It was assumed that the Orlando Magic were ready to take a leap this season, but no one expected them to be as good as they have been through the first month of the new campaign.
The Magic, whom many thought would compete for a spot in the play-in tournament, are currently in a four-way tie for second place in the East with a 10-5 record. They are riding hot on a five-game winning streak and have won six of their last seven games.
This run includes two two impressive victories over two title contenders, the Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets, and they have a chance to make it three in their next outing where they will host the East-leading Boston Celtics at the Amway Arena.
Orlando has done this despite the absence of two starters, Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter Jr., as the strong play of Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner has been more than enough to tide them over. The Magic’s two cornerstone players, both coming off offseason stints with their respective national teams, have found another level this season and are taking this franchise with them.
Through their first 14 games, Banchero leads the Magic in scoring with 19.1 points per game and also averages 6.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.6 blocks. His field goal (47%) and free throw (66.7%) percentages still leave much to be desired though the improved three-point shooting (41% on 2.8 attempts per game) that he has shown so far is a welcome development as it improves his on-court fit with Wagner.
If Banchero, who just turned 21 years old two weeks ago, can increase his shooting efficiency, multiple NBA All-Star game appearances should be on the horizon for him.
Meanwhile, the third-year forward Wagner has matched his output from last season so far with per-game numbers of 18.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, three assists, and 1.3 steals. While it may look like Wagner has struggled so far this season as his field goal (48.5% to 42.0%) and three-point (36.1% to 28.9%) percentages have dropped off, this is more due to the heightened attention that he draws from opposing defenses.
The fact that Wagner has been able to maintain his scoring average despite these challenges is actually quite noteworthy in itself and his numbers should take off once he settles into this bigger role.
The potential of Banchero and Wagner as a duo was on full display in Orlando’s most recent 124-119 win versus the Nuggets where they took over the game together down the stretch.
Wagner led the way as he hit eight straight field goals at one point in the second half to finish with 27 points on 11-of-18 field goal shooting, three rebounds, four assists, a steal, two blocks, and only one turnover. On the other hand, Banchero tallied 23 points on 14 field goals, four three-pointers, three rebounds, four assists, a steal, and three blocks.
The 6’10 Banchero and 6’9 Wagner used their size to bully Denver’s defense as they attacked the basket from the perimeter and if they can do this on a more consistent basis, this breakout stretch from the Magic will become the status quo in no time.
The Celtics are up next on Orlando’s schedule following the one-day Thanksgiving break and it will be interesting to see how they match-up against the top team in the East. Boston offers the Magic a blueprint to success as they similarly rely on a pair of tall wing players who have blossomed into perennial NBA All-Stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It is not difficult to imagine Banchero and Wagner eventually reaching the heights that Tatum and Brown are currently at, even as early as this season.
Orlando is finally onto something special after spending the past decade shuttling between mediocrity and futility. The pairing of Banchero and Wagner is as exciting as it gets in today’s NBA and the hope is that they can be the ones who, at long last, bring back some enchantment to this once great kingdom.