For the most part, NBA teams fall into two categories. They’re either racing against time – short contracts, dwindling athletic primes – or waiting for the clock to start. The Orlando Magic, two years removed from Dwight Howard’s departure, are still staring at their watches.
They added a spate of new players – Evan Fournier, Luke Ridnour, Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Roy Devyn Marble – this summer. Their oldest foundation piece, the recently extended Nikola Vucevic, is 23. They’re essentially in utero.
Under normal circumstances, it’d be easy to brush them off as just another team in a trash-heap of beady-eyed reclamation projects. But the Magic have Victor Oladipo, last season’s best rookie after the New Year, and that alone makes them worth talking about. Or at least they did before he suffered a facial fracture in practice, which will keep him out of action for at least a month.
Still, the Magic can bide their time. Expectations aren’t particularly high in Orlando this season, and Oladipo, a suave cover artist since youth – catch him in action here, here and here – is worth the wait. On the court, he dazzles in a manner only a young explosive guard can, unearthing wrinkle after wrinkle, refining a devastating spin move and learning ways to finish creatively when he can’t do it explosively.
While honing his own game, though, Oladipo also has to lead his teammates. In the aftermath of Orlando’s relentless reshuffling, the team lost two of last year’s other top three scorers in Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo, effectively transitioning Oladipo from upstart rookie to head honcho. Even with Nelson and Afflalo, the Magic were a cringe-worthy offensive unit last year.
To move the needle this season, defensive-minded rookies Payton and Gordon will need to adjust to NBA defense quickly. That’s where Oladipo’s tutelage – the best defensive rookie last season – can help.
“They’re good kids,” Oladipo says of Payton and Gordon, who are two and three years younger than him, respectively. “I told them take it one game at a time. In college, you play 30 games. You gotta experience the 82 to prepare yourself for it. It’s just something your body’s gotta get used to.”
If things go as planned, the Payton-Gordon-Oladipo trio could form the best young defensive troupe in the league. Despite being horrible at nearly everything else, the Magic had an average defensive efficiency last year and it was two points better with Oladipo on the floor.
“Everybody’s hard to guard,” he says. “[Russell] Westbrook, Jeff Teague, Kyle Lowry. Especially at point guard. It’s such a loaded position. It takes time to transition but I learned a lot last year.”
Even the most promising rookies tend to skew porous on defense, so the fact that Oladipo was shutting opponents down by season’s end – in stunning fashion, no less – doesn’t only hint at a brand of intelligence and devotion usually absent in rookies. It suggests he could very well turn into a game-altering defensive force, and he could do it as early as this season.
Consider Oladipo’s past trajectory and it becomes hard not to salivate over that possibility – and whatever else he might bring to the fore this season. In three years with the Indiana Hoosiers, he transformed from relative unknown to bona fide lottery talent.
“I had [a key card] in school and it stopped working,” he laughs. Because it was worn out. From trying to get into the gym too much.
As of now, the Magic and Oladipo are undoubtedly following the same upward trajectory, the difference being that team-building is trickier, littered with more if’s than one player’s individual improvement.
It’s hard to know if internal youth improvement, aided by the additions of Frye and Ben Gordon, can fix their offense. Aaron Gordon and Payton could flounder out of the gate. Or, they could thrive defensively under Oladipo’s wing. Among Orlando’s returning hodgepodge of young talent – Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, Kyle O’Quinn, Andrew Nicholson – there’s bound to be some untapped potential. But for now, that’s all it is.
“Everything is a process. Things don’t just come overnight. It takes time,” Oladipo says. “At the end of the day, you don’t want to keep losing. I feel like if you don’t keep that mindset and you don’t keep improving, you’re gonna continue to keep losing.”
Even though some of these hypotheticals won’t be answered for years, Oladipo gives the Magic a focal point to help sharpen the blurry stuff – a luxury many rebuilding teams don’t have. For now, the future is something. This season is about getting on the court and finding it.