The Magic may have hit a home run at this year’s draft.
With two swings from relatively favorable slots – fifth and eighth – Orlando was always well-positioned to come away with at least one roster piece that figured to help firm up the foundation of the current rebuild. Sure lottery luck remained elusive, but with a pair of picks at their disposal the team was in with an excellent chance to pounce should the sides above overlook a prospect. Which, as we now know, is exactly what happened.
Reflecting upon this you would be forgiven for, at first blush, thinking of Jalen Suggs and his slide from the top four. In the young guard the Magic were able to snag someone who had frequently been talked about as a top-tier lottery talent, a player who might one day represent the sort of draft fortune that can catapult a team to unexpected contention. Whether or not that comes to fruition for the former Bulldog remains to be seen, but it’s certainly not yet the dominant narrative of his rookie campaign.
Instead, it’s actually Suggs’ rookie running mate who is laying some claim to being the steal of the 2021 draft class. The general consensus regarding Franz Wagner was that he was a late lottery talent, but across just two months of regular season action he’s already flashed enough to suggest that such projections were simply too low for the talented youngster. Even as a rookie he’s clearly a versatile glue guy. It’s not far-fetched to think that he could one day grow into an All-Star level talent.
With his focused aggression on offense, sweet shooting mechanics, an emerging playmaking talent, unexpected positional versatility, and solid underlying defensive numbers there’s plenty to love already about Wagner’s game. Could he one day emerge as the star the Magic so desperately crave?
Let’s find out.
Wagner hit the ground running in his rookie campaign, immediately being thrust into a starting slot as a result of the multitude of injuries the Magic were juggling across their frontcourt. Whether it was a careful calculation or a favorable confluence of circumstances it worked a treat, with the young forward essentially cementing his spot as a permanent fixture in the first five by the end of opening week. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and in this instance Orlando was able to find an answer to a question they weren’t even necessarily yet asking.
To the rookie’s credit, it was quickly evident that he was doing more with this early opportunity than simply soaking up available minutes. Wagner’s first-year per-game averages are impressive in and of themselves. 14.3 points on 45.3% shooting from the field, including 39.0% from deep on 3.8 attempts each night. In addition, he racks up 4.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.6 ‘stocks’, with just 1.3 turnovers in 31.0 minutes per contest. In fact, they’re numbers that aren’t entirely out of place when compared to the most recent crop of Rookie of the Year award winners. Here’s how Wagner would stack up against those who have taken top honors over the last seven years:
|Wagner’s rank (/8)||7th||6th||6th||=4th||5th||2nd||1st||=5th|
For interest’s sake, here is how the young Magic forward currently ranks in those same categories relative to his own draft class (minimum of 20.0 minutes per night):
|Wagner’s draft class rank||3rd||6th||6th||=5th||4th||1st||4th||4th|
The boxscore numbers read like the production of a solid veteran, someone being asked to do a little bit of everything without necessarily dominating the ball. He puts up points, stretches the floor with the threat of outside shooting, can find open teammates, protects possessions, and plays disruptive defense at the other end. There’s a well-roundedness to Wagner’s game that ensures he already stands out as a contributor, even without an attention-grabbing proficiency that is what often identifies other similarly youthful players making an impact.
A closer inspection of Wagner’s play reveals a number of reasons for long-term optimism. There’s a general fluidity evident in his game, particularly when navigating pick-and-roll sequences, that seemingly bodes well for his offensive impact moving forward. As a long 6-10 (6-11?) forward he’s got the height to see over the majority of his direct opponents, a physical trait that opens up passing opportunities that simply don’t exist for all players. He’s also seemingly able to pair the natural advantage of his height with insightful and incisive peripheral vision, evidenced in the passes he’s able to frequently execute with nary a turn of his head. Already he might be the Magic’s best at whipping the ball through traffic to wide open teammates while on the run.
The combination of Wagner’s positional length and the smoothness of his movement also helps when it comes to scoring the ball. For a first-year player he has been able to flash a well-developed capacity to navigate the seams created by screening teammates, with a variance of both pace and stride length contributing to his ability to separate from would-be defenders. In fact, it’s this footwork that perhaps stands out most about his activity when he slices through the lane; the rookie might not have a prototypical euro-step in his arsenal, but there’s enough misdirection and uncertainty evident in his gait that opponents have a difficult time effectively staying in front of him.
There are currently 18 players who clock in at 6-10 or higher and who are averaging 2.2 or more drives per game. Among those that fit such a profile, Wagner currently ranks third in drives each night (8.2), third in points created (5.4), fifth in the number of free throws generated by such forays (1.1), third in assists (0.5), and third in turnover percentage from such sequences (2.6%). That’s right, on 230 total drives this season Franz has lost the ball just six times! There’s basically nothing safer the Magic could do on a given possession than asking Wagner to drive into the lane.
This possession safety also extends to Wagner’s work as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. With a turnover frequency of just 12.2% in such sets he’s far and away Orlando’s most careful play-caller in the two-man game (minimum of 1.0 such possession per game), a fact which undoubtedly contributes to the general effectiveness of his contributions in these moments. The young forward is currently second on the Magic in terms of points per-possession when navigating the pick-and-roll, generating 0.83 points despite his own relatively wonky shooting radar in such circumstances (now down to 38.0% but bouncing back after a recent cold stretch). If he can continue to finish just a few more of these opportunities in the weeks to come, as he was doing in the early going, he could really distinguish himself as the type of wing threat the side has coveted for so long.
In addition to the work he puts in with the ball in hand, there’s also the threat of his catch-and-shoot potential for which opponents have to account. Wagner is currently launching 3.0 jumpers each night with his feet firmly set, cashing in at a rate of 41.0%. These are basically all long-range looks, a fact which demonstrates his spacing capabilities and which has contributed to a healthy effective field goal percentage of 60.8% on such attempts. It’s also in line with the data related to his touch time preceding three-point jumpers; if he can fire away from deep within two seconds of touching the ball he cans them at 40.0%. Anything longer than that and the number drops precipitously.
Finally, Wagner also finishes like an elite big man when cutting off the ball, scoring at a rate of 1.56 points per possession in such instances. It makes up a tiny part of his overall offensive diet – just 6.7% of all possessions he features in – but his efficiency after receiving the ball when slicing to the hoop currently ranks in the 91st percentile league-wide. It’s the second-best mark on Orlando’s roster behind only Mo Bamba who, of course, has the advantage of his monstrous wingspan to slam that ball home. We know that Air Franz loves a dunk himself, so the Magic should continue to find ways to send their dynamic rookie flying through the lane.
Although it’s Wagner’s contributions as a scorer and facilitator that have so obviously stood out across the first 30 games, the work he’s doing defensively is also worth mentioning. The same agility that aids his elusiveness with the ball in hand has applications as a defender, evident in his ability to both slide on the perimeter and navigate his way through screening sequences.
Through 28 games, Wagner has been awesome curtailing opposing ball handlers coming out of pick-and-roll sequences. On an average of 2.5 possessions per game he’s allowing just 0.65 points per possessions, restricting opponents to 37.7% finishing and rarely fouling (just 1.0% of the time!). These marks place him in the 87th percentile league-wide, a phenomenal rank that trails only his fellow rookie, Jalen Suggs, on Orlando’s roster.
Wagner hasn’t been as successful when forced to handle the roll man during these moments, but he has been the Magic’s best option across limited opportunities. He’s currently leaking an average of 1.0 points per possession when banging against bigger bodies in the two-man game, a result that actually paces others on Orlando’s roster and places him in the league’s 53rd percentile. It makes sense that this number is comparatively deflated to his on-ball work – as a 20-year old he’s a long way from having filled his body out! – but it still implies a stoutness to his defensive game that should conceivably continue to develop.
As with all young players there is still a mountain of work to do when it comes to defensive effectiveness, particularly noticeable in those moments when Wagner is matching up one-on-one. The young forward currently leaks 0.92 points per possession in isolation, with opponents shooting 46.0% and drawing a foul on one in almost every ten possessions. This ranks in just the 43rd percentile league-wide, and is among the worst marks posted by the Magic’s rotation regulars.
Defense is difficult. It’s particularly tricky for young players, especially those that are playing for well below-average basketball teams that struggle to remain competitive in most elements of the game. Despite those circumstances, there’s plenty of small individual takeaways from Wagner’s game that suggests he has the capacity to develop into a rock solid contributor at this end of the floor.
The final destination
It might only be a resume of twenty-eight games, but already Franz Wagner has proven to be more than most would have expected of the eighth overall pick. Along with the boxscore contributions, features of offensive efficiency, and defensive impact, there’s also his general versatility and the ‘binding’ nature of his game. Remember, already this year he has played both forward slots, moonlighted as the team’s point guard, and helmed a couple of sequences at the center position. He is literally playing all over the court, rarely looking out of place in doing so.
The best part of all? This is just the beginning! Wagner is still miles away from his final product as a professional basketballer, in terms of skill development, experience and feel, and the physicality of his own body. There’s no reason not to think that he won’t continue to improve.
The question now, really, is what the extent of that improvement will ultimately look like. The Magic are obviously already heavily invested in bigs (Isaac, WCJ, Bamba) and the backcourt (Fultz, Anthony, Suggs), so the idea of a dynamic wing that can space the floor with shooting, generate opportunities for both himself and others, and play some measure of lockdown defense feels like it has ‘missing piece’ potential.
To say nothing of the prospect that, just maybe, that wing could one day be the best of the bunch.
Wagner has been fantastic already as a rookie. Excitingly, it’s genuinely starting to feel more and more that, in the seasons to come, the sky’s the limit.