Now that the dust has settled on a seismic trade deadline for the Orlando Magic, we can take stock of where they are and where they plan on going. For all of the departures that took place and they clear lost All-Star level talent, the young guys who have come in haven’t totally disappointed either.
This is particularly true of Wendell Carter Jr., the center who has looked to be everything that the franchise hoped Mohamed Bamba would be when they selected Bamba one spot ahead of Carter Jr. in the 2018 Draft. It is too early to say if he will blossom into a star in Orlando, but he has hit the ground running.
With all of the potential and possibility that is now on the roster, and that includes the injured trio of Cole Anthony (who will be back tonight), Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, it is the play of another youngster that has actually saved the season and given fans something to cheer about on a nightly basis.
The Orlando Magic may look drastically different since the trade deadline, but Chuma Okeke is quickly becoming the player to rally around.
The timing of Chuma Okeke looking like he could be a long-term answer for the Magic could not have been better. He is a player who has not only slid into the role vacated by Aaron Gordon but has done so in a manner that has him positioned firmly as a fan favorite already. In fact, he’s already gotten to a place that Gordon never did with fans.
A lot of that has to do with expectation. Gordon, through default, was supposed to be the face of the franchise for a while. Okeke was never earmarked as a player who could be that. Yet here he is, doing his best impression of that right now for the underhanded Magic. Does it help that Gordon had some parting shots for the franchise as he left for the Denver Nuggets? Absolutely.
But Okeke is far more than an unexpected feel-good story. Here is a player that already has some go-to offensive moves and continues to clearly get better before our eyes. Ok, so he’s only started eight games in his career. He has only played 34 this year altogether as a result of missing his rookie season with a torn ACL. Averaging 6.9 points per game isn’t big news either.
But to look at the box score only is to miss out completely on what Okeke is doing right now. In his last 10 games, he’s averaging 12.2 points per game. In March, he shot 43.2 percent from deep. There’s a flow to how Okeke plays offensively. We’re not going to compare him to Gordon forever, but the way he scores the ball as a forward is exactly what fans wanted from Gordon for years.
Defensively he’s no slouch either, and there’s a real reason to believe that as time goes on he will make significant improvements in that area. The learning curve in the league is steep, and it gets even harder when you don’t have accomplished veterans around you. Nikola Vucevic would have been the ideal big man to play off and learn from, but he’s doing that for the Chicago Bulls now.
But with the disappearance of veterans comes the availability of minutes and roles that need to be filled, and Okeke has done this. There has been plenty of unrest on Magic Twitter recently regarding the direction the organization is going in and whether they should commit to the tank or try and win some games to stay competitive.
Certainly, head coach Steve Clifford is going to try and win as many games as possible and players don’t exactly like to lose on purpose so that a lottery pick can come in the following season and possibly take their job. But while the fans are in two different camps regarding that, one thing everybody seems in agreement with is that Okeke is the best thing about the team right now.
Even being on the court brings with it positive implications for the future as well. Okeke seems to be showing no ill effects from the ACL tear he suffered before being drafted by the Magic. Given that this is the same injury that both Fultz and Isaac are currently rehabbing, this bodes well for the future. Perhaps you can build around guys who have had this injury? Especially Isaac, who still figures to be a defensive standout if he were to lose some explosiveness.
Not only is Chuma Okeke looking like a key player to build around when the young core is back together and fully healthy next season, but he is also the best thing about the team as the losses continue to pile up. The promise of brighter days ahead is real this time, and Okeke is already playing a bigger part than many imagined.