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The Orlando Magic have clearly been one of the surprise teams in the NBA this season. With Stan Van Gundy, Dwight Howard, and Ryan Anderson out of the picture, the Magic were projected to be one of the worst squads in the league.
Instead, Orlando has been borderline average, thanks in large part due to Jacque Vaughn’s coaching wizardry and the players competing hard on a nightly basis. Veterans like J.J. Redick have grown into bigger roles, almost out of necessity, and rookies like Andrew Nicholson have contributed immediately.
It’ll be interesting to see if the Magic can continue to overachieve as the dog days of the season near.
With one-quarter of the regular season in the books, the Magic Basketball crew gets together to examines some of the top storylines surrounding Orlando’s surprising 8-13 start.
Most pleasant surprise so far?
Nate Drexler: Orlando’s ability to win as a team. The old adage is that if you play hard as a unit, you will find success. The Magic are really proving that with their blend of young talent and veteran role players. It didn’t seem possible from the outset, but the way these guys are relying on each other to win games and executing in that reliance is both pleasant and surprising.
Sean Highkin: The two players the Magic got from the Sixers in the Dwight Howard trade — both of whom were seen as throw-ins when the trade was initially being dissected. Nikola Vucevic has blossomed into a reliable defender and rebounder as the Magic’s starting center. Moe Harkless has the beginnings of a solid defensive skill-set.
Noam Schiller: Nikola Vucevic. Vucevic started strongly as a rookie in Philadelphia, but by the second half of last season, he was shooting so poorly that Doug Collins found him unplayable. Be it a year of maturation or a friendly system that allows for mistakes, the Montenegrin big man has started every game and is performing relatively well.
Biggest disappointment so far?
Drexler: Gustavo Ayon. His minutes are down from his rookie season in New Orleans and so is his production. A 16.7 PER guy last year is now limping around with an 8.6 PER. It probably doesn’t help that he was straight-up swapped for Ryan Anderson and we all remember that, but Ayon has more talent than he’s showing at the moment or at least more than we’re seeing.
Highkin: Arron Afflalo. His efficiency is down considerably from where it was in Denver, especially from the three-point line where he’s shooting at an awful 32 percent clip. That number is skewed by the fact that he continues to attempt significantly more threes from the wings and above the break than from the corners, when the latter area is by far his strength. It’s baffling.
Schiller: Gustavo Ayon. Coming out of nowhere last season, Ayon was a revelation in New Orleans: he didn’t need the ball, he played excellent defense, and he filled in the seams wherever was necessary. This year, he’s mostly lost and is on the verge of losing his spot in the rotation.
Major development that’s being overlooked?
Drexler: The drive-and-kick by J.J. Redick. Before this season, Redick peaked at a season average of 2.5 assists per game last year. This year, J.J. is at 5.1 assists per game and his current assist percentage (26.4 percent) is 10 percentage points higher than his previous career-best percentage. Redick was once a spot-up shooter. Now he’s facilitating the offense for the 30-plus minutes that he’s on the court.
Highkin: It hasn’t been overlooked in Magic circles, but not nearly enough attention is being given nationally to the job that Jacque Vaughn has done as a first-time coach with this young roster. He’s been doing a great job of developing and refining players’ strengths, building confidence, managing rotations, and running creative sets on both ends of the floor.
Schiller: The Magic rank third in the league in defensive rebounding, which has been a huge part of their top 10 defense. Vucevic has sustained his excellent rebounding numbers from his rookie season, Glen Davis is blowing away his career average with a 22.1 defensive rebound rate, Harkless and Nicholson are ninth and 11th among rookies respectively in rebound rate, and even Jameer has been contributing on the glass.