Marc Daniels: Maybe The Future Face Of The Magic Is Already Here

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets

Shaq! Penny! TMac! Dwight!

Over the 30+ years the Orlando Magic have been in existence they have had one of, if not, the best player in the league while on their roster. And while Dwight has been gone for almost nine years, it feels much longer since the Magic have had a star on their team.

The NBA is about stars. You can't win without them and these days you likely need at least two to contend and three to be a serious contender.

Stars sell tickets and get television ratings. Stars sell merchandise and get highlights on ESPN. Stars make free agents want to play with them. But stars are hard to find.

The Magic have had lottery picks. None in recent years have produced a star. Nikola Vucevic was a two-time all star when he played here, but as good as he was he didn't fit the star profile. He will go down as one of the greatest Magic players ever, but that's more about staying here almost a decade and producing, but he lacked the glitz.

But maybe the franchise player of the team is already here. Maybe the face of the Magic is on the roster now. Maybe one of the NBA's future stars is blossoming before our eyes.

I know what you are thinking, is it Jonathan Isaac?

For the last two years, I have said Isaac needed to become the face of the Magic. He has the look, the smile and potentially he had the game. But the injuries have derailed that. Now, we are hoping the 23-year old can return and play at a high level from a serious ACL injury and has battled several other injuries that has limited him to just 134 games in four years.

Markell Fultz? I like Fultz and think the Magic made a smart move trading for him. It was low risk and they got someone that was the overall top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Yet, he is also trying to recover from a bad injury. I think Fultz can be a competent point guard but I don't think he will ever be a great shooter in a league where top point guards can shoot.

Mo Bamba? Stop it.

Cole Anthony? Maybe, but I think the ceiling is a nice player who can play in the league for years, but not sure he can become the face of the franchise.

Wendell Carter Jr.? RJ Hampton? Gary Harris? Maybe. Hampton might develop into something and needs a chance to play after being buried on the bench in Denver. But he is a point guard by trade and the Magic have Fultz and Anthony but let's give him time.

Which brings us to Chuma Okeke. When the Magic drafted Okeke with the 16th pick in the 2019 draft, I wasn't sure what to think. If Okeke didn't blow his knee out on March 29,,2019 in a Sweet 16 game where he went for 20 points and 11 rebounds in Auburn's blowout of North Carolina, he would have been a top 10 pick. But the Magic gambled on taking top-10 talent with a mid-round pick knowing he'd miss his entire rookie season.

Then five games into Okeke's first season of playing, he went out with a knee bruise to the same knee he injured and three games later is when Fultz blew out his ACL. In his five games, Okeke scored a total of 15 points on 5-14 shooting. He didn't look out of place but he looked like a rookie trying to find a role. And then he was injured and out. He missed 16 games before returning.

When he came back, Steve Clifford got him in the rotation and he showed flashes of promise. He was not afraid to crash the boards, take a long distance shot and defended a variety of positions. But at times, Okeke looked tentative driving to the basket. In fact, upon his return where he was averaging more than 20 minutes a game, he went 10 games without attempting a free throw and took only two in his first 14 games back.

As Magic players battled injuries, Okeke was getting more minutes and getting a bigger role in Clifford's rotation. But in his last two games, before Sunday night's game against the Lakers, just might be a sign. Okeke went for 17 in a one point win over Phoenix where went 6-6 from the floor and hit all four his three-point shots. He then went for a career high 22 points and added six rebounds and four assists in a loss to Portland, Orlando's first game after trading away Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. In the game against the Blazers, he was Orlando's best player. He knocked down four more 3s and became a focal point of the Magic's offense. He didn't take any free throws and needs to get to the line but as he performs better, he will get more calls. 

But am I stretching here using a two-game sample size and concluding Chuma Okeke is about to become a superstar? Yes, but his 6-6 230 pound frame will allow him to play multiple positions and his athleticism will make him tough to defend. He's hitting 41% of his 3s but his role in the remaining games for the Magic will change significantly because of who is gone. 

Ideally, the Magic would love to see Okeke get valuable playing time with Fultz and Isaac, but now he will get more touches and on many nights, he will be a key part of Steve Clifford's game plan. 

The Magic have 26 games left in a season that will not lead to a playoff berth. But the remaining games are a huge opportunity for Okeke and by season's end the Magic might see what they have. Then Okeke will get a true off-season to workout and might even play in a summer league, if the NBA has one. 

Next season, the young Magic hope Isaac and Fultz are back and as good as before. They hope Mo Bamba, Wendell Carter Jr. and RJ Hampton do enough to visualize what the rotation might look like next season. And there is the lottery pick Orlando is hoping leads to a player they believe will make an immediate impact.

But just maybe Okeke has the skill set to showcase his game in the final third of the season. If he does, he will defy odds the Magic are hoping is the case with three players. History says the overwhelming majority of players who tear an ACL do not go on to become all-stars. Okeke has a head start on the post injury performance and his play just might make Magic fans believe something special is on the horizon.

Final note: Chuma Okeke's full name is Chukwuma Julian Okeke.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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