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NBA: Rockets visit Magic in battle of teams in flux

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When the Orlando Magic leaned fully into a rebuild with their jettisoning of Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic, they did so knowing that their collection of young talent would not immediately have an opportunity to play together and mesh due largely to injuries.

With Mo Bamba (hip), Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac — both of whom are sidelined for the season with knee injuries — unavailable, Orlando is hamstrung in its ability to start putting the pieces of its future in place.

Without that trio, the Magic offer a mix of youngsters with upside (Cole Anthony, Dwayne Bacon, R.J. Hampton and Chuma Okeke) and veterans (James Ennis III, Otto Porter, Terrence Ross and Michael Carter-Williams) who might not fit Orlando long term.

Wendell Carter Jr., acquired in the trade that shipped Vucevic to Chicago, turned 22 on Friday. He has the potential to be a central figure in the Magic rebuild and has flashed promise since his arrival, averaging 14.5 points and 8.7 rebounds in 11 games with Orlando, who will host the Houston Rockets on Sunday.

Carter had 20 points and nine rebounds in a 113-102 road loss to the Toronto Raptors on his birthday and is ably transitioning to his new role as a focal point.

“I like it. It’s a great feeling of course, but at the same time it’s a lot of responsibility,” Carter said. “It’s just being the guy that’s going to get his teammates involved, be very close to perfect when it comes to the defensive end and offensively just taking my shots when they’re there.”

There have been growing pains, of course. The Magic have dropped seven of eight games and have a one-game lead on the Detroit Pistons for last place in the Eastern Conference. Rebuilds offer difficult lessons, particularly for injury-marred rosters, and Orlando is laboring to make strides.

Against the Raptors, things went sideways defensively when Orlando struggled to score. That is a reflex that infects a lot of teams, and one that younger teams must shake while developing.

“I struggle with that to this day,” Carter said. “It’s hard, but at the same time we’ve got to understand that the offense will always come around but our defense has to be solid for the whole 48.”

With their 128-99 home loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday, the Rockets assumed the worst record in the league. Houston has dropped five consecutive games and 10 of 11 overall and, like Orlando, is playing with an odd blend of youth and veterans that doesn’t always blend well.

The Rockets have the makings of a core with Kenyon Martin Jr., Kevin Porter Jr., Jae’Sean Tate and Christian Wood, but they are still playing veterans Kelly Olynyk and John Wall heavy minutes. Olynyk and Avery Bradley, acquired in the trade that sent Victor Oladipo to Miami, aren’t likely to be long for Houston, but Wall has one year plus a player option for 2022-23 left on his contract. His play this season — Wall had seven turnovers on Friday — has been erratic.

“We have to look ourselves in the mirror and understand that the game that we love to play if we do love to play, the two most important things are … enjoy the game and play hard,” Wall said. “If we can’t do that, then you don’t belong on the floor and you don’t belong in the NBA.”

–Field Level Media

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