The Orlando Magic Have A Two-Way Star In Franz Wagner

Through 22 minutes of play and three quarters of game action on Tuesday, Franz Wagner was staring at 14 points and 12 shot attempts. A frame later, he’d ended the night with 29 points on 20 shots to headline the Orlando Magic’s 109-106, wire-to-wire road victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

During the first three periods, Wagner predominantly functioned off the ball and selectively identified his ball-handling chances, thriving on cuts and in transition with the occasional half-court creation rep. As the fourth quarter arrived, he morphed into Orlando’s crunch-time scorer, converting a trio of slithery drives and a pull-up triple. In typical fashion, he added a spot-up three and dashed inside off the ball for a bucket as well. All night, he showcased precisely the sort of duality that’s come to define his enticing offensive arsenal and enables him to succeed across any lineup configuration.

“He constantly understands his role in certain situations,” head coach Jahmal Mosley said.

The Magic are flooded by young dudes who warrant or require on-ball investment and are best with such usage, namely fellow starters, Paolo Banchero and Markelle Fultz. When they pilot possessions, Wagner can drift into an ancillary role and maintain substantial value. When Orlando needs him on the ball to stave off the late charging Blazers, he can seamlessly initiate ball-screens 25 feet from the rim and produce fruitful results.

According to Synergy, he ranks in the 71st percentile in points per possession as a pick-and-roll firestarter and 79th percentile on cuts. He’s also drilled 44 percent of his catch-and-shoot long balls. To the benefit of himself, his teammates, and Orlando’s schematic optionality, his scoring chart is a kaleidoscope of worthwhile usage.

“It helps the game flow because the ball doesn’t stick when it’s in his hands. He’s going to look to make the right play,” Mosley said. “His teammates trust him to make the right play in those situations, whether he’s coming off a ball screen, or whether you saw the back-cut to the basket, just being able to read and understand the defense.”

Wagner’s second year has been an emphatic encore to an All-Rookie First Team campaign. The 6’10 wing is averaging 20.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.4 assists on 59.4 percent true shooting (.490/.353/.860 split). His true shooting is 1.7 points above league average (improving on a minus-0.7 last season), despite assuming a significantly grander creation load. He’s playing like someone worthy of genuine All-Star consideration.

According to Cleaning The Glass, his usage has swelled from 20.8 percent to 24.7 percent, while his rate of unassisted makes has spiked from 41 percent to 52 percent. Most notably, he better applies his frame to play through physicality inside the arc and continues to expand his driving game, predicated on deft footwork and touch around the rim. Last year, he shot 60 percent at the hoop (24th percentile). This year, he’s shooting 67 percent (71st percentile). He loves Euro-steps and ambidextrous, sweeping hooks, will swirl shots around gangly rim protectors, and kisses finishes into the cup from funky angles off glass. There’s an elusive slipperiness to his slashing. His use and recognition of angles are economically precise.

“I just kind of look at the defender’s feet and hips. A lot of times I’m attacking a bigger defender and I’m trying to move them side to side,” Wagner said. “At the rim, I think just my length helps me a lot. And a lot of big guys aren’t used to contesting high layups from a taller guy like me. I think that helps me a lot finishing around the rim.”

Wagner possesses functional and rare flexibility for someone of his size. He can crouch low to shield the ball from pressure and wiggle through cramped areas. On multiple occasions pre-game Tuesday, while most Magic teammates were warming up with an array of jumpers, free throws and layups, he was in the background performing various stretching exercises.

At one point, he also sharpened his footwork, rapidly hopping on two feet front to back and side to side. A ball, nor the hoop, were near his reach. The intricacies of his game sat centerstage, revealing in part how he immediately entered the league primed to venture where he wishes as a ball-handler.

“For most guys, it takes a little learning period to understand how to manipulate the game, how to get to your spots, how to finish over bigger, stronger defenders,” Terrence Ross said. “He seems just to have that knowledge already with him. He’s been doing it out the gate since he got drafted.”

Orlando selected Wagner eighth overall in 2021, a pick it received from the Chicago Bulls as a component of the Nikola Vucevic deal. The other half of that return was Carter, who starred alongside Wagner on Tuesday with 20 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, and one block.

Dating back to the early days of Wagner’s rookie season, the duo promptly established an extensive, lethal two-man game that will serve as a bedrock of the Magic’s offense for years to come. Whether it’s flowing out of dribble handoffs, curling around ball-screen actions, or Carter diming up Wagner on his patented backdoor cuts, they’ve long enhanced one another offensively. Nobody’s assisted Carter more than Wagner (91 times) the last two seasons.

“Boogie is such a poised player. For him to be so young, it’s very surprising,” Carter said. “When he’s in those pressure moments, coming off of DHOs, coming off of pick-and-rolls, he doesn’t let the pressure dictate what he’s going to do. He’s great at seeing the floor. Even though things may be going fast, I feel like for him, things are really slow. That’s a very, very special trait to have.”

In the minutes following Wagner’s fourth-quarter scoring flurry, a reporter asked if he gravitates toward those types of pressurized opportunities. Wagner plays the sport for chances like that, he said. But his mind wandered elsewhere. He fixated on the “small, little things.” Sure, scoring is critical, yet it’s not what he singled out for Orlando’s victory.

That approach is evident in his on-court ethos, especially defensively. While Wagner’s star shone brightest because of his scoring, he amplified the Magic defense, which held Portland to a 109.3 offensive rating.

On the ball, he battled with all three of the Blazers’ 20-point scorers, Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and Jerami Grant, for periods. Off the ball, he primarily roamed the weakside as a low man, properly pinging between tags on the interior and closing out against shooters.

His devotion to the “small, little things” announced itself, as it’s done for years. Wagner is a high-level, malleable defender. Fluid on the ball, he’s comfortable wrangling against a gamut of assignments. His body control and discipline on closeouts belie his 21-year-old status. He’s attentive and well-positioned in help. His utilization of angles extends to the defense. He’s constantly anticipating angles before ball-handlers can frequent them. The club of star two-way wings is eyeing another member.

When the Magic drafted Wagner, Ross watched his new teammate’s collegiate highlights. He saw a different player than the one who’s existed through 1.5 NBA seasons. Rather, he witnessed a spot-up shooter, cutter, and defender, not a go-to scorer. Ross didn’t deem Wagner incapable of such an outcome, he just didn’t see it on film.

“Even in Summer League, he didn’t really showcase that as much. But, man, right out of the gate, I was like, ‘Damn, that was a good move,’” Ross said, with an aura of bewildered admiration in his voice. “His footwork and understanding of how to get to his spots, his up-and-unders, and selling fakes, it’s really impressive. I was just like, ‘Where the hell did this come from?’ But then, he just builds on it.”

Nestled in the underbelly of the Moda Center are a pair of small locker rooms divided by a narrow hallway. To the left, opposing coaches and players conduct pre- and postgame interviews, as the Magic did Tuesday. To the right, a children’s art easel, decorated only by a few colorful scribbles, was stationed in the entryway that day.

One by one, Mosley, Wagner, and Carter filed into the room on the left. All of them, in some fashion, discussed Wagner’s performance. Mosley and Carter praised it, with an undercurrent of its gravity being augmented by his youth and long-term potential. Carter spoke last. He concluded his media appearance assessing Wagner’s year-to-year progression and punctuated it with an effusive truism: “The sky’s the limit for him.”

Then, he exited the quaint locker room and passed by that vacant easel, its own canvas a promise of possibilities, and headed toward his teammates, Wagner included.

“I’ve played with a lot of players, a lot of good guys,” Ross said. “There’s a sense sometimes where guys can score. But there’s only been like a few guys I felt comfortable enough like, ‘OK, give him the ball. Let him create.’ Franz is definitely one of those guys.”