Just when it seemed like the Orlando Magic were going to take significant steps forward with player availability, they wound up taking some back.
The steps forward: Rookie forward Paolo Banchero and big man Moe Wagner making their returns vs. the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday at Amway Center.
The steps back: Starting big man Wendell Carter Jr. (strained right plantar fascia — the soft tissue under the foot) and reserve forward Chuma Okeke (left knee soreness) not being available.
Terrence Ross also was ruled out an hour before tipoff because of an illness, leaving the Magic with six standard roster players sidelined.
Being without several rotation pieces isn’t new. The Magic have had at least five standard roster players out every game, making it challenging to grasp the team’s capabilities.
“It hasn’t been a full evaluation,” coach Jamahl Mosley said. “With different bodies and guys out there, you’re looking at what they can do individually.”
There are encouraging outlines of what the Magic can become collectively.
Offensively, they get to the rim and free throw line frequently. They’re one of the league’s best rebounding teams.
They still need to show they can cut down turnovers, third-quarter lapses and improve defensive communication — especially when switching.
“It’s the puzzle pieces like we talked about early in the year,” Mosley said. “You have your mindset on puzzle pieces that you think are going to fit. Then injuries happen, [and] things occur. We’re talking about being able to have the next-man-up mentality. Our guys are understanding what they need to do. And our coaches are doing a great job of having them ready. It’s not easy but it’s our job to put them in the best position to be successful.”
Carter has missed 4 of 5 games with the foot injury while Okeke’s absence is his first of the season. Okeke left Monday’s loss to the Pacers in Indianapolis with knee soreness.
Banchero, the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, missed seven consecutive games because of a sprained left ankle in a Nov. 7 home loss to the Houston Rockets before returning Friday.
He was averaging a team-high 23.5 points, which is the most among rookies, to go with 8.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists in 34.6 minutes (11 games) before suffering the injury.
“[He adds] a ton,” Mosley said. “We talk about his ability to get to the rim, his ability to get to the free throw line. His physical stature, being able to punish defenses, is going to be very big for us. Our switching gets back into play the same way with bigger-sized bodies.”
Wagner made his season debut when he subbed in late in the first quarter. He hadn’t played since spraining his right midfoot during the preseason win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 14.
“His energy, enthusiasm, those bell plays we talk about — whether that’s taking a charge, making the extra pass, getting under the skin of the defender — he’s great at those things,” Mosley said. “The other side people don’t recognize because of that energy is he has a high basketball IQ.”
Cole Anthony (torn right internal oblique), Markelle Fultz (fractured left big toe) and Jonathan Isaac (left knee injury recovery) remain out.
The 76ers were without three of their top scorers in Joel Embiid (sprained left midfoot), Tyrese Maxey (fractured left foot) and James Harden (strained right foot tendon).
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.