The Washington Wizards will look to start their first winning streak of the season on Sunday night, as they take on the Orlando Magic on the road at 6 p.m.
The Wizards (3-7) are coming off their most lopsided win of the early season on Friday night. They crushed the Minnesota Timberwolves on the road, 137-116, less than two weeks after they lost to those same T-Wolves by 22 at home. Dominant performances by Bradley Beal and Moe Wagner propelled the Wizards to the win, and the team will look to build momentum off that game by stealing another road victory against the Magic on Sunday.
Key to Victory: Containing Nikola Vucevic
The Magic (5-7) are lead by center Nikola Vucevic, who has done a bit of everything on the floor this season. He’s picked up where he left off in 2018-19, a season in which he earned his first career All-Star nod. Vucevic is averaging 17.2 PPG and 11.7 RPG, and is also one of the best passing big men in the game with 3.2 APG, tied for second on the Magic behind only point guard DJ Augustine.
The Wizards have struggled defending the NBA’s top big men all year. On Friday, Karl-Anthony Towns put up 36 points and 10 rebounds. This match-up shouldn’t be much easier for Wizards’ center Thomas Bryant, who has struggled recently on the defensive side of the ball. However, Moe Wagner has picked up some of the slack on the defensive end, and leads the league in charges taken with 11 in 10 games. The Wizards are going to need both of them to be on their A-game defensively if they are going to contain the Magic’s best player.
The best way for these two to defend Vucevic is easier said than done: force him to take jumpshots. Throughout his career, Vucevic has shown the ability to knock down jumpshots. However, he has struggled so far this season. He is shooting just 28.6% from three-point range on 3.5 three-point attempts per game, and is much more effective when he is getting the ball where he wants it most – in the paint. Look for Wagner to possibly take a couple early charges on Vucevic in an attempt to get him into early foul trouble, and keep him on the bench.
Match-up to Watch For: Isaiah Thomas vs Markelle Fultz
The point guard match-up in Sunday night’s game will be one of the more intriguing match-ups we see this season, but not because either guard is on an All-Star pace. Washington Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas and Orlando Magic guard Markelle Fultz are on a mission to prove their doubters wrong. They are both attempting redeem careers that many thought may have been over. For Isaiah Thomas, injuries and three uneventful stops with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets left many to consider whether he had anything left in the tank. This ultimately led him to the Wizards on a veteran’s minimum deal.
Markelle Fultz, the former No. 1 overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers, had a mysterious injury to his shooting shoulder. This caused a hitch in his jumpshot, and forced him to sit for the majority of the last two seasons. The 76ers decided they could no longer remain patient with Fultz given the win-now mentality of the team, and dumped him off to the Orlando Magic for Jonathon Simmons (no longer in the league), a top-20 protected 2020 first round pick, and a 2019 second round pick.
Both have been given a fresh start with their respective teams, and are now starting. Thomas is averaging 13.4 PPG and has been a solid distributor of the basketball, averaging 6.1 APG. While he has shown flashes of the old I.T on offense, he has also shown flashes of the old I.T on defense. At just 5’9, he has trouble defending just about everyone, which leaves the door open for Fultz to have a strong game. Thomas ranks 417th out of 438 eligible players in defensive rating this season. Fultz’s large frame at 6’3 poses an even tougher match-up for Thomas. We could see the Wizards shift to the zone to force him and the rest of the Magic to take three-pointers.
Story to Watch: The Dominance of Bradley Beal
Two-time All-Star Bradley Beal has been on a rampage as of late, including two straight performances in which he dropped 44 points. Beal is averaging an incredible 29.7 PPG this season. That’s good for fourth in the NBA, behind only James Harden, Damian Lillard and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. What’s crazy is that Beal could take it a step further if he can start knocking down three-pointers at the rate he has his entire career. Beal is a 38.2 % three-point shooter over his entire career, but this season his three-point shooting total has dropped to 31.4%.
While he isn’t shooting the three-ball at the clip he wants to, he is making up for it in many different ways. Beal has steadily increased his assists per game in each of the past five seasons. He’s showing more of an ability to create for others, rather than being just a spot shooter like he was early on in his career alongside John Wall. Beal is averaging 6.8 APG, up from his career high of 5.5 APG last season. As expected, much of the burden to win games lies with Beal. The Wizards will need yet another strong performance from him in order to get their first winning streak of the season under their belt.