LAS VEGAS — You can see the potential.
There was a moment Sunday night, in the first minute against Memphis, when Jaren Jackson — the best rookie through Summer League so far — drove the lane only to see Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Isaac both rotate over into his path. The 6’11” Jackson changed his mind and decided not to go for the dunk and instead tried to throw an alley-oop to a baseline cutter. Bamba and Isaac both got up so high they blocked it anyway.
“(Isaac) got the credit for the block? Aw, come on,” Bamba joked after the game. Together, Bamba and Isaac are averaging 5 blocks a game in Las Vegas.
It’s just Summer League, but Orlando is interesting for the first time in years because they have zigged when the league has zagged — come October they can roll out a lineup of Bamba, Isaac, and just-resigned Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Simmons. Under the guidance of new, defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, the Magic can go big, long, and defense-first in an NBA leaning more toward the Warriors’ model of small and offense first.
“The potential between me and (Isaac) is unreal, I think in Summer League we’re starting to bridge that potential into production with the small things we do,” Bamba said. “I think we got three 24-second shot clock violations (against Memphis).”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t even think (their defensive play in Summer League) scratches the surface in terms of where Mo is going to be in a year or two years, or where I am going to be in a year or two years,” Isaac said of the team’s potential. “Physically, mentally, game wise, you throw in AG and all those guys we have on our team now, and I think we will be a defensive nightmare for a lot of teams.”
Other players on the roster, such as Gordon and Simmons, can fit right into this defensive mold. The team is long and can protect the rim, but the big men such as Bamba and Isaac are athletic enough to switch — or at least show and recover — on point guards off a high pick-and-roll. Against this size and length, getting to the rim is not going to be easy. Bamba’s length just eats up guys driving the lane.
“That’s one of the things the league is going to — how hard can you make it (on drivers),” Magic summer league head coach Pat Delany said of what the team wants to do.
Isaac has been one of the standout players of Summer League so far, having gotten stronger in the past year, adjusting to the pace and style of the game, and just gotten healthy. Memphis’ Jackson has overwhelmed other young players he has gone against between both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas Summer Leagues, but Isaac held his own in that matchup, blocking shots and making life hard on Jackson. (To be fair, it was Jackson’s fifth game in seven days and he looked worn down at points.)
Isaac, about to enter his second NBA season, is one of the guys who looks ready to make a leap in games that matter starting in October.
Bamba also has impressed, and not just with his defense — he is shooting 60 percent in Summer League and against Memphis showed a smooth stroke on a corner three that caught everyone’s attention.
It’s not all been smooth sailing for Bamba — Monday night No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton pushed him around physically, slowed Bamba’s offensive game, and got to the glass (Ayton had five offensive rebounds on the night). Phoenix players such as Josh Jackson found driving lanes because Bamba couldn’t help off Ayton. That said, the defensive potential of Bamba and the Magic was still on display in the game, as Bamba had five blocks — including an Ayton hook shot early in the game.
Bamba understands there’s a lot of work to do.
“I just have to establish myself as a roller, it really opens up a lot for our team, even if I don’t necessarily get the ball it opens up guys in the corner or in spots as teams adjust to how we are playing…” Bamba said.
“I want to be a guy who comes in and has an impact immediately. One of my goals is to be Defensive Player of the Year, one of my goals is to be Rookie of the Year. One of my long-term goals is to be walking across the stage to get a jacket with a Hall of Fame patch. There’s definitely some work to do in between there.”
Not some, a lot of work.
But in Orlando, this Summer League has provided hope — something in short supply in recent years. The Magic are going to be interesting, and worth watching, because they are staking out a course different from the way the league is trending.
And it just might work.