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Orlando Magic Season Review, Part II: Franz Wagner takes flight while Jalen Suggs struggles

In this second installment, we unpack the highs and lows of Orlando’s rookie class

Orlando Magic Introduce Draft Picks - Presser Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s time for Round Two! Previously we put the Magic’s big man rotation under the microscope, noting both the moments of impressive production as well as some of the uncertainty around the long-term outlook. Today we turn our attention to the team’s rookie class, lottery level-talents that combined to both awe and underwhelm at various moments. Join me first here and then later in the comments as we continue to unpack the season that just was in Orlando.

Loser: Jalen Suggs, offensive threat

Cleveland Cavaliers v Orlando Magic

To say that life with the ball in hand was a struggle for Jalen Suggs during his rookie campaign would be an understatement. Despite his elite athleticism and imposing physicality, the first-year guard found NBA-level offense difficult to generate. Whether it was his wayward radar or sloppy handle, both scoring and playmaking were largely unsuccessful ventures for the Magic’s lottery selection. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in a close consideration of his outside jumper.

It’s difficult to make a case that Suggs wasn’t the worst three-point shooter in the league last season. Although it’s possible to find plenty of players that connected on less than 21.4% of their long-range attempts, there’s no one that even really comes close to matching the rookie’s combination of inaccuracy and volume.

Of players with at least 150 attempts from above the break, Suggs ranked dead last with an accuracy of 21.8%, a figure that only five other players even came within 5 percentage points of. From the corners the freshman was somehow even worse, going just 5 for 25 (20.0%) and again finishing last among those with at least as many attempts as him. Catch and shoot triples? 22.2% accuracy (24-108). Pull ups? Worse again at 19.0% (16-84). Closest defender more than six feet away? 21.6% (21-97). Defender within two to four feet? Oh boy, then it plummets to just 6.3% (1-16). No matter from where or how he was taking them, the bottom of the net remained rarely threatened.

Keep in mind that Suggs wasn’t a reluctant outside shooter – despite the inaccuracy he fired away from deep 4.1 times per contest, ultimately going without a three-point make in 23 of the 48 games in which he played, including eleven in which he was 0-4 or worse from beyond the arc. Of all players who suited up at least 25 times and averaged a minimum of 3.0 attempts from deep in those outings, Suggs was the least accurate (21.4%), with only Josh Giddey (26.3%) within 7.5 percentage points of the fellow rookie.

It’s also worth noting that Suggs’ shooting actually declined as the season wore on. After hitting a smidge over 25.0% of his three point attempts up until the end of January, Suggs made just 10 of his final 69 attempts from long-range, a ghastly conversion rate of 14.5%. It would be unfair to gloss over the myriad of injuries he was forced to navigate in the season’s later months, but it certainly wasn’t a circumstance that speaks to a player growing acclimated and finding a shooting rhythm, which is what many would have been hoping for in the early going.

When you add the long-range shooting woes to an inability to hold onto the ball, it’s easy to see why Suggs graded out as the worst offensive player in the league via basically any advanced metric. Of all players to spend at least 600 minutes on the floor, the Orlando guard was last in offensive box plus/minus, with a negative rating of -5.3 point per-100 possessions. The win shares metric calculated his offensive contributions to be ‘worth’ -3.0 wins, while his true shooting percentage of .455 was again the most disastrous mark in the league among similarly qualified players. In fact, the only player within shouting distance of Suggs at the bottom of these rankings is Killian Hayes, a player whose offense has been described as ‘unprecedentedly bad’.

Now, this might feel like a depressing takedown of someone who didn’t need their flaws again pointed out, but it’s a performance review still somehow tinged with optimism. As I’ve outlined previously, Suggs has demonstrated the capacity to be a positive offensive contributor, albeit in brief spurts only. His relentless pursuit of the transition game after he first returned from injury was an example of this, as were the games in which he prioritized getting into the teeth of the defense and attacking the rim. However, to get to where he wants to be at this end of the court, he’s going to need to develop a more reliable outside shot. Otherwise it’s likely he’ll remain anchored to the bottom of any objective measure of offense.

Winner: Jalen Suggs, defensive menace

Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets Photo by Ethan Mito/Clarkson Creative/Getty Images

For all of his struggles with scoring, Suggs proved an immediate difference-maker on the defensive side of the game. The same physicality and tenacity which he wasn’t totally able to channel with the ball in hand has been deployed to tremendous effect as a stopper, the rookie emerging as not just as one of Orlando’s strongest one-on-one defenders but as someone who is already among the league’s best.

Immediately evident when watching Suggs is his high energy and seemingly endless motor, something that also manifests in the hustle stat categories. Among rotation regulars the rookie guard led the team with 3.3 deflections per-36 minutes, a rate of disruption which ranked 24th league-wide among those who played at least 1000 minutes. Using those same parameters he was also the team leader in charges drawn, his rate of 0.2 per-36 similarly ranking him 22nd relative to all qualified players. He’s adept at putting himself and his limbs in the right spot to mess up the opposition’s best laid plans.

Along with Chuma Okeke and Markelle Fultz, Suggs was also one of the Magic’s trio of elite thieves, swindling the opposition to the tune of 2.2 steals per-100 possessions, a rate which placed him 43rd league-wide among all pickpockets (minimum 1000 minutes). This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as his never ending effort means he’s frequently gravitating to spots on the floor where he can inject himself into the play. It obviously involves a very different method of deployment, but this sort of anticipatory attack on defense reminds of Jonathan Isaac at his most impactful – a player routinely alert to a myriad of circumstances that might emerge.

Burrowing further into the one-on-one numbers, Suggs is already one of the game’s most dependable players when asked to lock down the ballhandler in pick-and-roll sequences. On such plays he concedes just 35.0% shooting and 0.76 points per-possession, marks which place him in the league’s 80th percentile. He’s similarly effective navigating plays coming off screens elsewhere, giving up 33.3% shooting and 0.78 points per-possession, good for a 78th percentile finish. Suggs has also been awesome as the primary post defender on the handful of occasions he’s been called to do so (28 sequences), allowing the opposition to score just 19 points total on such chances, a rate which paces the Magic and places him in the 91st percentile league-wide.

It’s a common adage that winning basketball comes courtesy of play at both ends of the floor. Even as a rookie forced to reckon with increased talent levels and various injuries, Suggs was able to show just why the defensive aspect of his game was so highly touted coming out of college. Although he obviously struggled with his offense, he at the very least figures to be a high level contributor at the defensive end of the floor for years to come.

Winner: Franz Wagner

Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

I’ve written about this at length previously, but Franz Wagner’s immediate emergence as a bona fide difference maker and genuine Rookie of the Year contender was almost certainly the giddiest highlight of the Magic’s season. Many, myself included, had the first year forward projected as a deeper rotation piece – at least while he learned the league’s ropes – but an early confluence of circumstances presented him an opportunity that he seized and simply never relinquished.

Across his freshman campaign Wagner established himself as a dependable offensive contributor, with scoring numbers juiced by an effective dribble-drive game, elite off-ball cutting, and steadily improved finishing around the hoop. His three-point stroke, although prone to streakiness, landed right on league-average (35.4%), while his accuracy from the charity stripe (86.3%) was 24th league-wide among those that made at least 125.

(Speaking of which, if Franz ever starts to get the rub of the whistle, expect his scoring numbers to explode. His free-throw rate of .225 was notably below league average, despite the tremendous amount of time he spent hurtling through the painted area. Wagner generated 107 freebies on his 717 drives; by way of comparison, Alec Burks compiled 113 on 218 fewer drives, while Giannis more than doubled Franz’s number of attempts on only 65 more drives.)

Wagner also demonstrated his burgeoning abilities as a playmaker, with a knack for moving the ball efficiently and effectively. His size allows him to frequently look over the defense and uncover passing lanes that otherwise might go unnoticed, while the downhill intent of his driving game has opened up kick-out opportunities for stationary shooters. The fact that the coaching staff trusted him enough to deploy him as the lead playmaker for stretches – despite at that point having less than half a complete season on his resume – speaks to the ease with which this part of his game revealed itself.

Finally, Wagner also showcased the type of size, speed and switchability which can make him a plus defender in this league for seasons to come. Despite the historical struggles of rookies at this end of the floor, the Magic were a stouter defensive outfit with Franz on the floor, while his immediate matchups shot notably lower than their average field goal mark when the lanky German was lined up opposite.

The Magic undoubtedly got the type of rookie experience they were hoping for when they went into the season with two exciting lottery talents. That it was ultimately delivered by the one considered less likely was a surprise – one that thankfully projects brighter days yet to come.

And with that we bring to a close the second installment in this ongoing process of evaluation. Join us back here in the days to come for the next round of season review, in which we’ll dig deeper into the cases of a handful of specific veteran players. Until then, I’ll see you in the comments.