As the Orlando Magic walked off the floor and into the hallways of Amway Center after finishing their season Sunday, they did so with an energy that didn’t resemble a team with a 22-60 record.
It helped that the Magic ended the season by tying their single-game 3-point record (23) in a 125-111 win over the Miami Heat in which both teams sat most of their starters.
But the spirit Orlando had as it closed out its season was the embodiment of what first-year Magic coach Jamahl Mosley has spoken about since he was hired in July.
“Our guys understand there’s a bigger picture than just this moment here,” Mosley said Sunday. “Our guys have embraced every single moment; every single day of getting better every game. That’s how you keep that energy, and we have a special group of young men. They care about each other so much, continue to encourage each other and fight for one another.”
That care was shown in the little and big moments throughout the seven-month-long regular season: from the entertaining postgame walk-off interviews and celebrating each other’s personal accolades such as Franz Wagner’s Rookie of the Month award for December to wearing Markelle Fultz t-shirts when he returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in late February.
The Magic ultimately understood the 2021-22 season, their first full season after kick-starting a rebuild at the March 2021 trade deadline, was more about the development of their younger players than their final record.
From a development standpoint, progress was made.
Wendell Carter Jr. came into his own with the Magic a year after being traded to Orlando from the Chicago Bulls by averaging career-highs in points (15), rebounds (10.5) and assists (2.8) and a true-shooting percentage (60.1%), which is a formula that incorporates free throws and higher-value 3-point shots.
Wagner, the No. 8 pick in last year’s draft, played with a steadiness, versatility and efficiency not displayed by most young players, averaging 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 79 games (the most among rookies).
Second-year guard Cole Anthony averaged career-highs in points (16.3), assists (5.7) and rebounds (5.4). Mo Bamba also put up career-highs in points (10.6), rebounds (8.1) and blocks (1.7) in a bigger role.
When available, Jalen Suggs showed the defensive presence and passing vision that made him the No. 5 pick in last year’s draft.
Fultz came back from his injury seemingly not missing a beat, averaging 10.8 points (47.4% shooting), 5.5 assists and 1.1 steals in 20 minutes.
R.J. Hampton and Chuma Okeke also took steps forward in their development, especially defensively.
The Magic’s defensive rating from Jan. 1 to the end of a season — their final 46 games — of 111.3 was the league’s 10th-best mark.
“I know the record doesn’t always show what’s grown and progressed, but this group of young men stayed together. There’s been a spirit on the court every single night and that’s just going to turn up another level as we walk into next year,” Mosley said. “Our guys are excited about it and the fans should be extremely excited about it because they see the way in which these young men play for one another and battle no matter what’s happening.”
There was a common phrase used by multiple players Sunday: “The sky’s the limit.”
“With us being so young, it gives us an opportunity to really mold everyone,” Carter said. “We’re in a perfect opportunity where everybody understands what everyone’s capable of and we all like each other. No one’s hating on each other. None of that’s going on. That’s rare. We got an opportunity to be really special.”
Suggs was one of the players who echoed those words when speaking with the media.
“I mean that wholeheartedly,” Suggs said. “I don’t say that with fake confidence. I say that because I truly believe in it.”
But the Magic also know more steps will need to be taken.
And for as much young talent as they have, with seven lottery picks since 2017 on the roster, leveling up next season will be more difficult than it was this year.
It’ll help that the Magic will have a 52.1% chance of securing a top-four pick in the June 23 draft, giving Orlando even more talent to build with next season.
Orlando’s odds in the draft will be: 14% for the No. 1 pick; 13.4% for No. 2; 12.7% for No. 3; 12% for No. 4; 27.8% for No. 5; 20% for No. 6.
But as Wagner said, “Potential’s just potential at the end of the day. It’s on us to get better and move forward.”
Added Fultz: “It’s not going to be easy at all. We all understand that. We can be something special, but it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of trust, [and] a lot of learning. We’re all ready for that challenge.”
As the Magic put the final touches on the season, they did so feeling confident that next year and the seasons to follow will bring more success because the foundation they laid during 2021-22 was a strong one to build off.
“The one thing we’ve talked about with these guys is the foundation is set,” Mosley said. “Now it goes into the little things, the tiniest of details that they have to understand of what we’re trying to do. Leveling up one more.”
Or as Carter said, “We’re going to be lit next year.”