With 21 games down we’ve officially passed the quarter-mark of the season, which presents the perfect opportunity to hand out some hypothetical silverware. With the sample size having now expanded to ‘intriguingly sticky’, we’re able to evaluate performance with a greater level of both clarity and confidence – so let’s do just that.
Welcome to the pinstriped edition of our first (fake) awards season! To dole these out we’ll reflect on the on-court product we’ve seen to this point, trawl through the available data, and ultimately seal some names away in envelopes to be announced as our deserving winners. Without further ado, it’s time to get to the trophies!
Most Valuable Player
With all respect to Wendell Carter Jr., whose importance to the team has perhaps been felt most strongly in his recent absence, the Magic’s MVP of the campaign’s first quarter has been Franz Wagner. The second year wing quickly overcame his sluggish start, continuing the upward trajectory that he first established as a rookie and then added to at EuroBasket in the offseason. The German sophomore has been a gleaming bright spot amidst another unfortunately gloomy season-opening stretch in Central Florida.
The key numbers are up almost across the board for Wagner, with averages of 19.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists and a combined 1.1 stocks making for a well-rounded nightly box-score contribution. He’s finishing 57.0% of all two point shots while also having nudged his number of free-throw attempts up to 4.4 per game. These factors have combined to raise Wagner’s true shooting percentage to .592, a healthy bump over his rookie rate despite a three-point stroke that has only recently started to come around (30.3% from deep overall – 19.4% through October; 37.8% in November). The various advanced metrics also remain appreciative of his contributions, consistently ranking him among the team’s most impactful players.
Wagner’s evolution in Year Two has primarily been about shot creation, whether that’s in the generation of his own offense or the type of playmaking that creates opportunities for others. Across the first 21 games he’s been a prolific driver from the forward slot, Eurostepping his way through the hearts of opposing defenses – and into ours – with regularity and precision. His two-man pick-and-roll game has been similarly impactful, with his points-per-possession rate in these sequences placing him among the league’s best. He has also been the team’s most effective ball mover, with no Magic pass more likely to result in a bucket than one coming from his hands. Wagner gets his, but he can also go out and load up a good look for a teammate.
Something which shouldn’t be overlooked in this evaluation is the degree of difficulty – much of what Wagner is currently accomplishing on the court is beyond the scope of what was initially expected of him. The Magic’s endemic unavailability has necessitated the cultivation of Point Franz, a weight of responsibility that would have been enough to sink any number of talented early-career prospects. Instead Wagner has thrived, demonstrating the capacity to successfully quarterback an offense as a jumbo-sized, multidimensional mismatch on the wing.
Most impressively of all – particularly given the painful pinstriped context – Wagner has maintained his ironman status, appearing in all 21 of Orlando’s contests as one of just two dependable stalwarts on the roster (the other being Bol Bol). This is despite a number of nagging dings and discomforts being noticeable most nights when he takes the court. This fact – that Wagner is the key cog most consistently on the hardwood – is what ultimately elevates him to the status of MVP of the first quarter.
Rookie of the Quarter
Considering the expected production one would normally associate with the 32nd overall pick, Caleb Houstan has entered the league and immediately established himself as a value selection. His 266 minutes played ranks third among all second rounders, while his minuscule turnover frequency of 8.0% is the best among that group, demonstrating that …
Okay, it’s Paolo Banchero.
Defensive Player of the Quarter
A frustrating facet of the Magic’s game so far this season has been their floundering effectiveness on defense. After making some strides as a unit at this end of the floor last year the team has regressed, the lack of a cohesive identity evident in the numerous lapses and miscommunications laid bare on a nightly basis. Despite the dour collective efforts, Wendell Carter Jr. has still managed to hold his own as an individual, generally providing the team with a level of defensive dependability from at least one spot on the floor.
Carter Jr.’s individual defensive numbers have been solid across the season’s opening stretch. He is Orlando’s stoutest defender when it comes to shot attempts within 5 feet of the rim, limiting his direct opponent to just 59.9% shooting, the best mark on the team. This effectiveness is further emphasized by an examination of how his matchup’s shooting figures sit relative to expectations, with the Magic’s big man regularly deflating his defensive assignment’s conversion percentage, particularly on sequences closer to the hoop (-1.5% worse from the floor overall; -6.0% when within 6 feet). He might not rack up steals and blocks, but his one-on-one work tends to get the job done.
There’s also the fact that Carter Jr. is the team’s most reliable defensive rebounder, regularly in position to seal the paint and close possessions when the opportunity presents itself. His defensive rebounding rate has taken a little bit of a hit this season, likely the result of sharing so much court time with teammates possessed of wingspans that extend well beyond seven feet. Still, it’s Carter Jr.’s work that frequently fuels those moments, regardless of who eventually registers the boxscore tally; his general timing and body positioning does much to take away opportunities for the opposition on the offensive glass. That the team’s recent wobbles at this end have come with him sidelined – nauseatingly encapsulated by their capitulation on the glass in consecutive games against a Sixers side missing Embiid – is no coincidence.
The Magic came into this season with expectations of being at least an average, if not a good defensive unit. It hasn’t happened so far, but not for a lack of contributions from the main man in the middle. Carter Jr. has largely held up his end of the bargain. Now it’s time for his teammates to meet him halfway.
Sixth Man of the Quarter
Oof, this is a tough one. As is tradition around these parts, the Magic have spent the opening stretch of the season ravaged by injury, with what has been genuinely a seven or even eight-man rotation on the shelf at any given time. In fact, the team is already down to just two players who have been able to appear in every game.
Perhaps the most notable impact of this elevated rate of attrition has been on the play of the bench. The Magic’s reserve units have been getting roasted all season long, primarily because of the fact that key troops are missing and deep rotation players have been called into significantly greater action than hoped for.
As such, the process of crowning someone the team’s most superb sixth man is a little trepidatious. No one’s play has been burning down the bench barn, so to speak, primarily because the barn is already being lit up by the opposition. Still, an examination of the smoking wreckage reveals two options: Chuma Okeke and Terrence Ross.
Okeke has been better recently after a sluggish start, flashing some of his signature one-on-one defense, filling the role of connector on the wing, and finally hitting some shots of his own. However, his performance has still been underwhelming relative to expectations for the third year forward. There’s also the fact that his best outings have almost uniformly come when elevated to the starting unit; his bench resume is unfortunately weak, a fact which has to be held against him in this race.
Ross’ improved shooting stroke has been the bright spot of his campaign so far, the 39.0% he’s sporting from deep the best mark of his pinstriped tenure. For a team as deprived of long range threats as the Magic, that’s an incredibly welcome contribution. Unfortunately, the veteran wing just hasn’t been super impactful elsewhere, a fact reflected in his poor advanced metrics and wonky turnover rate. Still, the value of his outside shooting, the fact that the team generally performs better with him on the floor than off (+3.2 on/off), and a paucity of options elsewhere is enough to secure the Human Torch this W. Terrence Ross is our Sixth Man of the Quarter.
Most Improved Player
Almost without debate, the big improver for the Magic through the season’s opening stretch is Bol Bol. The 7-2 forward has been a genuine revelation, first earning a rotation spot out of camp and then quickly turning that into a gig in the starting five. He’s taken advantage of the circumstances and stayed there since, securing all manner of career bests along the way.
19 points in 20 minutes off the bench was the first real inkling of the looming Bol eruption, and it’s no coincidence that his elevation to starter came just two games later. Back-to-back double-doubles maintained the momentum before he posted his next stunner, a 23 point haul on 10-11 shooting from the field in a tight loss to the Kings. He upped the ante further less than two weeks later, a career-high 26 to go along with 12 rebounds and 3 blocks against the Timberwolves continuing his meteoric rise.
Bol’s performance against the Nets just last night was similarly scintillating. 24 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks, not to mention the only positive plus/minus among the starting unit, is a pretty good night’s work for just about anyone. But it wasn’t so much the final figures as it was the manner in which he went about forging his contributions. Bol was a unicorn-like figure in the game, frequently using his long limbs to cause headaches on defense that he then turned into loping transition opportunities. Against a broken and backpedaling defense he flashed a diverse and deadly skill set, either getting all the way to the hoop and dropping in too-easy buckets or finding a pass at the end of the sequence for a streaking teammate. He even finished one such possession off with a pull-up jumper, drilling a look from the top of the arc and calling it good well before it splashed through.
Moments like these have been frequent for Bol, whose simple movements across the court even have the capacity to elicit an awestruck gasp from the crowd. Although there might be some cracks starting to show, particularly on defense, the fact that he has so quickly been able to establish himself as a high-ceiling prospect already capable of valuable contributions is a huge win for the struggling Magic.
More so than any other, Bol’s individual emergence is currently the feel good basketball story in Central Florida. Let’s hope there are still significantly more chapters to come.