Throughout the Orlando Magic’s 2015-16 season, one word will be repeated: potential. The Magic are somewhat of an enigma entering their season opener thanks to young talent that still has a lot of development to go.
At best, Orlando is a young team that could make the leap into the postseason. The Eastern Conference is top heavy with Cleveland and Chicago serving as obvious contenders, and then a group of other teams that could make a charge.
But a team like the Magic, who boast a starting five of former first-round draft picks, is capable of breaking through. The lineup includes several players expected to make leaps of improvement.
Victor Oladipo is a fringe superstar at shooting guard entering his third season. Tobias Harris is a solid player who, despite being a veteran compared to some of his teammates, is still early in the maturation of his career.
But no player has a higher ceiling than starting point guard Elfrid Payton. Payton appeared in all 82 games — the first Magic player to do so since Dwight Howard, J.J. Redick and Jason Williams in 2009-10 — and made 63 starts as a rookie. He averaged a team-best 6.5 assists and totaled 533, just 11 shy of Penny Hardaway’s rookie franchise record set in 1993-94.
Payton is a pass-first guard with excellent vision. At 6-foot-4, he’s tall for his position, which gives him a rebounding advantage. He grabbed 349 rebounds — which ranked eighth in the NBA among point guards — and averaged 4.3 per game — which ranked ninth.
In March, Payton became the first rookie — and first player in franchise history — to record back-to-back triple-doubles. By then, he looked more comfortable as a starting NBA guard.
What sets Payton apart from fellow second-year teammate Aaron Gordon is how good he already is. Gordon is a project player who has unlimited potential and can develop into a premier NBA forward, but Payton seems like a natural on the court. Even through rookie struggles, he’s shown glimpses of a player destined to make a quick jump to superstardom.
Payton’s only real area of weakness is shooting. He made just 26.2 percent of three-pointers and was hesitant to attempt those shots, which caused defenders to “sag off” because they didn’t respect his jumper. But that’s not uncommon with young point guards and likely was addressed during offseason training.
Still, Payton has the highest ceiling of any Orlando player based on a solid debut season. With a high basketball IQ and a plethora of raw talent, Payton has the potential to be an All-Star with the proper handling.
New head coach Scott Skiles is the perfect addition to aid in his maturation process. Skiles — a point guard on several early Magic teams — holds the NBA record for assists and has a solid track record coaching young teams.
The addition of veteran guard C.J. Watson should also help. Watson is a journeyman point guard who’s one of the NBA’s most reliable backups. His experience and tutelage should aid Payton, while also allowing Orlando to give its franchise guard time to rest.
Although he enters Orlando’s season opener on Wednesday with a hamstring injury, Payton claims there’s little cause for concern.
“This is my third day feeling good, so I’m pretty confident that we’re moving in the right direction,” Payton told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel.
If Payton is healthy, he should be one of the league’s top rising point guards in 2015-16, and the New Orleans native will be a key factor in Orlando’s playoff chances during his second season.