Orlando Magic’s Franz Wagner has exceeded all early expectations

Trey Murphy led the New Orleans Pelicans past the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Trey Murphy led the New Orleans Pelicans past the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports /

It is fair to say that there was something of a mixed reaction when the Orlando Magic opted to take Franz Wagner with the eighth pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

Wagner had established himself as a solid player in his two years at Michigan. The versatile forward averaged 12.5 points in his sophomore season while shooting 34.3-percent from three, averaging three assists per game and defending at a good level.

But despite all the positives, there was a sense the Magic had perhaps been a little too safe with the pick. While presenting something of a lower-risk option than the alternatives, many felt the likes of James Bouknight or Moses Moody offered more potential for a team that desperately needed more star power.

Summer League and preseason did little to quell this perception.

The rookie found it really difficult to find any sort of rhythm, missed open shots, and looked completely lost on offense without a clearly defined role despite some encouraging signs on defense.

Pre-draft perceptions often turn out to be wrong. And the early stages of
Franz Wagner’s NBA career suggests there may well be more to the 20-year-old than most expected.

On a team that has found it extremely tough early on in the regular season, he is fast becoming a go to guy on the team despite having played just seven games in his career.

Franz Wagner’s early season performances for the Orlando Magic have raised hopes of what he could become and crushed preseason expectations.

He has quickly brushed aside any concerns that were raised by his Summer League and preseason performances. Across seven games, he is averaging 13.9 points per game, is shooting 49.4-percent from the field and 43.8-percent from three across 32.3 minutes per game.

Wagner has quickly become the Magic’s most dependable player on both ends of the floor. It is hard to keep him off the floor.

Outside of Cole Anthony, the Magic have not been better than with Franz Wagner on the floor. The team has a -1.5 net rating with Wagner on the floor compared to a -30.0 net rating with Wagner off the floor. That certainly suggests a relatively positive impact.

While fellow rookie Jalen Suggs has struggled to get going on offense, Wagner has already demonstrated some core skills and capabilities. If he carries these on, he will ensure he will be an important NBA player for a long time to come.

The 3-point shooting has perhaps been the biggest contributor toward his positive performances. Life for a basketball player is so much easier when shots are falling, and while Franz Wagner will probably hit a tough rookie patch at some point — as we saw from Chuma Okeke last season — all the signs are there to suggest he can make around 40-percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

Wagner has a fantastic stroke. His jumper is technically sound, and he is not hesitating to shoot the ball whenever he gets an opening – even if from well beyond the arc.

For a team that has lacked good shooting for so long, his ability to space the floor and hit open shots is exactly what is needed to improve a stagnating offense.

But his offensive game has not just been limited to the three.

The threat Wagner poses from outside the arc means opposition defenders have had to close him down quickly to ensure he cannot get his shot off, which in turn has opened up more opportunities for him to fake, put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim.

Wagner has the handle of a player smaller than his size — which is around 6-foot-10. And when he gets to the rim, he has a handful of moves he can go to.

That includes an effective floater, which he has used several times in the first few games of the season with a fair degree of success.

Wagner’s size and strength mean he is able to absorb contact and see over opposing defenses to loft the ball in when he cannot get a layup. In today’s pace-and-space game, this is an immensely valuable weapon to have in your arsenal.

And if he does manage to get to the rack, Wagner has a vast package of layups at his disposal.

His reverse layup in the final few seconds of the second quarter in the 110-103 defeat to the Detroit Pistons showed he has the agility and creativity unusual for a player as big as he is.

It is not just on the offensive end that Wagner has made an impact, but on defense too.

The Magic knew they were getting a player with high defensive potential when they selected him, but it has been surprising to see how just advanced his defensive skill set is for his age.

Wagner has the size to guard bigger players, the strength to hold them off and the quickness to shuffle his feet and keep his opposing matchup in front of him. Big wings who can defend like he can are invaluable in today’s NBA and Wagner’s early defensive performances provide enormous excitement for what Orlando can be on that end of the floor when Jonathan Isaac, Chuma Okeke, Wendell Carter and Mo Bamba are all available.

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These were all skills he showcased in college, and have been immediately transferable to the NBA.

The signs in preseason suggested both he and Suggs would need a lot of time to become effective. But Wagner is already establishing himself as an (extremely early) Rookie of the Year candidate. On a better team, he could probably contribute to winning basketball right now.

Of course, there is still a lot to improve on, as the 110-109 loss to the Toronto Raptors proved.

Wagner struggled to get anything going offensively until late in the game and has so far been used in a more limited role on offense where he has been used as a cutter and to make open threes. The true test will come if he is asked to do a little more and to take responsibility for more offensive creation.

What is clear is Wagner is already an impactful player in the NBA. And in a league that prioritizes 3-point shooting and versatile defense more than ever, he is perfectly suited to the modern game.

Most draft reports had forecast Wagner as someone with the potential to be a good role player at his peak. This would by no means be a bad outcome for the Magic.

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But, given his displays so far, perhaps this needs a rethink.