Injury again creating chances for Orlando Magic reserves

The Orlando Magic are dealing with some tough injury luck right now, but much like last season it will open the door for others to grow and contribute more.

With the Orlando Magic at 6-10, they are entering a make-or-break period of their season much earlier than they would have liked. Another few losses in the coming games could put them in a hole too big to dig themselves out of.

Injuries haven’t helped either, with both center Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon expected to miss some time with ankle injuries. Vucevic’s injury in particular could end up costing him a month of the season, not ideal for an organization that is still finding its groove offensively and frequently played through Vucevic on that end.

It is not all bad news however, as the Magic have been in this situation before — as recently as last season in fact, when rookie Mohamed Bamba suffered a fracture in his leg. This led to him dropping out of the rotation, with Khem Birch taking his place as the Magic went on a memorable run to the postseason.

Now that they’re back in this familiar position, who will be the players who step up the most to ensure the team keeps on winning as much as possible? It starts with some of the guys already heavily involved in the rotation, and leaning on them more through this period.

Jonathan Isaac is the big one, the third-year forward currently going through a personal leap as he continues his ascendancy. Defensively especially he looks fantastic every night, while offensively he has continued to show signs of improvement. Sunday night against the Indiana Pacers he had a career-high 25 points in a losing effort.

Right now he is averaging 36.7 percent from 3-point range, a career-high and behind only Evan Fournier (44.7 percent) on the team. Add in a player efficiency rating (league average 15) of 20.3, by far another career-high and behind only Vucevic (22.3) and it is clear that Isaac is doing a lot for the Magic on the court as it is.

This is without even mentioning his defensive play, which is a large part of the reason the team is 11th in defensive rating (105.0). They’ve been closer to top five in this area for much of the season and Isaac alone should be able to push them back into the top 10 again, once he figures out how to balance extra offensive assignments as well.

Point guard Markelle Fultz is the other player who figures to become even more important throughout this stretch and given where he was as a player as little as four months ago, that is remarkable. His 3-point shooting is improving (although still an awful 20 percent) and his free throws still look shaky from time to time.

But other moments, such as that steal and dunk to essentially ice the win over the Washington Wizards, have been great for the development and confidence of Fultz. He is dunking the ball with much more authority now and his passing and movement remains as fluid as it has been throughout the year so far. Getting into the paint is not a problem for this guy.

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Relying on the tandem of Isaac and Fultz together for this stretch may lead to some short-term growing pains. But if the Magic want to realize their full potential, these two combined with guys like Gordon and Bamba are what a supposed contending outfit is supposed to be built around. So far signs have been encouraging.

Birch was a defensive menace last season and while it may take him some time to get back to that point on the court, nobody can ever question his commitment. The Magic also know what they are getting with him and that is the kind of effort and running of the court that everybody loves to have on their roster somewhere.

Bamba still remains a bit of a mystery and it would be great for him to use the opportunity to take another visible step up as well. For now though, he has replaced Fultz as the biggest question mark on the roster, which is crazy when you think about it. Bamba has had his struggles so far as a pro, but he continues to provide those glimpses that make you believe everything will work out.

Which brings us to Fournier, who once again finds himself acting as the safety net for the organization, despite being as divisive among the fan base as Vucevic. He can fade in and out of games badly and he won’t be making any All-Defensive teams either. But now that the rotation is looking thin, Fournier is stepping up.

He has taken on the scoring load, putting up a team-high 26 and 21 points in two of their last three games. Both were losses, to the Pacers and then Toronto Raptors before that, but Fournier can’t take too much of the blame for that. When he is on the court and not having sets run for him, it is fair to criticize exactly what he is doing out there.

Monday night against the Detroit Pistons, another loss, the Magic were awful to watch offensively for the entire second half. There was little movement or penetration and it again fell on Fournier to come up with answers. He tried his best, taking heavy contact on several drives to the basket, resulting in free throws.

With Vucevic and Gordon gone, Fournier has scored more (currently averaging 17.7 points per contest, just shy of his career-high of 17.8), with the aforementioned shooting percentage from deep a career-high and much better than his career average of 37.4 percent. Yet the Magic now find themselves dead last in offensive rating (102.9).

In their last three games though, when it is fair to say Fournier was the first or second scoring option against the seventh (Pacers), ninth- (Raptors) and 19th-ranked (Pistons) defenses in the league, their rating has hit a low of of 99.7 (again league worst), but most of this can be attributed to the Pistons game. It was 103.6 in the previous two games.

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This means that at the very least, the decline hasn’t been horrendous on that end, which is just as well because the Magic couldn’t be much worse offensively if they tried. It is a testament to Fournier however, that he has been able to plug the gap felt by the absence of Vucevic and Gordon on that end and will continue to do the best job that he can.

The path ahead gets no easier and the Orlando Magic cannot afford to lose any more games in the near future if they don’t want to get swallowed up by the chasing pack below them. They look different without some of their best players on the court right now, but different isn’t always a bad thing and a number of players have taken it upon themselves to step it up a level.