Second-year forward Jonathan Isaac left the Magic’s 120-114 loss to the Sixers just 30 seconds into the second quarter and did not return to the game after suffering a sprained ankle. His prognosis is unknown.
That was a problem first-year Magic head coach Steve Clifford did not need during his debut game leading a rebuilding Orlando squad.
“He hurt his ankle … I don’t know,” Clifford said. “I don’t think it’s bad bad, but we have no idea. We’ll know tomorrow.”
Most of the attention, however, was on Bamba, whose first NBA game was mixed with good and bad moments.
The outcome of the preseason game didn’t really matter. Bamba had arrived.
It was such an anticipated debut that even Philly fans enjoyed watching the 7-foot center, whom the Magic selected with the No. 6 pick in the NBA Draft. Bamba, who did not start the game but checked in with about four minutes remaining in the first quarter, certainly piqued the interest of those in attendance. When Bamba went to the bench midway through the second quarter, one 76ers’ fan even yelled, “We want Mo Bamba back in.”
He’s a fan favorite already, but Clifford plans to bring along his prized big man slowly.
There were no surprises in the Magic starting lineup, with Gordon and Isaac lining up as forwards, Nikola Vucevic at center and Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin at the guard spots. The first players off the bench were Jonathan Simmons for Gordon at 4:45, then Bamba entered the game with Jerian Grant and Terrence Ross. Later first-half substitutions included Jarrell Martin and Wes Iwundu.
Martin started the second half in place of the injured Isaac.
Vucevic led the way for the Magic with 20 points, followed by Augustin and Bamba with 12 points apiece. Gordon and Ross both finished with 10.
Joel Embiid led Philly with 21 points and seven rebounds.
Late in the game, sarcastic Philly fans started chanting “MVP, MVP…” for Bamba.
Bamba had what he called a “personal” moment in the first half. He took the ball in the paint and went to the hole at his good friend and fellow big man Embiid. It was Embiid who had taken Bamba to the rim during an offseason pick-up game in a moment that was caught on video and made the rounds on social media.
As Embiid slammed the ball over Bamba in the video, he yelled, “Welcome to the [expletive] NBA.”
Monday, Bamba had his own opportunity to take Embiid to the hole, and although he didn’t put the ball down with quite the authority as Embiid’s dunk, he did score and it was a special moment for the rookie.
“That was a little personal … flashback to a couple of months ago,” Bamba laughed. “I winked at him. I should have told him welcome to the league. … No, I’m kidding.
He also acknowledged that it wasn’t the most auspicious debut, yet he did feel good about his first NBA action.
“There’s definitely room for improvement. I think there are definitely some things I need to do to make my teammates’ jobs easier,” Bamba said. “Defensively, I need to talk more and definitely rebound more. These guys lean on me a lot for defensive assignments and to rebound a lot and I think that was one area where I under-did it.
“… It honestly felt like a movie out there. I was just really soaking it in … I didn’t get nervous. … Overall, I think it was OK.”
Embiid was not so forgiving in assessing the rookie’s first game. He was nice at first, saying, “He’s a great guy and I think he has a bright future.”
But then he talked about how he went right at Bamba.
“He’s really skinny, can’t guard me. … He had like four fouls in eight minutes, so he’s lucky I didn’t play more minutes or he would have fouled out in 10 minutes,” Embiid said. “But like I said. He has a lot of potential. I’m gonna keep trying to help him to become what he’s supposed to be and I think he’s gonna be really good.”
Bamba picked up his fifth foul with 3:53 left in the third quarter, but he wasn’t the only Magic player who had foul issues. Martin fouled out of the game and overall the Magic were whistled for 33 personals.
“The biggest thing was the fouling. You can’t foul like that in this league,” Clifford said. “By the number, the best offensive possession you can have is to go to the free-throw line. … So when you put teams at the line time after time after time … one, it’s a great possession for them, and two, their defense is set every time. We have to clean that up.”
Besides the 12 points, Bamba did struggle a bit in 17 minutes of action, recording just three rebounds and no blocked shots.
Bamba hit his first field goal, a 3-pointer from the top of the circle, about two minutes after entering the game, and added a pair of free throws to end the first quarter. Even the Philly crowd gave Bamba a bit of love when he made his first appearance, although many of those fans were likely part of a large contingent of friends from Bamba’s prep days at Westtown School in West Chester, Pa., which is about 30 minutes from Philly.
The Magic’s new 76-million dollar man Gordon started out a little sluggish, as well, but out of a timeout five minutes into the game, Gordon took charge. With the Magic trailing 11-2, Gordon hit two free throws and then created two turnovers, one ending with a dish to Vucevic for a dunk. On the next play, he stole a pass and took off the other way, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd as he spin-dribbled out of trouble at halfcourt and then hit Vucevic for another bucket, pulling Orlando within 11-10.
The Magic never led in the game, but that wasn’t the concern of Clifford. He was looking to evaluate and he saw several good things, many of which came from Terrence Ross off the bench.
“Yeah, no question. I thought he looked good and I think both him and Jonathan Simmons were so happy to get out there and play. They both brought good energy,” Clifford said.
Hidden within all of the other storylines was Vucevic, who had a great night for the Magic. He was 9 of 17 from the floor and ended with five rebounds and two blocked shots.
“He played well, He did a lot of good things,” Clifford said of Vucevic.
There were a few bad things, as well. Fournier struggled for the most part. Usually a solid shooter, Fournier missed all of his five first-half field goal attempts, including three 3-point tries. He missed his first shot of the second half, as well, before finally finding the net. He ended the night with just three points on 1 of 11 shooting, including 1 of 7 from 3-point range.
“But you know what, he played well and those are shots that he’ll make,” Clifford said of Fournier.
As for Isaac, it’s wait and see. He had injury issues during all of his rookie season last year, seeing action in just 41 games due to a lingering ankle problem. He missed the final 22 games and was looking forward to getting this year started off right.
He began the game in a big way, scoring the Magic’s first points on a dunk off a pass from Gordon. But that was about the extent of his highlights. Isaac played just nine minutes and had two points and a blocked shot.