One day in early October, during Orlando Magic training camp, Jalen Suggs and his teammates held what can loosely be described as a circle of trust. Players took turns sharing what they wanted from each other, the type of exchange that’s pointless if not grounded in authenticity. Honesty is essential.
For Suggs, entering his third NBA season, the exercise was as straightforward as it was significant. Independently, he had resolved to become one of the best defenders in the league. And when his teammates told him that’s exactly what they sought from him, too, Suggs promised them it’d happen.
“Everybody said that that was something they needed from me,” Suggs tells me. “Without hesitation, I’ll do anything the boys ask me to do. I’ll try my hardest to get it done. I knew it would lead to good things for us … taking on that challenge. And I know it’s hard, but it’s a privilege that they … believe in me.”
Translated: For the Magic to be the best version of themselves, they needed Suggs to embrace a set of self-effacing responsibilities and dismount from the more prominent seat Orlando originally saved for him. Circumstances had shifted dramatically since Suggs was selected fifth overall in the 2021 draft. In that time, he endured a string of nagging injuries and struggled to find any consistency. Meanwhile, Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner emerged as a pair of traditional wing cornerstones that Orlando’s front office was eager to build around.
Given how Suggs’s first two years went, expectations were low but stakes were high coming into the 2023-24 season. The Magic were finally ready to take a step forward, but first they had to answer the pressing internal question of who best fits around their impressive young forward duo—especially in the backcourt. The franchise already signed Cole Anthony to a long-term extension, traded for Markelle Fultz, and had just drafted Anthony Black. Any 22-year-old with Suggs’s talent, upside, explosiveness, and two-way dedication can be plenty useful, but his fit on this roster was unclear.
Fast-forward to mid-December, and Suggs is averaging 12.5 points and 2.5 assists as Orlando’s starting point guard. The typical reaction to a top-five pick who averages a dozen points in his third season is disappointment. Suggs is not his team’s lead ball handler. He ranks fifth in minutes, shots, and usage rate, and fourth in points per game. That’s not what the Magic envisioned when they drafted him. But these numbers are an increasingly irrelevant way to assess Suggs’s influence on the Magic, off to a 16-9 start despite being the fourth-youngest team in the league.
His task is not glamorous. For someone who was initially expected to be a franchise building block, that downshift has the potential to be uncomfortable. NBA practice facilities are packed with ego and ambition, and sometimes what’s unsaid tends to fester and cause friction. The Magic are lucky, though, that in this situation, with this core, none of that happened.
Instead, Suggs has excelled as the adrenalized pulse of what’s become the NBA’s most pleasant surprise, a team that couldn’t operate the same way without him, nor would it want to.
“He wears his emotion and his heart on his sleeve,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley told me. “He’s pure. There’s so much love there. That’s why this group is the way it is. Because he is how he is.”
Suggs’s career pretty much started with an injury, when a sprained left thumb cut his Las Vegas summer league stint short. Then, in late November of his rookie season, he fractured his right thumb against the Sixers, which sidelined him for six weeks; a couple of months later, Suggs sprained his ankle and suffered a bone bruise that forced him out another three weeks. In May, he had surgery to repair a fracture in the same ankle.
During his second preseason, Suggs was carried off the court after he sprained his knee. He managed to return in time for Orlando’s regular-season opener, but then almost immediately suffered another ankle injury that wound up plaguing his sophomore campaign. In all, Suggs missed 63 games in his first two years, suggesting that his frantic, feral playing style when healthy may be at odds with the rigors of a full season. “It was hard to find a rhythm,” he tells me, reflecting on those first two years. “Just constantly coming in and out of lineups … playing injured, playing hurt, and that’s part of it.”
(Earlier this month, Suggs landed wrong on his ankle in a loss against the Cavaliers but missed only one game; a few days later, he had to play with a cast on his left wrist after a hard fall on his hand in Boston.)
Even when he was healthy, Suggs couldn’t establish himself as an efficient scoring option anywhere on the court, be it in the paint or from behind the arc. Of all NBA players who attempted at least 300 3s in their first two years, Suggs owns the fourth-lowest percentage. Adapting to the speed of the pro game was also a major struggle at first. Suggs’s decision-making was overzealous. He forced shots and committed a ton of turnovers. That’s all a natural part of getting handed the keys as a 20-year-old, though, and Suggs cleaned up some of his mistakes in his second season. But still, Mosley eventually replaced him with Gary Harris in the starting lineup, clouding Suggs’s long-term outlook in an organization that was experimenting with more stable options in their backcourt.
All those setbacks gave birth to an existential realization. Suggs wasn’t happy, coming off two years that were blemished by health issues, rehab, and frustrating on-court results. “I felt myself going left,” he says, when asked about his mentality heading into last summer. “I think that if I continued where I was going into this year it would have been extremely hard to get off that path.
“There are some journeys that you just kind of have to go through yourself, without family, without friends, without a partner. That was something that I decided to fully dive into, so I could be my best self for my family, for my teammates, for the city of Orlando.”
Suggs knew he had to concede on the court. But before that was possible, he needed to reset how he saw himself outside the sport. He didn’t spend the summer working on his game; for the first time since his senior year of high school, Suggs didn’t touch a basketball for an entire month. Instead, through introspection and soul-searching, he reimagined the type of person he wants to be.
“I stripped my identity away from basketball. It allowed this to be a sport again, to be something, a hobby that I love to do and that feeds my competitive side, and I just let it be that,” he says. “It wasn’t who I was. Being an NBA player wasn’t who Jalen Suggs was. I didn’t like that, and I was headed that way. … I think it just took a lot of, not only pressure off of the game, but I had a whole new level of confidence because I knew as a man … I was a son, brother, nephew, and that’s where my identity lies.”
During our interview, Suggs repeatedly mentions his spirituality, reading scripture, prayer, and conversations with God. “I’ve been in a place of peace, honestly, mentally and spiritually, and just confident in my relationship with Christ,” he says. “And I think it’s carried over to the basketball court. It helped me find the love for the game again. It helped me rededicate myself to my work, to my craft, to my teammates, and it’s paying dividends.”
It’s all been a blessing in disguise for someone who’s found and accepted a critical, demanding, relatively thankless role—albeit not one that anyone foresaw for him just a couple of years ago. Suggs gives Orlando the edge it needs on a nightly basis. There’s a degree of sacrifice here that not every 22-year-old striving to earn a massive second contract would embrace.
“He plays with passion, which I love,” Brooklyn Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn said. “Doesn’t mind fighting through screens, getting hit by screens, diving on the floor. Energy for his team. It seems like they feed off his ability to accept all that.”
Suggs might not be Orlando’s power source on every play, but he regularly allows the Magic to access a higher wattage. “He’s crazy,” Cole Anthony tells me. “He’s crazy. In all the best ways, but he’s crazy.” Teammates appreciate and admire those selfless contributions. They feed off his enthusiasm. “His energy is contagious,” Anthony says. “Especially [with] me coming off the bench, seeing him on that first line, play with such force and so much energy, it inspires me to do the same thing.”
Almost two months after the tone for his third season was set at training camp, Suggs has made good on the promise he made to his teammates, establishing himself as an impenetrable first layer on the fourth-best defense in the NBA, and ranking first in defensive estimated plus-minus.
Suggs is simultaneously a linchpin and a luxury, augmenting Banchero and Wagner while obligingly handling the grimier duties that are necessary ingredients in any winning recipe. His defense is so important to the Magic that when I asked Mosley about Suggs’s offense, he started talking about what the Magic need from Suggs on the other end before he actually answered the question.
“He’s that front line of defense. Guards gotta see him right away. And that’s the one thing that teams need to know. And that’s what they do know about him,” Mosley says.
The Magic force the second-most turnovers and Suggs ranks tied for fifth in steals per game. He’s also tied for second in defensive loose balls recovered and first in close approximations of a crash test dummy. You feel your own jaw rattle when he runs into a screen or soars through the air at a borderline-irresponsible velocity to block a shot 99 percent of the league would let go.
There is no such thing as room temperature when Suggs is on the court. Every opponent he engages with is shoved into a jungle. When I ask him whether any defenders are more physical than he is, Suggs gives a smile that hints that whatever he’s about to say couldn’t entirely sum up how he feels. “I don’t believe so.” Few turn the phrase contact sport into a grosser understatement than he does. But that isn’t the only trait that makes Suggs exceptional on defense. He backs up his fearless tenacity with enough focus and athleticism to remind his coach of some all-time greats.
“I mean, if you watch him at times, there’s instances where guys can’t get by him,” Mosley tells me. “And I remember just watching ‘The Glove’ [Gary Payton] and just seeing, now, obviously there was a lot more physicality back then that you’re able to get away with, but he’s able to sit in his stance, beat you to your spot, get a deflection on a ball, and … he plays himself to exhaustion, which is a beautiful thing.”
During a recent film session, Orlando’s coaching staff showed the following possession, which Mosley characterized as the embodiment of everything that makes Suggs so special and rare.
None of this play is unusual. Suggs spends entire stints disrupting whatever the opposing offense wants to accomplish. His relentless, combative intensity can make a concrete infrastructure look like it’s made of saltine crackers. The cross-sport comparisons are common (Suggs was the first player in Minnesota history to win Mr. Basketball and Mr. Football in the same year) and accurate; he moves around the court like a strong safety with perfect timing and instincts, either reading the quarterback’s eyes or single-handedly collapsing the pocket. He’s also a shutdown corner, in the sense that even the greatest isolation scorers don’t challenge Suggs one-on-one.
His impact pops in gray areas, moments of chaos that exist outside scripted half-court sets, when the ball is up for grabs or the shot clock is nearing zero. “He’s a winner,” Mosley says. “Diving on the floor, getting loose balls, taking the charge, going for the block. Those are winning plays, and that’s who he is. … He’s a big moment guy.”
Of course, even the most intrusive defenders can be a liability if they don’t pose some type of threat when their team has the ball. For Suggs, attacking in transition at supersonic speed—particularly after a made basket—is his signature move.
“You see when he pushes it, it’s like Russell Westbrook down the court, flying through the lane,” Mosley says, illustrating what he asks Suggs to do on offense. “That’s part of it. Can you play with pace? Can you flatten the defense out?”
It keeps opponents on their heels and, in Suggs’s view, wears them down. “It makes our defense a little easier because they’re tired,” he explains. It also lets the Magic avoid having to execute in the half court, where they haven’t been efficient in years.
Orlando’s transition frequency off steals is 14.9 percentage points higher with Suggs on the court, which puts him in the 96th percentile leaguewide. The 2.9 points per 100 possessions his presence adds in these possessions is in the 98th percentile.
All of that is wonderful, but the most auspicious development for Suggs’s long-term trajectory has been his outside shot—a make-or-break attribute for pretty much every perimeter player in today’s league. Suggs made a concerning 27.1 percent of his 3-pointers in his first two seasons. Right now, that number is up to 38.8 percent—and 42.5 percent on spot-up attempts—which means so much for a team that’s dead last in 3-point frequency and struggles to space the floor around Banchero and Wagner.
“I’ve been working on that!” Suggs yelled at the Cavs bench after he canned one in the third quarter of a recent win. “I’ve been working on it!”
If that improvement is real—watch him drill a few rhythm stepbacks and it’s hard to think otherwise—then Suggs is essentially Marcus Smart with positive gravity, an incredibly valuable proposition. (Suggs is seventh among all players with at least two years of experience in daily plus-minus improvement.)
And while his rising 3-point percentage is drawing attention, Suggs has also upped his accuracy around the rim. During the first two years of his career he made only 59 percent of those shots. Right now, he’s at 71 percent. Some of that is thanks to a big increase in the percentage of his attempts at the basket that are assisted. He’s a terrific, committed cutter, whether bailing out a teammate at the end of a dead-end drive or slipping behind a defender along the baseline.
His mindset on that end is amenable. “I think just continuing to adapt every night, whether I need to bring the ball up. Whether I need to be solid and get guys open and get us into sets and knock down shots,” he says. “I’m just kind of trying to take pride in that, you know, and knowing that every night don’t gotta be my night offensively. As long as we’re winning, I don’t care about the rest of it.”
Even with a turnover rate that reflects some of the impulsive passes he tends to throw, Suggs is also more than capable of diagnosing coverages and making plays against set defenders. When I ask Mosley what the biggest difference is now compared to Suggs’s first two years, he raps his knuckles on his head. “Knock on wood: healthy,” Mosley chuckles, before giving a more specific response. “He and I have talked about it and he and the coaches have talked about it: His ability to allow the game to slow down for him. It’s slowed down a ton.”
Even though Banchero, Wagner, Anthony, and Fultz are all effective ball handlers, Orlando’s ceiling will rise when Suggs’s opportunity to make plays broadens, be it curling off a dribble handoff or running a high pick-and-roll. It’s an important long-term growth area that’s already produced fruit thanks to a recommitment to film study that started over the summer.
“I spent a lot of time just getting back to watching film” he says. “You know, full games, players, different sets, just All-NBA guards, pick-and-rolls. I was kind of living on Synergy this summer. And I think that really helped slow the game down and seeing plays before they happen, watching film to understand coverages or the way that they’re gonna defend, or things that they want to get to on the offensive end.”
One player he wanted to study was new teammate Joe Ingles, with the goal of mastering one of the 36-year-old’s crafty signature moves. “I did the ball-fake pass for the layup and instantly pointed at him, talking about, like, I did it!” he laughs. “That gets me excited, just continuing to improve and grow because I love the game again. I love improving and I want to become the best team.”
All that preparation has made Suggs more comfortable, from a mental and physical standpoint. He conditioned his body for his tenacious approach.
“The biggest thing is my confidence and belief in my work. I think I didn’t have it because I wasn’t putting a substantial amount in and it was really showing. But from everything that I did this summer, physically in the weight room, tough workouts, pushing myself to exhaustion, throwing up in workouts, almost in tears,” he says. “Pushing myself to that limit to try and make this season easier, and it did, man … before it felt like games started to feel like those workouts. And [then] they started to feel easier than those workouts. And I think when you can get to that point, that’s when you really start to make improvements.”
In Suggs’s mind, there’s something serendipitous about how his career started, and how early stumbles helped put him on what may ultimately be a more gratifying path. “You know, looking back on it, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Suggs says. “None of those injuries, I wouldn’t change them to play 82 because they molded me to who I am. I’m forever grateful for it.”
That doesn’t mean Suggs is a finished product, or that stardom is entirely out of the question. It’s still too soon to put a cap on someone who embraces his niche while knowing it doesn’t have to be permanent. He is not complacent. After two painful years, though, Suggs is grateful about where he is in a career that has been salvaged.
“I knew this was coming. I knew I’d get an opportunity and a chance to show who I am,” Suggs says, leaning back into his locker with his hands clasped behind his head, a satisfied smile on his face. “As a person. As a player.”