The Orlando Magic seems to have finally figured it out. Since Dwight Howard left in the clumsiest way possible in 2012, the franchise has been mired in mediocrity. They have been the poster child for the dreaded NBA purgatory. Since Howard’s departure, they’ve made the playoffs twice, losing in the first round in five games both times.
But things are starting to change in Orlando. Since the Nicola Vučević trade in the 2020-21 season, the team has finally seemed to hit in the Draft. First, Orlando built a core consisting of the Wagner brothers, Mo and Franz, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, and Wendell Carter Jr. It was a huge risk dealing away not only Vučević, but also Aaron Gordon in subsequent trades. But it was needed after the core they surrounded Vučević, the two-time All-Star, and double-double machine, failed to become a threat in the Eastern Conference.
They’ve also managed to butcher five Lottery picks at the sixth pick or better. They selected Victor Oladipo (No. 2) in 2013, Gordon (No. 4) in 2014, Mario Hezonja (No. 5) in 2015, Jonathan Isaac (No. 6) in 2017, and Mo Bamba (No. 6) in 2018. Today, none of these picks are major contributors. Only Bamba and Isaac are still with the team, but neither are projected to be part of the core moving forward.
The young players they pivoted towards are solid two-way players, all at or under the age of 25 years old. What’s missing is a bonafide first option. Auburn’s Jabari Smith has the highest floor among the players projected to be in this year’s Lottery. So it’s hard to fathom a situation where Smith is a bust. He is too elite of a shooter, athletically raw, and NBA-ready to fail. With Orlando, he would give them the closest thing to a dependable number one option they’ve had since Vučević.
But what about the fit? Orlando is deep on the perimeter, with a three-headed guard line-up featuring top 15 picks Suggs and Anthony, as well as former number one pick, Markelle Fultz, who has been on a reclamation tour since joining the Magic. As well, the Wagner brothers occupy the shooting guard and small forward depth chart, providing toughness and grit on the perimeter. Carter Jr. came over from Chicago in the Vučević trade, and the former Lottery pick has provided 15 and 10 since arriving.
Smith would slot in as a small-ball center if Bamba leaves in free agency or the four next to Carter Jr. in the frontcourt. While Carter Jr. has yet to find his stroke consistently in the NBA, he would provide a big man duo with Smith that can stretch the floor and run the break. In addition, both bigs are great defenders and would provide match-up nightmares with their ability to rotate on switches and guard multiple positions.
Most of all, Smith would provide Orlando with a primary scoring option with a ceiling, not seen since Howard. While Smith doesn’t have the abstract ceiling of Chet Holmgren or Jaden Ivey, he’s like a supersized version of the desired three, and a defensive player teams are scrambling to load up on.
Where Smith needs to improve is on his off-the-dribble game. While at Auburn, he dominated on his pure athleticism and sweet outside shooting. In the NBA, opposing teams will lock onto his lack of handle and on-ball creation, giving him space in the intermediate area and daring him to pull up off the dribble. His over-reliance on his right hand will also be an easy marker for defenses. There is a lot Smith needs to work on to take his game to the next level as a pro. The offensive skill-sets he can learn, but his anemic rebounding is more reflective of his grit.
His 6.2 boards a game in college will make it hard for Orlando to play him as a small-ball five. However, if he can put on the muscle between now and training camp while cleaning up his handle, he should be able to take the starting power forward spot, although it’s assured the Wagner brothers will give him hell in practice, forcing him to earn his minutes. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty great situation for Smith to be in. The depth chart up front for Orlando is filled with gritty dawgs, the perfect conditions for Smith to hone his game and toughen up. Anything he gets will be surely earned on this squad under head coach and former Dallas Maverick assistant Jamahl Mosley.
Under Mosley, the Magic have become known for their scrappy defense, clawing their way out of the top 10 in points allowed and earning 19th in defensive rating this season. Smith’s defensive versatility will only add to that metric by immediately becoming the best athlete on the roster. Not to mention the best shooter.
Smith comes from NBA pedigree, as his father, Smith Sr., was selected in the second round in 2000 by the Sacramento Kings. He’s a gold medalist with Team USA Select at the 2019 FIBA Americas U16 Championships. He was the number four player out of high school and stood as the highest-rated recruit to ever commit to Auburn. The resume is impressive and rich with potential. For the first time in over a decade, Orlando has positioned itself as a franchise ready to develop such talent to reach its full potential.