The Orlando Magic currently sit at second in the entire NBA with a defensive rating of 107.0. However, their elite unit isn’t powered by the mechanisms that normally fuel great defenses.
You see, the Magic aren’t relying on an elite rim protector to anchor their defense. Wendell Carter Jr., the team’s preferred starting center, has missed 12 of the team’s 17 games. And none of the other players on their roster are even in the top 70 in the league in block percentage (Jonathan Isaac would be first in the NBA in block percentage (8.7%), but he doesn’t have enough minutes to qualify for the league leaderboard).
Instead of relying on a big body in the middle to clean up all their messes, the NBA’s second-best defense is quarterbacked by a guard. And that guard is Jalen Suggs.
The Domino Effect
Now, we’d be remiss not to mention that this iteration of the Magic is chalked full of rangy defensive guards, wings and forwards. No one man is an island, and Suggs surely hasn’t authored this wonderful work of literature all on his own. However, he does symbolize everything that makes this Orlando defense great.
Think about basketball as a row of dominos. On defense, you “win” a possession by making sure the entire row of dominos doesn’t collapse. One way to do that is to have someone stationed at the very end of the row to ensure the last domino doesn’t ever fall. That is analogous to having a great rim protector as your last line of defense in the paint.
Historically, that has proven to be a very effective tactic. But do you know what else is also pretty effective? Making sure the first domino never falls. If that doesn’t fall, then the sequence never begins. So, there’s no need to have anyone waiting to save the last domino.
Basically, what we’re talking about here is point-of-attack defense. If you always keep the ball in front of you, an advantage never occurs, and it becomes very hard for the offense to generate a high-value shot.
And whether it be when he’s defending pick-and-rolls (first clip in the montage below), isolations (second clip), drives (third clip) or post-ups (fourth clip), Suggs is adept at stonewalling the opposition and refusing to concede that initial domino.
Earlier, we talked about how Suggs quarterbacks this Magic defense. That wasn’t just a coincidence. Suggs played quarterback in high school, and his football background helped him cultivate great lower-body strength and side-to-side agility, making him the perfect candidate to spearhead the point-of-attack for Orlando.
Another way to stop a row of dominoes from completely falling is to take a domino from the middle. This is akin to how creating turnovers can put an emphatic end to a possession. When you generate a steal, there is a 100% chance that the other team doesn’t score on that play.
Suggs is tied for first in the entire NBA in steal percentage (3.3%). His length isn’t jaw-dropping (he’s 6-foot-4 with a 6-6 wingspan), but he’s got great hands and a knack for surveying the floor and intercepting passes (another attribute he likely inherited from his time playing football).
The last way to stop a set of dominoes from going timber is to pick them all up before the row completely crumbles. This is the basketball equivalent of hustle.
Normally, hustle is a nebulous term that often gets thrown around arbitrarily. However, that isn’t the case with Suggs. NBA.com has a hustle category. And three things they track there are deflections, charges drawn and loose balls recovered. Our friend Suggs ranks in the 89th percentile or higher in all three of those categories.
Despite not rostering an elite rim protector, the Magic have engineered a great defense through their point-of-attack defense (second-lowest opponent assists per 100 possessions), defensive playmaking (first in opponent turnover percentage), and hustle/effort (top 11 in all the hustle categories we cited). All the things that Suggs stands for.
Suggs’ combination of point-of-attack brilliance, turnover creation and a motor that never stops revving makes him one of the best defensive guards in the association (91st percentile in D-DRIP). But we’ve seen plenty of defensively slanted players get phased out during the playoffs because of their lack of offense (see Jarred Vanderbilt last year).
That is the big difference with Suggs this year. He’s always had the tools to be a great guard defender. But in his first two seasons, Suggs struggled to find his footing on the offensive end of the floor. This year, he’s still not a great on-ball scorer and playmaker, but he’s found a way to leverage his athletic gifts to build confidence and make an impact on that end of the court. That’s in part evident by his DELTA, the difference in DRIP rating from preseason projections to now.
Being that the Magic force so many turnovers, they often find themselves with a ton of transition opportunities. Suggs is great at recognizing these situations and capitalizing on them. According to NBA.com playtype data, Suggs is in the 85th percentile in transition volume and 55th percentile in transition efficiency.
In the half court, Suggs is good at using his instincts and athleticism for cutting and offensive rebounding. On the season, Suggs is in the 46th percentile in offensive rebounding percentage. That may not sound like much, but, keep in mind, Suggs is just a 6-4 guard. Most of those guys are in the bottom 25th percentile in this area.
The biggest change in Suggs’ offensive game this year has come from his outside shooting. During his rookie season, Suggs shot an abysmal 21.4% from downtown. Last season, that number improved to a subpar 32.7%.
This year, that number is up to a serviceable 36.2%. And there is hope that improvement is here to stay, as Suggs is also experiencing his best season from the free-throw line (83.3%). Remember, free-throw shooting is one of the best context-independent measures of shooting capability.
If Suggs can keep up his current shooting, that means that he likely won’t get schemed off the floor in a playoff series. Which is huge because if the Magic continue at their current pace, they will definitely be needing Suggs in a playoff series.
How about that? A year ago, people were bashing Orlando for using the fifth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft to select Suggs. Now, Suggs is the linchpin of an elite defense, doing enough on offense to stay on the floor, and helping guide Orlando back into relevancy. Not too shabby. It’s a good thing he didn’t decide to play football.