Orlando has become team worth watching for first time in long time

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today the young Orlando Magic are the focus.

A strange sensation came over me during Summer League in Las Vegas this year:

I wanted to watch Orlando Magic games.

It felt weird. It has been years since the Magic were must-watch, but I was intrigued by them and their potential. Part of it was they have zigged when the league has zagged — in a small-ball league the Magic (in Vegas and in general) went big with Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac. And those two, for stretches, could dominate the paint.

“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 to NBC Sports in Las Vegas.

That carries over to this season and expands to other players — which makes the Orlando Magic interesting and worth watching.

It’s been a long time since we could say that, but the Magic have the potential for a dynamic defense this season, especially up front: Bamba, Isaac, just-resigned Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Simmons. Put all of them under the guidance of new, defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford, and the Magic can be big and defense-first in an NBA leaning more toward the Warriors’ model of small and offense first.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even think (the team’s 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.”

Isaac was one of the real head turners at Summer League. He missed much of his rookie season with an ankle injury, playing in just 27 games. In Las Vegas he looked healthy and like he spent time in the weight room getting stronger. He was a defensive force but was able to turn some of that into offense.

Bamba showed potential in Vegas as well, although he was more up and down and showed how he needs to get stronger and develop a better feel for the game. For example, the Suns’ No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton pushed him around physically for much of the night. But even then, Bamba blocked an Ayton shot and altered others, plus he flashed offensive potential (and in another game, showed a smooth shooting stroke from three).

“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.

The Magic still are not going to be good, and there are a lot of questions to be answered. How well can both Bamba and Isaac play with Gordon (it would be hard to play all three together, with Gordon at the three, he has struggled in that role before)? Coach Clifford has said he wants to switch more and that these bigs can do it, but how will that really work in practice? Clifford also wants to see how Bamba and Nikola Vucevic pair together for stretches.

Gordon is the best player on the team, the franchise cornerstone guy who signed a four-year, $76 million contract this summer (with incentives that could bring it to $84 million). He averaged 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game last season, is a competent three-point shooter who can finish at the rim like a beast.

Can one of the other young Magic players step up and join Gordon as a cornerstone? Can this team go big and become a force? Those are the interesting questions for the Magic this season, what makes them worth watching.

The rest of the team… not as interesting.

The Magic still don’t have a point guard of the future — D.J. Augustin and Jerian Grant will split the bulk of the time there — and beyond that have solid to good NBA players who are not great fits or parts of the future, such as Evan Fournier and Timofey Mozgov. Vucevic and Terrence Ross are in the final years of their contracts and the Magic will look to move them (they have tried to trade Vucevic since last trade deadline, and he could help some teams, but no deal has been found).

Orlando will lose more games than it wins this season, Bamba and Isaac will learn hard lessons. It will not always be pretty.

But there is real reason for hope, and with it this is a team worth keeping an eye on. It’s been a long time since we could say that.