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The case for Franz Wagner as the Rookie of the Year

Franz isn’t the favorite, but he deserves to be in the thick of the award season debate

Orlando Magic v Washington Wizards Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Franz Wagner won’t be crowned this season’s Rookie of the Year.

This is something that shouldn’t come as a huge shock, even for the most pinstriped of basketball fans in Central Florida. Franz has been truly terrific in his freshman campaign, but this is a bumper rookie class with a number of high-profile, worthy candidates.

In addition, Wagner has been forced to make his case while playing for one of the worst teams in the league. The results of Orlando games ceased to matter basically as soon as they opened the season with back to back shellackings, meaning that the Magic’s impressive first-year forward has toiled in relative obscurity when it comes to the broader vote-casting field. While his play stands alongside his peers, his media profile trails some of the other candidates by a significant margin.

Still, despite the odds being decidedly not in his favor – he’s currently ranked a distant fourth with most major books – Wagner’s contributions as a rookie are worthy of recognition. He immediately established himself as a starter on a young Orlando team, seizing an early opportunity and simply refusing to relinquish the role. Within a month he had emerged as a key offensive cog and a handy individual defender, steadily improving both his accuracy as a finisher and his ability to orchestrate possessions as the season wound on.

Let’s dive in and make the case for Franz as a genuine Rookie of the Year contender.


Indiana Pacers v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

A fact of such award nominations is that they often begin (and end) with an examination of the general counting stats found in the nightly boxscores, so it makes sense that we might start there as well. Wagner’s resume in this regard is a solid one, with a contribution of approximately 15 points each night on shooting numbers a smidge above league average. He was also likely to chip in somewhere in the vicinity of 5 rebounds and 3 assists in any given contest, along with a smattering of disruptive defensive efforts and an eminently palatable rate of ball security.

This is something that I looked at earlier in the season, but below is an overview of how Wagner’s per-game averages stack up relative to both previous rookie award winners and his own draft class (minimum of 20 minutes per night). What will likely catch the eye is his general consistency – a level of competency and dependability across the board, as opposed to any single stand-out trait.

PTS REB AST Stocks FG% 3PT% TOs Mins
Wagner 15.3 4.6 2.9 1.3 46.8 35.7 1.5 31.1
Rank among draft class 4th 5th 5th 6th 6th 3rd =7th 5th
Rank among RotY winners since 2015 (/8) 7th =5th 6th =5th 4th 2nd =1st 5th

So while Franz’s boxscore contributions as a rookie have undoubtedly been impressive, they do lack a little compared to many of the other immediate contenders for this award. However, as with all things, a dose of context certainly adds another layer of complexity to any such analysis – Wagner averages noticeably fewer minutes than Cunningham, Mobley and Barnes; is sporting a significantly lower usage rate than Cunningham, Giddey and Green; and has suited up all season long for a team almost certainly operating at a talent deficit regardless of their opposition. All three of those factors create contextual disadvantages in the race for top rookie honors, yet through it all Franz has managed to keep his name in the conversation.


Toronto Raptors play the Orlando Magic Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Although the counting stats might not be the best resume builder in Wagner’s race for Rookie of the Year honors, a deeper dive into some of the advanced metrics reveals a contest that should be considered significantly closer than some may claim it to be. Where might the case be made?

Wagner leads his draft class in points scored on drives this season, with a mammoth total of 506 that more than doubles all bar three of his first-year peers. In fact, it’s a number that’s good for 19th league-wide, a phenomenal outcome for a player originally projected to be down the depth chart on a bad team. Additionally, of the 21 rookies with at least 200 drives on the season, Wagner ranks second in turnover rate. He coughs the ball up on just 4.6% of such possessions, a fact which makes him roughly 50% safer than the likes of Cunnigham, Barnes and Giddey.

Again, this is something that I’ve touched on before, but Wagner is certainly aided in this dribble-drive game by the uniqueness of his movement. There’s a variance to both the pace and length of his strides, accentuated by the off-beat kilter of his directionality. He creates seams to attack and pockets of space to exist in by virtue of his gait, facilitating an improvement in accuracy as he adjusts to the rhythms of the professional game. Prior to the All-Star break Wagner was converting shots within 5 feet of the rim at 57.1% and attempts between 5 and 9 feet at a rate of 39.0%. Since then? Those figures jump to 62.8% and 43.5%, respectively.

Perhaps on the back of this improved finishing, Franz has proven himself more likely to shoot than distribute on his forays into the painted area. The rookie passes the ball on only one out of every four such sequences, the lowest rate among first-year players who frequently put the ball on the floor in this fashion. However, despite the lack of raw distribution the numbers suggest not that he’s a black hole, but that he’s simply identifying the optimal passes to actually deliver.

Wagner’s 2352 passes this season created 591 points according to tracking data, 159 of which came on triples generated by a kick-out. By way of comparison, Barnes created 643 points but required 3535 passes to do so. Put another way, an average Wagner pass generated 0.25 points for the Magic; when Barnes moved the ball it was just 0.18. This puts Orlando’s forward more on par with players like Giddey and Cunningham (both 0.27), a particularly intriguing feat when one considers that that pair of peers are lead ballhandlers with significantly higher usage rates.

Impressive offensive contributions can also be found in other elements of Wagner’s game. The incisiveness of his on-court movement is further reflected in his elite cutting numbers, a facet of offense in which he lands in the league’s 93rd percentile with 1.55 points per possession. He’s similarly dangerous when attacking out of isolation, the forward generating 1.08 points per play and ranking in the 87th percentile league-wide. Finally, his effectiveness operating as the ball handler in pick-and-roll set-ups is also above-average (52nd percentile), a fact which for most of the season ensured he was the Magic’s best option in such circumstances (Fultz pips him since returning). Notably, each are ranks that place him either first or second relative to those meaningfully in the Rookie of the Year race alongside him.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Orlando Magic Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The inherently collaborative nature of defense makes the individual contributions more difficult to measure, but there’s also plenty of optimism to be found when it comes to this side of Wagner’s game. Opponents directly guarded by Franz in his rookie season shot 2.7% worse than their average would suggest, the best mark among first-year players who defended at least 350 shots (which, yep, includes even Mobley).

There’s also the fact that the Magic were a stouter defensive outfit with Wagner on the court, the opposition seeing a reduction in their field goal accuracy, offensive rebounding, and overall scoring numbers when he was on the floor. Neither Mobley, nor Barnes, nor Cunnigham, nor Giddey can claim all three. When combined with the smooth forward’s switchable length and fluidity of movement, such numbers seemingly suggest that the rookie is a net positive on this end.


Okay, let’s lay it all out one final time. Wagner’s boxscore counting stats are impressively solid across the board, stacking up well both within class and when compared to recent award winners. A closer analysis of his offensive contributions reveals a multi-faceted playmaker who in some regards measures out as both best-in-class and among the league’s elites. The numbers also suggest a player whose defensive contributions are tracking in the right direction, his team better off for his presence despite his rookie status.

So will Franz Wagner take home the Rookie of the Year award?

No, he won’t. But that’s okay, because it’s not for a lack of talent or execution. The Magic’s first-year forward has been truly fantastic, a fact only dimmed for national voters by the potentially historic nature of his draft class and his team’s current status as a minnow.

Orlando almost certainly won’t see their high-flying rookie claim any hardware come season’s end. However, that’s an outcome that shouldn’t result in any restless nights for the Central Floridian faithful because of what’s already abundantly clear.

The Magic picked a winner when they selected Franz Wagner.


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