal worth $84 million because he falls in line with the plan for more versatility. A classic tweener, Gordon gives new coach Steve Clifford the chance to experiment with lineups. Gordon has the strength to guard some power forwards, allowing the slight but nimble Isaac to have a size advantage with small forwards. Isaac has also put in work in the weight room this off-season, gaining close to 15 pounds to prepare for defending centers as well.
The Magic showed how much faith they have in the Isaac-Mamba pairing by dealing Bismack Biyombo, one of the many questionable NBA signings from the insane summer of 2016. Though they essentially swapped one mistake for another by landing Timofey Mozgov in exchange, the Magic removed a potential distraction and impediment from what they are attempting to build.
“They feel a buzz in Orlando,” Isaac told Yahoo Sports. “I think it starts right now, us having that enthusiasm and work, to see where we take it. But I definitely feel like right now is the time that our spirit is building in Orlando to turn the tide.”
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