Lakeland Magic Starting to Click at the Right Time

By Josh Cohen, NBA | March 7, 2022

It was this time a year ago when the Lakeland Magic went on their tear at Walt Disney World, culminating with a championship victory over the Delaware Blue Coats.

Four-and-a-half games back of a playoff spot with 12 regular-season games remaining this season, Lakeland has all the confidence in the world they have what it takes to make another storybook run. And based on their recent play, winning three of their last four and five of their last eight, another postseason berth is certainly within reach.

Their offense, which over the last eight games ranks No. 1 in the G League, continues to ascend, largely because of the strong chemistry they have built.

“Right now, we are balanced,” said first-year Lakeland Head Coach Joe Barrer, an assistant the last few seasons under Stan Heath, who is now at the helm at Eastern Michigan University, his alma mater. “They play real unselfishly offensively. Our ball movement, based on some things we measure, has been really good. It’s something we’ve preached all year – playing with the pass. (Orlando Head) Coach (Jamahl) Mosley has talked about that a lot with his group, so that’s what we’ve been trying to carry. That’s our biggest strength. The shots always haven’t gone in all year, but lately since coming back from the All-Star break, we’ve been able to shoot the ball real well. Our ball movement has been very good.”

A trip to Cairo, Egypt in mid-February to compete in the 2022 FIBA Intercontinental Cup helped jumpstart that camaraderie. It was the third time the G League champions from the prior year participated in this event. The Austin Toros, the 2017-18 G League champs, went to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2019 to play in the four-team tournament, while the 2018-19 champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers voyaged out to Tenerife, Spain to do the same the following year.

Unlike Austin and Rio Grande Valley, however, Lakeland left the host city with a victory, blowing out Egypt’s Zamalek, the reigning Basketball Africa League champions, in the third-place game. Hassani Gravett, who appeared in eight games for the Magic’s parent club earlier this season while they were shorthanded during the COVID outbreak, led five Lakeland players in double figures with 22 points in that win, while Jeff Dowtin Jr. scored 21 and Devin Cannady and Aleem Ford each had 18. Brazil’s Flamengo, which beat Lakeland in the semifinals, won the cup title by knocking off Spain’s San Pablo Burgos in the championship game.

With an Egyptian-inspired tattoo on one of his arms, Gravett has always been fascinated by the culture. Seeing hieroglyphs and exploring some of the top sights in Egypt, including the iconic pyramids and Great Sphinx, was a dream-like experience, and one that helped the team bond, on and off the court.

“I played last year overseas, so to go back out there, I was already kind of familiar with the rules and everything,” he said. “It’s a totally different style of play. I was actually very interested to see how our guys that haven’t played over there (would) react – and I just tried to do my best to prepare them for that. I think we enjoyed ourselves. I think it helped build a lot of team chemistry, on and off the court. As you see, we are looking way better as a team than we did in the first half, and I think that trip definitely contributed to that.”

Lakeland’s most recent victory came Sunday against the Grand Rapids Gold, the affiliate of the Denver Nuggets. A big win for a variety of reasons, but mostly because the Gold are one of the teams the Magic are trailing in the standings. Cannady, playing in his eighth G League game since returning from the ankle injury he suffered while on a two-way contract with Orlando last season, led Lakeland with 23 points on 6-of-9 shooting overall and 5-of-8 from 3-point range.

Being out of action for 10 months hasn’t at all hindered the 25-year-old’s development. He’s shooting 51.9 percent from behind the arc, the best mark in the G League this season among players who have attempted at least 50 shots from downtown.

“I’ve just slowed the game down for myself by being able to sit out and watch,” the Princeton grad and 2021 G League Finals MVP said. “At the end of the season last year, watching a lot of Magic basketball (and) basketball in general. And then, getting to see the game up close and personal from the sidelines really for the first time in my career allowed me to just come in and find my spots, move the ball well to help the team win, and then when I have a good shot, take it and make it.”

Another significant development for this team was getting Dowtin back in the fold. You may recall the game-winning shot he made for Orlando during the preseason in a game against the Boston Celtics. From there, he caught the attention of the league. The Golden State Warriors claimed the 6-foot-3 point guard off waivers immediately after the preseason ended and then signed him to a two-way contract. He appeared in four games with Golden State before getting waived in early January. A few days later, the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks picked him up for a 10-day contract.

The native of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, which is where Markelle Fultz was also born, is averaging 21.8 points and 7.1 assists in the 12 G League games he’s played in since returning to Lakeland.

“Being at that upper level, seeing how the pros operate, seeing how the game goes – it just gives you a lot of confidence knowing that you’ve been in those type of situations before and you had those opportunities,” he said of his stints with the Warriors and Bucks. “Just coming from the G League to the NBA and back down, you kind of see the growth in yourself and you see how you can play and be effective at the next level, and you kind of want to take those moments and those opportunities and translate it at the G League level.”