Although the side finds itself in an all too familiar position in the standings at this stage of the still young season, there have already been plenty of reasons for real optimism for the Orlando Magic.
Primary among the bright spots has been the oft-scintillating play of the franchise’s two prized forwards, sophomore Franz Wagner and the first overall pick, rookie Paolo Banchero. Through early November the pair have been the pinstriped heartbeat of the team, illuminating in the present but also emboldening in the vision of the future that they currently project.
The thing that seems to set this duo apart already is the multi-faceted scoring capacities that they share. They’re option 1a and 1b for the Magic when it comes time to get a bucket, with the offensive scheme largely built around generating chances for the two silky forwards. More surprisingly, they’re also already the best currently-healthy options on Orlando’s roster when it comes to creating looks for others, plus-sized quarterbacks with the necessary handles, vision, and knack for on-point passing to effectively steer the team’s ship on offense.
In pairing Wagner and Banchero the Magic have put in place the foundation of a modern offense that inverts plenty of what has traditionally been presumed about best basketball practice. Even in these formative stages, it’s a combination that’s looking increasingly like a winning formula for the side moving forward – bucket getters, shot creators, and mismatch generators in the form of two massive wings.
Let’s unpack what makes this duo already excellent and, more importantly, positively tantalizing moving forward.
Through the season’s opening weeks both Wagner and Banchero have already experienced some success as the pick-and-roll ball handler in offensive sets. The pair see about the same number of opportunities — 6.6 per game for Franz compared to 5.9 for the rookie — and both are generating close to a point-per-possession based on these looks (0.97 for Wagner; 0.86 for Banchero). As one might guess they arrive at these totals in different ways, Wagner drawing on a juicy finishing rate from the field — 58.3% compared to 44.4% — while Banchero relies on his foul-drawing proclivity, his 13.6% free throw rate more than tripling Franz’s more modest 4.5%.
Both approaches are paying dividends, with Wagner currently residing in the 71st percentile league-wide as the pick-and roll initiator and Banchero not far behind in the 54th. The rookie’s rank has settled some from earlier highs, but that he’s still nudging above average and possessed of a ceiling that suggests still greater capacity is an energizing sign for the Magic franchise. Many teams don’t have a single wing capable of quarterbacking traditional two-man actions with this level of effectiveness. The Magic already have a pair still sporting less than 100 games of experience between them.
There’s also extreme value in an offensive player that can be relied on to get a bucket going against their individual matchup, and in that sense Banchero has already proven himself a fantastic option at the professional level. These isolation sequences currently account for almost one out of every five of his possessions (18.0%), from which the rookie forward is producing an extremely healthy 1.12 points per-possession. This places him in the league’s 74th percentile, 51.5% finishing from the floor and a mammoth 20.9% free throw rate fueling these strong numbers.
Watching the first-year phenom it’s easy to see why he’s such a beast for any opposing defender. His handles at the four are well above average, while the pace and precision of his footwork belies his status as a rookie. The already advanced physicality of his frame allows him to both seek out and navigate contact, whether that’s in the jostling for position that comes on back-downs and exploratory dribbles or while he’s in motion after bringing in the ball off the bounce. He’s also a threat to pull-up into a smooth looking, high-release jumper, a fact which ensures his immediate defender is kept guessing and can’t overplay in one direction. Banchero is already a major problem in any one-on-one sequence.
Across the season’s early stretch Wagner hasn’t experienced the same level of success in isolation sequences, but there’s little reason to believe that he won’t improve this aspect of his play. Franz currently sits in the 34th percentile league-wide, the result of a depressed finishing touch (41.7% from the field) and a slim free throw rate (8.3%). Both of these figures are well below the marks he posted as a rookie, and the eye test suggests that a favorable realignment is a likely outcome. Franz moves with such disarming fluidity — loping multi-directional steps that split the seams of a set half-court defense — that it feels like a simple inevitability that he’ll find a way to finish these with greater regularity. Throw in the fact that he’s yet to record even a single turnover when attacking out of isolation and the confidence remains high.
An extension of these offensive considerations is the dribble-drive game of both players, another facet of the half-court play in which the pair have excelled. The irregular cadence of Wagner’s gait ensures he’s forever dangerous once the ball is on the floor. The wing is currently averaging 13.0 drives per game, converting sequences that finish with a shot attempt at 55.3% and piling up a mammoth 9.4 points per game in this fashion. Of note is that alongside the scoring Franz’s drives are also generating 1.2 assists each night, the greatest playmaking output among players of at least his height.
Banchero has been similarly effective on drives, with his 13.3 per-game generating 8.7 points and 0.8 assists for the Magic on a nightly basis. These totals have the capacity to nudge even higher, as he has seemingly been a little unlucky in these specific moments — both his field goal (50.8) and free throw (65.6) percentages at the end of drives are lower than one might expect, while he’s currently also roughly three times more likely than Franz to commit an offensive foul on a drive. Greater success in these areas seems plausible as he further acclimates to the league.
The pair’s figures get even more impressive when you start to compare them to their peers in a like-for-like manner. Among all players attending 6-10 or taller, Wagner and Banchero currently rank third and fourth respectively in terms of points generated on drives. The names they trail? Giannis (10.6) and KD (9.7). That’s pretty elite company. Any offensive possession that features one of these two putting the ball on the floor and attacking the hoop is a quality look for Orlando.
The offensive acumen of Wagner and Banchero isn’t limited just to their ability to individually put the ball in the basket. Both have flashed meaningful chops as primary playmaking hubs on offense, tasked not just with finishing their own opportunities but also setting them up for others.
Orlando’s two jumbo-sized playmaking wings currently rank third and fourth on the team in terms of both assists per game (4.3 for Wagner and 3.6 for Banchero) and the points created by these passes (11.3 and 9.7, respectively). The pair are first and second when it comes to secondary assists, speaking to the willingness and incisiveness of their ball movement. Also of note is the fact that of all of Orlando’s primary ballhandlers, there’s no pass more likely to result in a bucket than one from Wagner. You want the ball in the hands of this duo not just because they can score it themselves but because they they’re adept at creating valuable chances for their teammates.
Point Franz, remember, is a real thing for this iteration of the Magic. With Markelle Fultz still on the shelf and both Cole Anthony and Jalen Suggs navigating the interruption of early-season injuries, Wagner has been called into action as the team’s ostensible point guard on a more frequent basis. His ability to defend down the line-up has added to the viability of this option, but it’s ultimately his vision and command of the court as a ballhandler that has facilitated its employment.
The Magic currently have four five-man units that have played at least nine minutes together and are sporting a positive net differential. Of those four, a trio feature Franz at the point guard slot. Unsurprisingly, Banchero flanks Franz in all three of these configurations. Orlando’s offense positively hums when its two prized wings are positioned as the primary playmakers.
Where to from here?
For a long time it was incredibly common to see teams desirous of talent that could be categorized in either the ‘3 and D’ mold or as a ‘stretch 4’. However, as shooting has sprawled further and further from the basket, and as teams have gotten longer and more versatile on the wings, this search has necessarily expanded to include primary playmaking from non-backcourt slots.
The reigning back-to-back MVP is a force not just because of his absurd skill, but also because of the extreme positional mismatch that Nikola Jokic represents on a nightly basis. The Clippers are (theoretically) a scary contender (when healthy) because they loaded up with a pair of the most versatile two-way forwards that can operate as offensive fulcrums. These are hardly the only examples. Giannis and Middleton. Siakam and Barnes. Zion and Ingram. Tatum. KD. LeBron. Teams are increasingly being defined by the jumbo wings capable of doing it all with the ball in hand.
So what does this mean for the Magic? Well, first and foremost, it’s clear that this is an arms race that they have entered into. What is also apparent is that they may have already found their deadly playmaking duo. To wit: there are currently just 27 players across the league who have handled the ball in at least 50 pick-and-roll sequences. Of that number, there are only three who aren’t traditional backcourt players: Wagner (ranked 12th in effectiveness), Banchero (16th) and Paul George (20th).
In attempting to extricate themselves from this current rebuild, Orlando has seemingly re-envisioned what the roster could and should look like moving forward. Wagner and Banchero represent a decidedly new style of basketball for the Magic, a necessarily modern combination of plus-sized forwards possessed of All-Star talent. Each is already a dangerous scorer, shooter, initiator, and conductor when they’ve got the rock in hand. Still, even with as good as they are, this dynamic pair is going to need more around them in the way of talent and fit to assist them in elevating this franchise back to genuine contention.
Both Franz Wagner and Paolo Banchero have been all that was hoped for on offense to open the season. With this duo in pinstripes for years to come, it’s now time for the Orlando Magic to build a winner around their freshly established foundation.
All stats accurate through ten games, per NBA Stats and Basketball Reference