The NBA is a star-driven league. As a result, draft season usually devolves into a time where every prospect is dissected and discussed based on their potential to become the next great player to hit the hardwood.
While this admiration for “Who’s Got Next” is undoubtedly justified (after all, without a cadre of All-Star-level players, there is little to no chance of making the NBA Finals), the objective fact of the matter is that, by nature, star players are elusive and the chances of actually drafting a bona fide phenom from the beginning are slim.
Often, drafting for potential leads to hyper-focusing on prospects that perhaps have that “it” factor but also possess a shockingly low floor — these prospects are essentially coin flips on either busting or panning out.
For every developmental success story like Giannis Antetokounmpo, there are 10 other high-ceiling, low-floor players who never leave the ground.
Not every player in the NBA Draft can become a star. Finding role players to support the guys at the top of the roster can be just as important in a rebuild like the Orlando Magic’s.
Thus, when analyzing prospects, we should not neglect those who may not end up becoming Hall of Fame-level players but could be the next best thing: The glue guy who is capable of playing in multiple situations competently and functions as an above-average player on both sides of the court.
For all the admiration Chris Paul and Devin Booker received during their Finals run, the catalyst for the Suns’ success could be (partially) attributed to the amazing two-way play of Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder. Both Bridges and Crowder were linchpins of an effective Suns defense and although not the primary offensive threat, were reliable when called upon to shoot timely threes or provide savvy execution of offensive sets.
The Suns could expect individual brilliance from Paul and Booker, but the Suns advancing through the Western Conference playoffs ultimately came down to some strong performances from these role players.
The high-level role player is an overlooked yet indisputably valuable piece of any championship contender. In this draft, there is one prospect that at 19 years old, can already fulfill this role.
Franz Wagner, the 19-year-old sophomore from Michigan, is a combo forward who has been noted as the “safest” prospect in this draft due to his skillful two-way play.
Wagner is one of the most technically sound and intelligent defenders in this class. He is a brilliant help defender that uses his length (6-foot-9) and his high-level lateral quickness to fortify defensive coverages and cover missing assignments.
Wagner demonstrated versatility in defensive assignments during his two years at Michigan by adeptly guarding multiple positions — including guards, fellow wings and bigger forwards. This versatility enables him to be a valuable asset in switches and as well as in Pick and Roll defense.
Wagner’s combination of awareness and high energy play emerges in areas not regularly displayed on the stat sheet. Wagner has shown the ability to anticipate offensive sets and wall off players one pass away from the primary ball handler – disrupting offensive rhythm and denying shots.
Wagner has demonstrated his talent as a transition defender as well, parlaying his quickness and timing to obstruct fast break opportunities and deny opposing players from easy baskets.
Wagner’s statistical impact should not be undersold either. Opponents shot only 34-percent against him as a primary defender and Wagner’s averages of 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per game emphasize his capabilities as a competent NBA defender.
Wagner is a defender for the modern NBA as a rookie. His off-ball defensive abilities and versatility make him a commodity for defenses that utilize rangey, switchable defenders akin to Jonathan Isaac and Mohamed Bamba.
At 6-foot-9 (with reports stating that he has grown even taller), Wagner has the capability of operating as a small-ball 5 in lineups that require switch-heavy schemes against perimeter-heavy teams.
Wagner’s basketball IQ displays itself in the offensive end in the form of timely passes as well as savvy playmaking from the forward position. Wagner is a superb ball handler for his size and takes advantage of mismatches against slower footed big men to drive towards the rim.
Wagner is a willing passer and has shown the ability to find teammates across a variety of situations. His willingness to pass as a secondary option reinforces the notion that Wagner can be an immediate contributor on an NBA team without requiring significant offensive touches to be effective.
His almost 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and equally impressive 17-percent assist rate as a combo forward are indicative of his strength within an egalitarian, assist-heavy offense.
Beyond his passing savvy, Wagner is a capable cutter that is willing to absorb contact and draw fouls – he shot better than 80-percent at the foul line, hinting at the potential as a catch and shoot perimeter threat.
This is an important point to make with Wagner, as many of his detractors point to his 31-percent 3-point shooting numbers across his two years in Michigan as a concern toward his transition into the NBA.
Unlike other prospects in this draft, Wagner’s ability to operate as a secondary distributor and off-ball asset in conjunction with strong free throw numbers mitigate some of the risks of his 3-point shooting concerns.
Wagner will have to work on tightening his ball handling at the next level as well when operating as a primary ball handler (especially in pick and roll sets), Wagner will often lose control on his handle if opposing teams double or trap him.
Wagner is one of the safest prospects of this year’s draft — a quintessential ‘Jack of all Trades’ player that can do many things well as a 19 year old player. As a rookie, Wagner’s defensive versatility and passing chops as a secondary ball-handler make him a valuable addition to any roster in the NBA.
Should the Magic go into the draft with a vision of a versatile, switchable offense and defense, I believe Wagner would be a solid addition at the 8th pick to complement players such as Isaac on the defensive end while operating as an additional passing threat on the offensive end to pair in a potential pick and roll set with the trio of point guards.