Orlando Magic: Young players stepping up on road trip

The Orlando Magic are out on the road, and although recent results haven’t gone their way, the play of some of their young players has been really encouraging.

Right now the Orlando Magic are going through the longest stretch of their season so far out on the road. They are four games through a five-game west coast swing, with a visit to the Miami Heat waiting for them once they’re done.

So far they have gone 1-3, a disappointing record on the surface, but one which feels very different to previous unsuccessful stints away from the Amway Center. A 112-87 blowout by the Denver Nuggets to begin the trip had the potential to demoralize.

Orlando bounced back in the best way possible, beating the Los Angeles Lakers 108-104 to sweep the season series between the two franchises for only the second time in their history.

Close losses to the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers have dropped the Magic to 10-12, but their final game of the trip against the Phoenix Suns brings with it a good chance to get close to .500 once more.

Digging deeper, however, this has been a beneficial trip for one reason above all others: the play of the Magic’s two young bigs, Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. So much so in fact, that it may be time to consider whether both are ready to take on more responsibility than they’ve been given so far.

Beginning with Isaac, throughout the trip he’s looked impressive and important to their long-term future. Head coach Steve Clifford clearly sees something as well, as Isaac has averaged 26.3 minutes per contest over the last four games.

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(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

That is up noticeably on the 21.9 minutes a night he’s averaging for the season. On top of that, it’s just great to see him out there at all, finally looking to have shaken the various ankle injuries that plagued his rookie campaign and threatened to derail this season as well.

Isaac is shooting 41.6 percent from deep out west too, way up on the 30.3 percent he is averaging for the season. He looks much more confident stepping into this shot, and is getting some nice looks as a result of the Magic averaging the sixth-most assists per game (26.4).

To actually watch these games, however, is to truly see Isaac’s value on both ends of the court. He did his best to match up with Kevin Durant in that tough loss to the Warriors, one in which the Magic let an 18-point lead slip away.

Durant still went off to the tune of 49 points and was superb in leading his team back, but it would have been even higher were it not for some of the defensive plays made by Isaac. Offensively he had 15 points, his third-highest mark on the season so far.

Perhaps more impressive was how Isaac (and also Bamba) was instrumental in helping Orlando to build that lead in the first place. With Aaron Gordon going scoreless and leaving the game with lower back tightness, the Magic needed other players to step up. That it was Isaac and Bamba who answered the call was encouraging.

It hasn’t been all good for Isaac though, and Wednesday’s strange loss to the Blazers highlighted some of the flaws in his still developing game. With Portland seemingly missing three out of every four free throws down the stretch, the stage looked set for the Magic to snatch a win.

Instead, they turned the ball over numerous times in the final two minutes, with Isaac guilty of two big ones when the opportunity was there to force overtime. (Evan Fournier also gave the ball up carelessly on two straight trips down the court, which did not help.)

Before the turnovers and the malfunctioning clock conspired to hand the Magic a loss, however, Isaac had some really nice defensive plays on Damian Lillard and Al-Farouq Aminu. He also had 16 points and was 5-for-9 from the field, again illustrating his growing influence on offensive.

Bamba’s growth throughout the trip hasn’t been as notable, but it’s still worth talking about. He’s only averaged 15.2 minutes per game during the four-game stretch, right around the 15 minutes he’s usually on the court for this season.

Still, Orlando’s trust in him is growing. Every time All-Star candidate Nikola Vucevic goes to the bench it’s a cause for concern, and Bamba was doing little to dispel those worries when he checked in to replace him.

Just recently, however, he’s been more efficient with his time on the court, and contributed accordingly. In the loss to the Warriors he had some big plays to keep them in the game, most notably knocking down both of the 3-point attempts he took.

To see these shots going in is great, and ensures that the Magic’s offensive production doesn’t fall off a cliff when Vucevic heads to the bench. Defensively there were some nice moments too, although the team is still worse overall when Bamba is on the court (111.4 defensive rating) than it is on the season as a whole (109.3).

Another problem is that Bamba has only taken 13 free throws in the month of November, a number that has to improve given that he spends considerable time around the basket looking for rebounds and tip-ins.

Still, he’s shooting 51.1 percent from the field on the month too, so it’s not all bad. Combined with what Isaac has done recently, as well as the team-leading play of Vucevic and Terrence Ross, it has provided the Magic with the kind of bench depth that’s been missing for years.

Coach Clifford stated recently that this organization no longer accepts moral victories, and he is right to express this. Of the 22 games Orlando has played so far this season, 15 of those have been five-point games or closer with five minutes to go in the game.

This shows they’re capable of hanging with any team and are much more competitive, but sadly some of the results have not gone their way, which happens. Where Clifford can be more pleased, however, is with how Isaac and Bamba are developing, whether they win or lose.

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On a road trip that hasn’t gone their way with the results, losing their last two games by a combined nine points, one real bright spot has been how both of these young players are growing. It only figures to get better for them and the Orlando Magic from here.

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