Getty Image/Merle Cooper
With the way the Orlando Magic closed the 2022-23 season, there were plenty of people keeping an eye on them as a team to jump into the East Play-In chase this season. However, few saw them getting off to the hot start they did, vaulting to the top of the East standings. And while they’ve cooled off some, they’re still a real threat to nab a playoff berth, sitting just 0.5 games back of the Pacers for the 6-seed currently.
What makes Orlando fairly unique is they’re a very young team that is winning because of their exploits on the defensive end of the floor. The Magic are fourth in the NBA in defensive rating as we near the All-Star break, which is rarely the hallmark of a team filled with players in their first five years of service in the league. The Magic are built around the idea of throwing waves of size and length at opponents, with Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner at the forefront of that attack, along with a deep frontcourt rotation featuring Wendell Carter Jr., Mo Wagner, Goga Bitadze, and Jonathan Isaac.
For Carter, he’s just now getting back into a rhythm after dealing with two different injuries this year, but since the sixth-year big man returned to the starting lineup late in January, the Magic have gone 7-4 to inch ever closer to the top-6 in the East again. Like many on this young Magic team, being in this position is new territory for Carter. After starting his career in Chicago before being traded to Orlando, Carter has never been on a team that finished with a winning record, and when we talked last week a day before the trade deadline, he couldn’t hide his excitement to be part of a team fighting for a playoff spot.
Carter spoke with DIME on behalf of Call of Duty as they launch Modern Warfare III and Warzone Season 2, with Carter one of many players in the NBA who is a loyal COD player, noting he gets a few hours in each day in his downtime. We talked about how video games help a young team like the Magic bond, how this young Orlando team can be so good defensively, what impresses Carter most about Banchero’s leap into being an All-Star in Year 2, and Carter finding his way as a “vet” despite being in just his sixth season.
I talked to [Jalen Williams] JDub in OKC about this, as they’ve got kind of a similar team to y’all in terms of having a lot of young guys. How important is Call of Duty and gaming to how you guys connect and have been able to bond off the court?
Oh man. I think that might be number one for us. We don’t necessarily play together as much, only because when we’re back home guys have different schedules or whatever the case may be. But I mean from [Jalen] J Suggs to Admiral Schofield to me to Markelle Fultz, everyone plays video games. Call of Duty is usually the main game everyone plays. I mean, I bring it on the road every time. Anytime we have an off day I’m on there for about four or five hours. It’s just a way to escape reality a little bit. So, it’s a game that I’ve always played since I was like 18 years old.
How would you rank your teammates Call of Duty skills? Like, who’s at the top of the Magic’s power rankings for Call of Duty?
I’d definitely probably say [Jalen] J Suggs number one. He takes it very seriously. He’s really good at the game. I’d definitely put myself at second though, right behind him. It’s because I have more experience than most of my team. I’ll probably go Admiral Schofield next. Admiral’s pretty good. Who else am I missing? Cole [Anthony] is pretty good and Caleb Houstan is pretty good. Those are guys that I really know who play the game or at least play Call of Duty a lot.
Is there anybody that you wouldn’t want in your squad?
[Laughs] Honestly, I’ll probably say Markelle [Fultz] only because our relationship is so goofy. He would just make the game so much harder than it has to be. That’s probably one guy I would not want to be squaded up with.
I want to talk a little bit about about the season for you. You’ve been in and out of the lineup with injuries but you’ve been able to play a bunch of games in a row now. How are you feeling? And are you finally feeling like you’re able to get into a rhythm find your role on this squad?
Oh, absolutely. You know, it’s tough going down early, just the fifth game into the season. You know, they found ways to win games, went on that nine-game winning streak which was a really big highlight for us to achieve this year, especially early on. With me coming back, it’s always good just to be back on the court. So those first couple of games are just me trying to find my way. But now I definitely feel like I implemented myself as the same Wendell that the Orlando Magic has seen the last two years. So it just felt good to get back out there, because going into the season my biggest goal was just to play at least 80 games or 82 games. I wanted to be able to play and be available for every game. So it was a little frustrating when it happened, but I always believe that everything happens for a reason. I’m finally back out there and I’m feeling pretty good right now.
When you have that time where you’re out and watching the team play, what are the things you’re able to take away as positives?Do you try to learn the ways you can kind of fit in because you get to watch those guys play from a different viewpoint than when you’re out there on the floor?
It’s always interesting. I’ve unfortunately had a lot of injuries throughout my career in the NBA so I’ve had a lot of time to actually watch from the outside looking in, not necessarily as a fan but as a teammate. And it allows me to kind of see where I can get my shots at or on the defensive end what needs to be improved. What can I do to help on the defensive end? Being a great teammate, it helps me with communicating a little bit more. Since I’m not out there, being able to see some things that they may not be able to see while being out there, and being able to communicate those things to my team. So yeah, that’s really probably the biggest three things for me.
Y’all have been really good defensively this year. I wanted to ask, what does Coach Mosley instill in you guys defensively? Because historically young teams don’t tend to be able to put together a high level defense. What is it about this coaching staff and this particular group of guys that allows y’all to play at such a high level on that end and be so successful in slowing teams down when we have historic offense in the NBA right now?
I mean, it’s amazing. I’ve been a part of fairly young teams, and it’s always tough to get guys to buy into the defensive side of the court. You know, a lot of young people believe that scoring is the only way to affect the game. And going into this year I remember Coach [Jamahl] Mosley was telling us at the beginning of the year that defensive travels. You make shots, you miss shots, that comes with the game, but defensive effort you can bring every single night. No matter what’s happening on the offensive side of the ball. So I think he did a really good job of getting us all to buy into it. You know, with us being so young, like you were saying, it’s really hard to do that. I’m just lucky to be a part of a team that everyone’s just bought into winning. When you win, everybody reaps the benefits of it. So I’m just glad that I’m a part of a team that cares about defense as much.
How much did the second half of last year help with that? Because y’all had a rough start to the year but you closed the year strong and got that taste of winning and could build those habits. How much were you guys able to carry over from that and build on that as a foundation for what you’re doing this year?
It was important. You know, we started off the season pretty banged up last year. So when we went back to having everyone back, we got a taste what the Orlando Magic was really capable of. And the fact that we didn’t look at it as, “Oh, we’re just gonna give up for the season and whatever happens happens,” the fact that we were able to buy in and just continue to play each game and just making every game important, it just shows how locked in and how validating it can be as a team. And when we’re fully healthy I feel like a very dangerous team. It showed a lot of things for us last year, so it gave us a lot of things to look forward to going into this year.
Honestly, I think it’s his mindset over everything. He’s a guy who’s on a team where he’s the number one option, he’s an All Star, on an up-and-coming team in the league. He has the keys right now. So for him to be in a position he’s at and still be willing to learn, still being willing to do what it takes to win, it just shows how good he’s really going to be. In my opinion, I feel like we’re just now scratching the surface of how good he’s going to be in the league. So it’s amazing to see a young guy who just turned 21 not too long ago, that with all the fame, all the eyes on him, all that, he’s still staying dialed in and focused and still, like I said, willing to learn and get better on both ends of the court. So I give a lot of credit to him in just how he approaches the game.
I know you’re only in your sixth year in the league, but you are one of the vets on this Magic team. What are the things that you tell the guys about navigating an 82-game season and the ups and downs? Because this year you had the winning streak early, then you had a little bit of a skid, and now you seem to be stabilizing ab it. What do you tell them about managing emotions over the course of 82 games?
Personally, I’ve never had a winning season, above .500. This is my first year in the league of having that. So I kind of told them to just be patient. This NBA cycle is up and down. There’s teams that are at the top of the league one year and then the very next year, they’re fighting to get into a Play-In game. So I kind of just tell them, as a team, there’s no way you’re going to be a perfect team and win every game. You’re gonna lose some. You’re gonna win some. You’re gonna win some that everyone thinks you weren’t supposed to win. You’re gonna lose some that everyone thinks you should have won. That’s the beauty of the league.
Then individually for guys, I just tell them, again, just to stay patient. Your time is coming. I look at his team and we have so much depth, from the first man to the 15th man I think he can play major minutes on any team in the league. I just try to tell them to just keep the main thing the main thing, which is going in and working, doing what you got to do, being on time, doing everything you can to give yourself a chance when the time comes. And I think they’ve done a phenomenal job of that. Like I said, it’s a pleasure to be a part of a team that’s this young but so locked into the little things.