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Gonzaga Basketball

‘It’s fun to be in rhythm’: Former Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs thrilled to finally be healthy, winning in Orlando

Orlando guard Jalen Suggs has shown durability in the backcourt this season, missing just four games through the first 50.  (Tribune News Service)
By Stephen Hunt The Spokesman-Review

DALLAS – Jalen Suggs has only missed four games this season for the NBA’s Orlando Magic, which is a nice change of pace for the ex-Gonzaga star who missed 63 games the previous two seasons with various injuries.

“Really good (to be healthy). It’s fun to be in rhythm and continue to be in the flow with the season, your teammates,” Suggs said before a late January road game in Dallas. “Rehab is tough. It’s every day, you’re working, but you can’t hoop. You want to get your body right to get back out there. It was a tough process. Had to deal with that two years in a row after not really having to deal with it my entire life. It was tough, but I learned a lot from it and wouldn’t take it back.”

In 44 games with the Magic this season, Suggs, 22, the fifth overall selection in the 2021 NBA draft by Orlando, is averaging 12.3 points. 3.3 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. As a rookie, he averaged 11.8 points. 4.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game in 2021-22, a season in which he was limited to just 34 games thanks to a fractured right thumb, a sprained ankle, and a bone bruise.

Last season, he sustained a knee injury in preseason and ended up missing 29 games while dealing with ankle and knee issues.

After spending so much time in the training room and away from his teammates, Suggs doesn’t take any aspect of playing in the NBA for granted, no matter how small the detail.

“I think (it’s) just recognizing how precious being in this league is,” he said. “I know this is a big year for me, for our team, but (I also know) very easily, you could be out.

“A lot of players have taken their position and opportunity for granted and it’s hard to get back in once you get out. Really, not (have) only a new appreciation for it, for being in the league and the tasks involved, but the opportunity to play, experience things, and be alive on a day-to-day basis. Every day has been an eye opener.”

One aspect of being in the league he especially enjoys is the chance to rub elbows with his fellow Zags whenever their teams are on the schedule.

“It’s dope, I love it,” he said. “Just being able to catch up with the guys whenever we’re playing against them, share life, share stories and to just have family in this league, it’s great to see. We’ve got my boy Julian (Strawther) up here (in Denver) this year. I always love seeing Andrew (Nembhard), Domas (Sabonis), Rui (Hachimura). Very excited and hopefully, the list will keep growing. They just keep doing great things over there.”

If there’s one fellow Zag he especially likes playing against, it would be Nembhard of the Indiana Pacers. Suggs loves watching Nembhard play, and like his fellow ex-Bulldogs, is ecstatic to see Chet Holmgren healthy, starring for Oklahoma City and along with San Antonio’s Victor Wembanayama, the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft, and in contention for 2024 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Suggs grew up in an athletic family with famous cousins like Eddie Jones, a three-time NBA All-Star; Tyrese Haliburton, Nembhard’s teammate with the Pacers; and Terrell Suggs, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the Baltimore Ravens. And he has no doubt being in that environment helped ensure his competitive fire has always burned brightly.

“It really bred the competitiveness in me in anything,” he said. “In athletics, anything we’re doing in the family, it’s always competitive, board games, conversations, arguments. Nobody wants to lose … It helped me become a lot closer with my family.

“We all share common knowledge and a common goal of being competitive and continuing to chase that in whatever we’re doing. Yeah, it’s dope to have people to look up to. I look up to all my cousins, my uncles, seeing what they did for the name, the city and all that.”

During his first two NBA seasons, the Magic were a combined 56-108 in the regular season. In 2024, Orlando is 25-23, putting the Magic at No. 7 in the Eastern Conference and occupying a playoff spot.

Suggs said being part of a winner for the first time as a pro is a great feeling.

“Losing is not fun. Winning in this league is hard,” he said. “You come to realize again how hard it is to maintain winning. Winning in this league has been fun. It’s super competitive and gets you excited for the end of the season and to hopefully be in playoff contention.”

He continues taking pride in his defense, something which he attributes to his competitive nature, growing up playing against older and more experienced family members, an environment where he had no choice but to play defense to ensure he stayed on the court. “Since a young age, I’ve just always loved being able to play on that end and take pride in shutting down scorers, saying I got stops and helping the team win is something that means a lot to me,” he said.

Last offseason, he took extra time off before returning to the court. Not only is he physically healthy, but that break also provided him with a much-needed mental reset heading into his third NBA season and he’s already seeing the benefits of that rest.

“Deep diving into my mental approach last year, really taking that seriously, I found almost a new me,” Suggs said. “It keeps reminding me of the human side of things. It’s easy to get caught up in the flow. We can all become robotic throughout the season with how monotonous it is every day.

“But we’re still human beings, more than just basketball players. Really just tried to harp on that and I think that’s paying off for me.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.