Over the span of about eight months, the Orlando Magic went from a dearth of young perimeter talent to an abundance of it. Approaching the 2020 NBA Draft, Markelle Fultz was the lone guard who potentially factored into the franchise’s long-term plans. Following the 2021 Draft, which bore Jalen Suggs at fifth overall to join Fultz, Cole Anthony, and R.J. Hampton, the Magic could field an entire guard rotation composed of 23-and-under ball-handlers come October’s opening night.
None of these four resemble a future primary initiator. A collection of secondary creators can be akin to a football team having two “starting-caliber” quarterbacks — as the old adage goes, when you have two signal callers, you don’t have any. Secondary creators require a nucleus to tie all the loose ends together for optimization. Somebody has to reliably tilt a defense and assume the ire of the most daunting perimeter defenders to ease everyone else’s burden.
Suggs is unlikely to be an offensive hub. There are some pretty compelling avenues toward a high-end outcome offensively for him, it just demands creativity that ascends above a flood of pick-and-rolls accompanied by shooting and decision-making development.
The presence of Fultz, Anthony, and Hampton, all of whom the Magic have shown some level of investment in, should protect Suggs from being overstimulated as a lead guard. Each member of this quartet will likely see on-ball reps as the franchise aims for a hierarchy to organically arrange itself. Even Chuma Okeke organized some pick-and-rolls as a handler last season and could stand to see them again next year.
However, flawed initiators splitting time commandeering offense is a delicate line as it pertains to Suggs. He won’t have to pursue creation pathways every possession, but he might not be enabled to attack off an advantage with the frequency that suits him; on-ball touches might flow his way out of happenstance and reveal his limitations. As is the case with any complementary player, the early returns of his performance are linked to the success of whoever’s piloting the offense.
Accentuating Suggs offensively means understanding his bright spots and warts. His creation peak is severely hampered by a destabilizing handle. High and loose, it’s easily disrupted by pestering perimeter defenders and fervent stunts from helpers on the wing. When working downhill, he has to keep the ball near his body, which curbs how efficiently he covers ground as a driver and how he navigates in narrow quarters. Often, the order of operations are just slower for him and that widens the margin of error among defenders to contain him.
Countering this, both schematically and individually, means leaning into a strength-based creation usage. At 6’4 and 205 pounds, Suggs is a rather functionally strong guard, especially for a 20-year-old. He’s not going to gain the desired edge with explosiveness or his handle. His trustiest means of producing advantages is strength, overwhelming assignments in early offense, exploiting mismatches on the block, and using his frame to shield the ball from defenders as a mask for his insufficient handle.
Guard-guard actions where he acts as a screener to spur small advantages before multiplying them with strength, sets guiding him downhill into space, and an emphasis to push the tempo will amplify the utility of his strength offensively. It would behoove him to expand the flashes of a post-up game to bully mismatches, a la Jrue Holiday, into a bankable tool.
Dribble handoffs featuring Wendell Carter Jr. — someone who, with revised aggression, could be a steady release valve for Orlando’s youthful guards — should be a mainstay of Suggs’ on-ball diet. Getting him moving East-West with his defender a step behind and flowing into a DHO to send him downhill was a tactic that proved resourceful during his one season at Gonzaga. Bigs who play alongside him should make it a point to lean the Gortat seal.
Carter’s status as the trigger man might pull a rim protector out of the paint. At the very least, he’s a big body for defenders to maneuver around and possibly provide Suggs the separation he struggles to accomplish individually. While atypical, this is still creation, just through the lens of some added creativity. It’s not really an indictment of Suggs beyond the concept that team-building with him in mind is more challenging than if he were supplemented by, or could serve as, a viable primary initiator.
Yet whoever Orlando chose — and more salient, most fifth overall picks since the dawn of time — would likely necessitate schematic ingenuity to offer creation equity. There’s a baseline present with Suggs that merely demands broadened horizons beyond spread pick-and-rolls and isolations to funnel possessions through him.
While everyone benefits from aid in advantage creation and the removal of a defensive anchor in the paint, it’s more pressing for Suggs than many. He is not a bouncy one-foot leaper and requires load time to explode off of two, his preferred method. This considerably hamstrings his finishing and a lack of flexibility breeds uneconomical driving angles.
Rim protectors are afforded a longer buffer time to rotate or recover. Right now, Suggs largely incapable of directing his body movements in conflicting paths, which allows his man to stay attached easier and contest his shots near the rim, where he fails to extend over or around most guys because of inflexibility and those aforementioned leaping limitations. Getting his shoulder past a defender to solidify an advantage is laborious, and when he does, his vertical constraints are there to possibly curtail said advantage.
As Orlando clarifies its ecosystem of ball-handlers, I’d imagine there are quite a few three-guard lineups incorporating some combination of Suggs, Fultz, Hampton, and Anthony to gauge the synergy and overlap of their skill-sets. Building upon that, Okeke, Carter, and new draftee Franz Wagner are all front-court options with advanced feel and plus passing at their position.
Facilitating some possessions through them — whether it’s pick-and-rolls, DHOs, high-post touches, or motion-heavy alignments stationing them at the elbows — to assuage the creation responsibilities of the young guards is prudent. The idea of various Horns-based actions involving Carter and Okeke or Wagner is enticing. Specifically for Suggs, the passing acumen of these bigs will help unlock one of his best traits: He’s masterful setting up and timing cuts. They help him generate rim pressure in spite of self-imposed constraints. They’re more likely to catch paint enforcers by surprise, which lessens the chance for a risky in-traffic finish.
It may behoove the Magic to steal some philosophies from Gonzaga’s 2020-21 offense. The Bulldogs did not lean on a singular perimeter creator and played many three-guard lineups with Suggs, Andrew Nembhard, and Joel Ayayi. Of course, guys of Drew Timme (elite post fulcrum) and Corey Kispert’s (elite shooting gravity and off-ball mover) stature are not flanking them. Compared to their respective leagues, Orlando does not have the relative talent of that Gonzaga squad.
A scheme with three ball-handlers, though, none of whom were premier half-court initiators, regularly punctured the defense. Gonzaga parlayed horizontal movement of ball and player and decoy motion on weak-side into fruitful hand-offs and side pick-and-rolls. The Xs-and-Os helped forge advantages rather than personnel outright. The Magic will need that wrinkle in order to maximize their offense. It’s particularly relevant for Suggs as a half-court passer.
His processing speed is snappy and he’s a virtuoso functioning in pockets of space; his Elite Eight outing against USC’s zone defense testifies to that. Comparisons that popped up to Jason Kidd in the pre-Draft process were off-base due to Kidd’s edge as an explosive and vertical athlete with more refined passing ability, but a better comp might be players like Lonzo Ball or Tyrese Haliburton. Similar to that pair — both of whom are rightly considered archetypal play-linkers — he’s adept at delivering on previously established openings in the defense as a connective passer.
What distinguishes Suggs from Ball as a play-linker and helps heighten his scoring ceiling is a budding intermediate game to compensate for his problems as a finisher and vertical athlete. As the 2020-21 collegiate season wore on, he grew increasingly comfortable operating in the midrange, lofting in floaters or wielding space-creating craft for short pull-ups and open rim finishes. According to Bart Torvik, he shot 44 percent (22-for-50) on two-pointers away from the rim and only 4.5 percent of those were assisted. It’s still early in his development, but you can see the self-creation potential in Suggs’ game.
Compound that with his passing prowess to rollers out of ball-screens and there’s absolutely some on-ball equity in a fairly traditional manner, just not to the magnitude a team would forecast of its primary creator. Moving forward, during pick-and-roll reps, nailing down the nuances of snaking ball screens should be a priority given his handling concerns and exceptional functional strength.
A swing skill almost entirely within Suggs’ own domain is the evolution of his pull-up three. He shot 33.7 percent (35-for-104) from deep at Gonzaga, with 54.3 percent of his makes coming on assists. He had opportunities to flash some special shot-making off the bounce for a 19-year-old and certainly followed through, lending credence to further maturation in the coming years.
Conversely, he had a number of brutal off-target misfires. The variance of his shooting outcome feels quite large, and while we can offer up theories as to why this is the case (if I had to put money on it, it’s a matter of inconsistent lower body mechanics), nothing appears to be so broken that his jumper is unsalvageable or anything like that. But if he reaches the high-end, it gives him on-ball scoring equity significantly less contingent on his handle, explosion, flexibility, and knack for capably weaving through congestion.
Imperative for the Magic is to grant Suggs the freedom as an open-court spark plug. According to Synergy, he logged the third-most transition possessions in men’s college basketball last season and finished in the 60th percentile of points per possession in transition. He’s a physical, aggressive defensive rebounder to start the break, pushes the tempo to pursue seamless paint touches, and controls the pace. His vision and execution as a transition playmaker are brilliant.
Orlando’s coaching staff should live with any early turnovers. Trust in the tape and accept his risks, confident the long-term outcomes will be worthwhile. All turnovers are not created equal, nor are they inherently bad, especially when the inverse result is a bucket that would not otherwise exist.
Missed shots can have a similar effect as turnovers — an empty possession and potential fast break for the opposition — but only one is chastised statistically to outlandish lengths. With a bevy of young guards still figuring out what they are as professional basketball players, such a sentiment should reverberate across Orlando’s bench. Suggs’ fast-break distribution is remarkable. Empowering it is a vital component of his offensive maximization.
Conceptualizing Suggs’ ideal offensive usage and role is a meticulous experiment. He has glaring shortcomings that are antithetical to the silhouette of a lead guard. He’s also equipped with some high-end skills as a secondary creator who moonlights on the ball and thrives alongside an offensive engine.
Orlando, right now, is not the perfect template for him. But there is, perhaps, enough infrastructure to commission his novel deployment to reach the tantalizing outcomes available to a strong, 6’4 guard who maps the court distinctly well with or without the ball and has the makings of a potentially good pull-up shooter.
Achieving that warrants innovation and development from himself and surrounding core players. Even so, there is much to appreciate about the depths of Jalen Suggs’ skill package. How the Magic go about unboxing and nurturing that will be a fascinating study.