The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thanks to lottery luck, Magic faces its biggest decision of the decade

Orlando Magic Coach Jamahl Mosley will have a chance to bring the franchise back to relevance with the No. 1 draft pick. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
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CHICAGO — Thrilled, but composed.

That was the prevailing vibe for the Orlando Magic’s front office when the NBA draft lottery odds came up in its favor Tuesday. For the fourth time in franchise history, Orlando won the rights to the No. 1 pick. Inside the drawing room, televisions rolled highlights of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, a pair of top selections who changed the Magic’s fortunes almost overnight.

When the Magic selected O’Neal in 1992, they were coming off a 21-win season. Three years later, they were in the NBA Finals. Fast-forward to 2004, and the Magic added Howard after another 21-win campaign. Within five years, they were back in the Finals. Such is the transformational power of making the right call at the top of the order.

Yet Magic President Jeff Weltman coolly handled the good news, pledging to conduct a thorough and wide-ranging evaluation process before the June 23 draft before politely declining to reveal his celebration plans.

Orlando Magic rediscovers lottery luck to win top pick in NBA draft

“What happens in Chicago will stay in Chicago,” Weltman said. “Teams are built on these breaks. It’s an important night for us.”

In addition to Orlando’s history of lottery-driven turnarounds, this postseason has been inundated with recent draft picks making an instant impact. The most obvious example is Luka Doncic (No. 3 in 2018), who at 23 has guided the Dallas Mavericks to the Western Conference finals in his fourth season. Ja Morant (No. 2 in 2019), Anthony Edwards (No. 1 in 2020) and Scottie Barnes (No. 4 in 2021) also enjoyed memorable moments in these playoffs, just as Trae Young (No. 5 in 2018) and Deandre Ayton (No. 1 in 2018) did last year.

Few teams need a jolt of top-end talent more than the Magic, which won 22 games this season and last advanced to the second round of the playoffs in 2010. Orlando traded away Nikola Vucevic, its only all-star of the past decade, during a dramatic teardown at the 2021 deadline, and Jonathan Isaac, once a source of considerable hype given his defensive versatility, hasn’t played since the bubble because of injuries. Meanwhile, Jalen Suggs, the No. 5 pick in the 2021 draft, struggled to score efficiently and missed nearly half of his rookie campaign with health concerns. Add it all up, and the Magic ranked 29th in offensive efficiency, 28th in three-point percentage and 26th in home attendance.

But those trying times haven’t left Orlando eyeing a quick fix. Weltman, an NBA lifer, was an assistant GM of the Milwaukee Bucks from 2008 to 2013. There, he worked with John Hammond, who drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo before moving to Orlando’s front office in 2017. Antetokounmpo’s step-by-step rise from anonymous Greek teenager to all-star, MVP and champion over eight seasons isn’t an easy model to replicate, but the Magic sound intent on matching the Bucks’ deliberate approach. Even with so many Generation Z stars wasting little time making their marks, Orlando wants to avoid the temptation of rushing.

“We’re not in it for tomorrow,” Weltman said. “We’re in it for the long haul. I think our starting lineup this year was the youngest starting lineup in the NBA over the last 25 years. We’re thinking big picture. We’re thinking character, fit, development, skill and all that matters toward winning. We’ll be patient.”

The most likely candidates to go No. 1 are Auburn’s Jabari Smith Jr. and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren. In Chicago, the buzz favored Smith, a 19-year-old forward who averaged 16.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2 assists as a freshman. Talent evaluators view Smith as a relatively safe bet, given that he’s an athletic two-way player who should fit naturally in the modern game thanks to his dependable three-point shot and ability to defend multiple positions. In Orlando, Smith could grow into a lead scoring option and join Isaac, 2021 all-rookie forward Franz Wagner and center Wendell Carter Jr. in a long and agile frontline.

“[Getting drafted first] definitely matters,” Smith told SiriusXM Radio this week, saying the decision would be a “coin toss” this year. “It will be great to be in that talk with those number one picks. But at the same time, it brings a lot of pressure and a lot of eyes on you. … Being the number one pick is a dream. That’s something I would definitely be excited about.”

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Holmgren, 20, is viewed as a slightly riskier proposition given his 7-foot, 195-pound frame. In a best-case scenario, Holmgren, who averaged 14.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks as a Gonzaga freshman, could emerge as the most talented player in his class, a multidimensional scoring threat and a long-armed defensive player of the year candidate rolled into one.

Yet some scouts worry he might be overpowered at the professional level or that his thin stature might make him more susceptible to injury. If Orlando selected Holmgren, who was high school teammates with Suggs in Minnesota, he could slide in as a power forward next to Carter before evolving into a center down the road.

“A team when they draft me, they’re getting a versatile player who’s affecting winning,” Holmgren told ESPN. “I think I can become a 50/40/90 [shooting splits] player. It’s not necessarily a goal to put on weight, but [I want to] add strength. I think the right weight will come with that.”

Weltman pledged that the Magic wouldn’t “limit our selectivity” — meaning it could consider other prospects, such as Duke forward Paolo Banchero — and that the team isn’t “[going] into this thing looking to trade our pick,” though discussions are bound to take place.

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Despite its long-term focus, Orlando simply must get this pick right. The Magic hasn’t been a major free-agency destination since Howard’s 2012 departure, and its best young pieces — Wagner, Suggs and Cole Anthony — have yet to flash superstar potential.

While Orlando still has extra first-round picks coming in the next few years thanks to past trades, the NBA’s flattened lottery odds have made it more difficult for teams to tank their way to the top of the draft order. When the Magic landed Howard, it had a 25 percent chance at the top pick, compared to a 14 percent chance this year even though it finished with the Eastern Conference’s worst record.

With no other clear paths back to respectability, this year's lottery luck has set up what will easily be the Magic’s most momentous decision of the decade.

“It’s been a while since we caught a break,” Weltman said. “The way this system is set up, you need to catch them every once in a while. When we went through the rebuild last year, we took on all that comes with that — all the youth, mistakes, excitement and enthusiasm. Part of that process is going into the lottery and hoping you come out in a good place.”