CHICAGO -- Orlando Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley says his team is learning how to win this season. But after three straight victories, two featuring game-winning shots from the team's franchise cornerstones, and a third displaying a complete dismantling of the NBA's No. 1 offense, they're doing more than just learning how to win. The Magic are winning.
It may only be 13 games into the season, but let's just take a step back and contextualize the significance of Magic's start. Their 8-5 record is the best they've been out of the blocks start since 2017. That's six years ago, when Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner were still freshmen and sophomores in high school. And when you consider that this team started off last year at 5-20, what they've already done this season certainly deserves some attention.
Mosley is right, the team is still developing and learning how to win, but it's happening at a rapid rate. After building up 20-point leads in both matchups against the Chicago Bulls last week and needing game-winning shots to come out on top, the Magic ended their week by getting out to an unfathomable 40-point lead against the high-powered offense of the Pacers and never letting up. See, they're learning.
Even in those matchups against Chicago, the Magic learned how to win in clutch situations. In the first meeting on Wednesday, it was Banchero who took the final shot to lift the Magic to a win. Two days later on Friday, it was Wagner's turn to play hero. But the context of both wins goes a bit deeper, as Mosley tells it, providing the perfect example of how his team is learning how to win.
"In that huddle [on Friday], Paolo talked about how Caruso was going to guard him, and in that same breath he took that same block to the post and I think they put [Torrey] Craig on him," Mosley said. "And we threw the ball right back to front, and then [Wagner] makes the play. Same identical play, but that's growth that you adjust to what the defense is trying to take away. And these guys trust the next man, the guy next to him in order to make the right play."
The Magic did run the same game-winning set in back-to-back meetings with the Bulls, but after it worked the first time, Orlando didn't just assume it would work the exact same way again. So when the Bulls denied the inbound pass to Banchero, the reigning Rookie of the Year still remained involved in the play by seeming like just enough of a threat to keep his defender attached to him. He then shielded both Craig and Zach LaVine from becoming help defenders, which left the paint wide open for Wagner to get a clean look at the rim.
If you ask Mosley to compare his squad's starts over the last two seasons, he'll cite having everyone healthy and the continuity of bringing back primarily the same roster. Wagner will mention how Orlando wants to prove it can compete with the best in the league.
"We want to take the next step as a team," Wagner said. "We felt like after the first 25 games last year, we played pretty good basketball. [Now,] we're above .500, and we want to prove that we can compete with the best teams in the league and hopefully make a playoff spot."
The Magic are certainly showing they can compete, and with the second-ranked defense this young team is proving it can defend at a high level, too. Orlando is allowing just 106.5 points a game, and it has held opponents to under 100 points five times already this season. The team ranks second in the league in steals per game (9.6), has the fifth-best 3-point defense, limiting opponents to just 34.7% from beyond the arc, and is also in the top-10 when it comes to rebounding.
Being that good as a team on defense with a roster that averages out at 24 years old is an abnormality in the NBA. Younger teams typically struggle early on that department, but the Magic are defying those odds by making opposing teams work for everything.
After Orlando finished last season with the 18th-ranked defense, Banchero said the Magic entered training camp with an emphasis to improve dramatically on that end of the floor. "It's been the emphasis since the start of training camp," he said. "That was kind of the first thing [Mosley] brought up was, we wanted to be a top-5 defense in the league, and we've been on pace so far. So we gotta keep doing what we're doing on that end."
But making defense a point of emphasis doesn't automatically translate into success, you need guys who will actually commit to it. "We have guys that want to guard, and take a lot of pride in that," Wagner said. "We have guys that make it to the league because of their ability to guard, and I also think it's honestly the coaches' game plan. I think we have an identity on that side of the floor, and that's how we want to play. We want to play good defense and create easy shots from there."
Wagner himself is one of those guys who made it to the league because of his ability to guard. He entered the NBA as one of the best defenders from the 2021 draft class. He's a versatile defender who can guard multiple positions with his length and strength, and he has great instincts to make smart plays on that end of the floor. There's also third-year guard Jalen Suggs, who in the not-too-distant future could make an All-Defensive team. Suggs has been anchoring Orlando's defense this season, ranking fourth in steals per game (2.1), sixth in deflections, and overall just being a pest out on the perimeter.
When Suggs was the primary defender against All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton on Sunday, he held the guard to 0 of 3 from the floor, with zero assists. As a team, the Magic limited Haliburton to just 12 points and three assists, his lowest totals this season.
Even Banchero, who wasn't known for his defense when he entered the league, has stepped up on that end of the floor. He credited his time with Team USA over the summer at the FIBA World Cup for helping him improve. And when your two top players in Banchero and Wagner put in effort, it tends to have a trickle down effect on the rest of the roster. Mosley says he sees defense as being one of the biggest improvements in the games of both Banchero and Wagner, with the other positive being how they lift their teammates.
"It's been their voices, you know, being able to take accountability and ownership of leading the team, telling guys what they want in certain situations throughout the game, sitting down [on defense]," Mosley said. "That's the biggest thing for me other than their voices, is their ability to sit down and guard. Over the summer, they did a great job with their teams, USA and the German national team. I think they did a very good job of having to defend at a high level and they're bringing that to the table with us."
The defense has soared to being one of the best in the league, but if there's been one weak spot in this otherwise impressive start for Orlando, it's been the offense. The Magic rank 25th in scoring, but Banchero believes that the offense will come along. There's reason to believe it will, too, as Wagner's efficiency is starting to trend upwards, and Banchero is off to a far more efficient start than his rookie season. Banchero is shooting 46.7% from the field and 38.9% from deep in 2023, a significant improvement to his shooting splits of 42.7% and 29.8% from a year ago.
But for all the growth the Magic have shown through the early part of the season, they're far from a finished product. Jonathan Isaac, the only holdover from when the team had a similar 8-5 start in 2017, said they're still in the infant stage.
"There's definitely a belief factor," Isaac said. "And we're still growing, you know, we really are so young, it feels like we're just babies in a sense of just coming together and figuring this thing out. But there's a belief system. Coach Mosley has done a phenomenal job with just instilling that this is our year to take it if we want it. So we just have to continue to work together."
The Magic may still be learning how to crawl before they can walk, but they've looked like a team that could not only make a play-in spot but even contend for a top-6 seed. And for all the talk about developing and growing, making the playoffs is the goal for Orlando this year.
"We can make a playoff spot, I think that's realistic," Wagner said. "I already think that we gave some wins away, so we'll make sure we keep improving and don't do that as the season goes on. But we're really confident in our group, and I think we have a special thing here. So we want to make sure we make the most out of it."