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While contenders and up-and-comers dominate headlines and highlights, the NBA proletariat can fascinate nonetheless. In sussing through that lower echelon, distinctions become readily apparent. Some teams are rebuilding, some are tanking, and some are just plain bad.
The Orlando Magic might be the league’s only team to which all three labels apply. They’re still constructing from the ground up in the wake of Dwight Howard’s departure, have useful veterans that are undoubtedly available for trade at the right price, but possess an emerging core that will be a major part of this organization’s future, too.
Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic, and Maurice Harkless — these are the pieces at the center of the Orlando Magic’s rebuilding efforts. The jury won’t be out on this group of commodities for years to come, though that hasn’t stopped league followers from taking the temperature of the Magic’s long-term outlook.
It’s seasonably warm, the consensus says, especially considering the prospective quality of the trade haul for Howard brought in before last season. The Magic will win less than 30 games this year. They may make trades with a goal — ancillary or otherwise — of getting even worse. But there’s certainly a base of promising talent in that quartet of youngsters mentioned above.
A hyper-athletic two-way guard, a versatile stretch power forward, a rebound-eating center, and a defense-first Swiss Army Knife serve as a solid foundation to rebuilding. Even better, in all the excitement surrounding the Magic’s biggest young names, it’s been easy to overlook the one that was their best player against the Indiana Pacers on opening night.
The 23-year-old Canadian scored all of his team-high 18 points in the first half of Orlando’s 97-87 loss to Indiana on Tuesday, and showed off his uniquely varied array of offensive skills in the process. Nicholson feasted on pick-and-pop jumpers, abused Luis Scola in the post, spun past Ian Mahinmi for a slick layup, and even made the first two 3-pointers of his young career.
In a span of 12 minutes and nine seconds of playing time, he not only sent basketball Twitter into a frenzy, but more importantly, he brought the Magic back from an early double-digit deficit. In lieu of his quietly solid rookie season, there were no doubt the best moments of Nicholson’s on-court NBA life.
That it served as just a flash in the first half pan doesn’t matter. Nicholson isn’t the virtuoso scorer he played like for a stretch on Tuesday night, and that fact would have remained had he sustained for the game’s second stanza. We know what Nicholson is — a skilled post-scorer and limited defender that can provide an offensive spark. What’s left to be seen is just how impactful a role he can play. After Tuesday’s outing, more definitely seems possible.
Is Nicholson a starter? Probably not. Just a solid big man off the bench? Maybe not that, either. Certain players fit a valuable niche of starter-level talent and per-minute production with reserve-type minutes. They excel in a few notable areas and underwhelm in some others, but the construction of the lineup around them exacerbates their strengths and limits their weaknesses. Nicholson, if his increased shooting range remains consistent, could be just such a player.
And in that case, Orlando will have yet another valuable asset on its hands. It could mean Nicholson is a fixture of the Magic’s roster or he’s used as sweetener in a trade to land a bigger fish. But regardless, such a development would be a major boon to Orlando’s growth.
Oladipo and the rest will get the most attention, but Nicholson’s improvements definitely deserve monitoring. If he plays again like he did on Tuesday, that won’t prove difficult.