Jalen Suggs’ role with the Orlando Magic has changed significantly in the past year.
After being a full-time starter as a rookie last season and the start of this season, Suggs has come off the bench the last 15 games after returning from right ankle soreness entering Friday’s 127-120 road win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
His offensive usage has dipped, especially since returning from injury.
Suggs has a season-long usage of 20% and usage of 15.9% since returning from injury compared to his 24.4% usage last season.
His playing time has also dipped, averaging 16.7 minutes entering Friday since returning from injury compared to 28.9 before the injury and 27.2 last season.
Through it all, Suggs hasn’t allowed the changes to impact his defense. If anything, he’s ramped it up.
“He’s been special,” coach Jamahl Mosley said pregame. “He has a special gift defensively to get after the ball, to defend and put his body in harm’s way; getting under and over screens. He definitely has a talent there that not many people possess.”
Mosley added: “You talk about being a game-changer, the way he can get into the basketball — he has a talent and gift of that: his anticipation, knowing when and where the ball’s going [and] how to get into guys without necessarily fouling. That’s a true gift he possesses and he embraces that — being able to be that spark off the bench, come in and be that defensive stopper.”
Suggs embracing that role was on full display Friday.
He helped flipped the game in the Magic’s favor with stout defensive play late in the first period and throughout the second.
Suggs deflected passes, disrupted passing lanes and used his distinctive blend of positional size and athleticism to excel as a one-on-one defender. He also helped turn defense into offense.
After trailing 34-27 at the end of the first, the Magic put together two strong defensive quarters where Suggs made his presence felt.
The Magic allowed just 41 combined Timberwolves points in the second and third, taking a 90-75 lead into the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately for Suggs, his night in his hometown ended early.
Suggs, Mo Bamba, Austin Rivers, Taurean Prince and Jaden McDaniels were ejected late in the third period for their roles in an on-court altercation.
It wasn’t known before the game ended what led to the fight, but Bamba and Rivers threw punches at each other near the Magic’s bench. The scuffle carried onto the court, with Suggs grabbing Rivers and pushing him on the ground to break up the fight.
The Magic didn’t allow the fight to deter them, taking a 102-80 lead early in the fourth. The Timberwolves didn’t go away easily, cutting the lead to 6 late in the fourth, but they didn’t get any closer.
The Magic (21-32), who were led by Cole Anthony’s 20 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in 27 minutes off the bench, had seven players score in double figures.
The Timberwolves (28-27) were led by D’Angelo Russell’s 29 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists.
Suggs already was known as a high-level defender after his rookie season.
He’s taken it up a level.
Since returning from injury, Suggs has averaged 5.4 deflections per 36 minutes — fifth among all players who have played in at least eight games since Jan. 5.
His 5 steals in Wednesday’s road loss to the Philadelphia 76ers highlighted some of Suggs’ attributes — strength, athleticism and anticipating what offensive players will do.
“His athletic ability is kind of unique,” Magic guard Markelle Fultz said of Suggs. “The way he’s able to gamble and still stay in front. Unique strength and athletic ability to read passing lanes and get steals. It’s kind of amazing to watch. Sometimes you just sit there and look and you’re like, ‘No, J,’ and next thing you know, he ends up with the ball. That’s something that’s very unique to him.”
Starting big man Wendell Carter Jr. sat Friday because of strained right plantar fascia — the soft tissue under the foot. Carter missed 18 of 19 games from mid-November through late December with the injury.
Mo Bamba started in Carter’s place alongside Fultz, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero.
The Magic will end their four-game road trip against the Charlotte Hornets Sunday.
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.
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