With the working week winding to an end, let’s check the pulse of all things pinstriped.
Who won the week that was?
Despite only having two opportunities to shine, it was again Franz Wagner whose play burned brightest for the Magic. First he turned in a best-on-court performance against the Jazz, his efficient and well-rounded contributions helping to almost steal a road win courtesy of his team-leading plus/minus of +14. He followed this up with another strong showing against the Nuggets, dropping 19 and 5 and ending the contest as the only starter with a positive plus/minus – a whopping +21!
The fact that the Magic comfortably won Franz’s minutes this week continues a general trend that has been evident across the first eighteen months of his career. Namely, that Orlando is a better basketball outfit when the silky forward is on the court. In fact, if you were to remove all non-Franz minutes from the Magic’s games this season the team would actually be 23-20, a weighty improvement over their current reality and a pace good for seventh in the East (not to mention only four games out of homecourt in the playoffs).
No matter how one chooses to arrive at the conclusion, with Wagner on the hardwood Orlando’s chances of winning increase considerably. PER places him just outside the league’s top sixty. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR model slots him in at forty-third overall. ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus is the most effusive in its praise of Orlando’s sophomore forward, ranking him twenty-fourth league-wide by the metric. Find a statistical model that looks to evaluate winning contributions untethered from the largely uncontrollable element of teammate performance and you’ll almost certainly find Franz among the league’s upper class.
Franz Wagner is a winning basketball player doing everything he can to make Orlando a winning basketball side. Last week was just another example of the young forward inching the Magic towards that reality.
The upcoming slate
This week’s schedule: vs Pelicans (Fri); at Wizards (Sat); vs Celtics (Mon); vs Pacers (Wed)
The Magic come hurtling out of their recent mini-hiatus, with a stretch of four games in six nights kicking off tonight with a back-to-back set. The week itself represents a somewhat unexpected opportunity, with the impressive Celtics mixed in with theoretically more forgiving tilts against the Wizards and Pacers, as well as a Pelicans side currently in a tough spot. Of particular note is that each one of these opponents is currently working to navigate the impact of injury absence, including some of the biggest of their bananas: Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Bradley Beal, Jaylen Brown and Tyrese Haliburton are all either already out or have a chance of missing the matchup with the Magic. Considering Orlando’s relatively clean bill of health – how many times have we been able to say that these last few years?! – could the team be ready to pounce and pick up a few Ws? This feels like another week that the Magic could play .500 basketball, but they’ll need to be switched on against both some of the league’s best and teams that have already toweled them up this season.
The crystal ball says …
I like the Magic to go 2-2 this week, nabbing wins over the inconsistent Wizards and the sliding Pacers.
It’s time to keep an eye on …
Jalen Suggs. The Magic’s second-year guard is still finding his way back after a lengthy injury absence, but the fact remains that he hasn’t yet kicked on as many were hoping. In fact, at this current point in time he might even be a little behind where he was as a rookie, with some uncertainty regarding his place in the team’s rotation.
Suggs has topped 16 minutes just once since returning, which means that five of the seven games in which he has seen the least court time in his career have occurred in the last two weeks. While there’s value in a cautious approach to reintegration, of more concern is the fact that his play hasn’t really demanded greater opportunity. Across the six games he has on five occasions gone without a made three, three times failed to get to the free-throw line, and once finished without scoring a point. He’s also averaging only 1.5 assists and less than a ‘stock’ per-game.
Thankfully, the effort and intensity has remained at peak Suggs levels even through the trials and tribulations. He remains a truly irksome defender. More broadly across the season he has also been able to nudge his accuracy from the field in the direction of respectability, an important outcome considering the level of shooting inefficiency he posted as a rookie. Suggs hasn’t yet made a leap in his second year, but there’s still plenty of cause for optimism. Let’s hope that the back half of the season sees him take some clear steps towards fulfilling that potential.
Three from downtown
- The Magic have appeared to ratchet up the energy on defense recently, with active limbs causing significantly more disruption than usual. The team’s previously pedestrian deflection (13.8, nineteenth league-wide) and steal (7.0, sixteenth) numbers reflect this, up to 17.1 (fourth) and 8.7 per-game (third) respectively in January.
- Despite both of last week’s losses being final-minute heartbreakers, the Magic only had two players who posted a positive plus/minus in the pair of games: the previously mentioned Franz Wagner and his brother Moe (+3 in 18 minutes against the Jazz; +13 in 15 minutes against the Nuggets).
- Orlando’s offensive sets currently sport a few too many players who are seemingly winging it when it comes to executing the plan, particularly once the reserves hit the floor. As the game unfolds the ball tends to get a little stickier in the hand, with a decrease in crisp passing and an increase in shots arrived at via tunnel vision. Bol Bol, for example, appears to be an overly frequent freelancer.
A figure for thought
1. The rank of Orlando’s current starters in net rating (+24.1) among all five-man units that have played at least 75 minutes league-wide.