Orlando Magic readying to push Franz Wagner to the front

Franz Wagner has turned in a strong rookie year. Now is the time to let the rookie loose to close the season. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Franz Wagner has turned in a strong rookie year. Now is the time to let the rookie loose to close the season. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

110. 38. 127. 142. Final

The NBA’s Rookie of the Year race for this celebrated and strong rookie class is starting to take clearer shape.

Evan Mobley has been the front runner for most of the year thanks to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ ascendance into playoff contention. Scottie Barnes had the bright flash to start the year and has been a big part of the Toronto Raptors’ own playoff push. And then there is Cade Cunningham, who has looked every bit the star that made him the top pick.

This is a really good rookie class.

Franz Wagner is among them. He does not have the compelling story or even completely the numbers to stay in the Rookie of the Year race, even with some encouraging and surprisingly strong advanced numbers.

Wagner has been outstanding more for his consistency for a young Magic team. He has been a solid outlet who makes his impact throughout the course of the game. Wagner fits the way the Magic want to play. He cuts well and runs the floor in transition when the team gets stops.

The one thing that is missing with Wagner is the trust and responsibility to be on the ball. It is the one thing everyone surrounding the Magic has begged the team to do.

With just five games now left in the season, it feels like it is the last thing to explore for this Magic team. Do exactly what the team did in Wednesday’s 127-110 loss to the Washington Wizards. Wagner was on the ball and given the reigns to attack in addition to the ways he has typically scored.

Franz Wagner had another scoring outburst as the Orlando Magic seem determined to feature the rookie forward more and give him the keys to explore and expand his game.

Wagner scored 28 points on 11-for-20 shooting. He made all three of his 3-pointers as he led the team in scoring. More important than anything else, Wagner was aggressive from the jump, scoring 13 points in the first quarter. He had a 29.7-percent usage rate.

For Wagner, it was his 17th game of 20 points or more and his ninth game of 25 points or more. But it was just his sixth game with 20 or more field goal attempts and his 17th game with a usage rate of 25.0-percent or more.

Still, Wagner is modest and his mindset is all about playing in the flow of the offense.

"“Obviously I always try to make the right play,” Wagner said after Wednesday’s game. “I think my opportunities come for all of us when we’re all playing aggressively out there. I try to do that as well.”"

No one could say Wagner does not have explosive scoring performances. He can have big scoring performances. What has been impressive this year has been his consistency throughout the season. He finds ways to impact the game offensively even when the offense is not running through him.

When the ball does go to him and when he is playing aggressively he can have performances like this. Performances where Wagner is getting to the basket and working to keep defenses off-balance.

The Magic have just rarely turned him loose. The team has had to coax aggression like this out of him on occasion:

This was Wagner’s first basket of the game and a sign of the aggressive mindset he would have for the rest of the first quarter for sure and the rest of the game when he was in.

He did everything in this game, scoring off cuts, coming downhill off handoffs, getting out on the break, spotting up for three, driving to the basket and finishing at the rim. Wagner was completely in his element. And the Magic were at their best for much of the game when they turned to him.

Orlando seemed determined to get him the ball in a lot of the ways Wagner is comfortable.

This season, Wagner is scoring 1.55 points per possession on cuts according to NBA.com’s tracking stats. That puts him in the 94th percentile in the league. Orlando is constantly looking for ways to get him the ball in motion because of his ability to pick the defense apart this way.

Wagner has such a good understanding of pace and speed that defenses are usually the ones caught off balance when he has the ball. Wagner changes speed so well to shoot through the gap and get to the basket where he is big and tall enough to finish.

The one area the Magic have not used Wagner is as that primary scorer and creator. Wagner has not just shown an ability to fit in with teammates and be a supporting player and shooter when the ball moves to him, but he can attack.

Wagner is fourth on the team in pick and rolls, according to NBA.com, averaging 4.0 pick and roll possessions per game. The Magic score 0.83 points per possession on his pick and rolls. This is an area Wagner can still improve.

Wagner scores 1.06 points per possession on isolation plays, according to NBA.com’s tracking stats. He is third on the team in isolation possessions per game, but this is a type of play the Magic run very infrequently.

The Magic have been patiently waiting to expand his game though, focusing on the things he is already good at and expanding that.

"“His ability to make the right play, his aggression to get to the rim and his fearlessness in attacking the basket and not being afraid of the moment,” coach Jamahl Mosley said of Franz Wagner after Wednesday’s game. “As he continues to progress and get better with the decision-making as well as finishing at the rim, those are going to be key pieces as we move forward.”"

Wagner still has a lot to improve this offseason. He is still a rookie.

He could still greatly improve his finishing at the rim — he makes 59.6-percent of his shots in the restricted area where 40.5-percent of his shots come from. That is a solid percentage, but could still improve. Wagner can struggle to finish over length too.

The bigger thing for him will be to add a two-dribble pull-up and a better mid-range game to keep defenses further off balance. Wagner makes only 30.0-percent of his mid-range shots and he has taken only 40 field goal attempts.

He is already a solid 3-point shooter but his drives are either to the rim or bust. Adding that mid-range game will allow the Magic to use him in more ways.

He has been impressive and there is still more to get from him.

"“He’s just a guy who goes out there and competes and tries to make winning plays for his teammates,” Markelle Fultz said after Wednesday’s game. “I think that’s what you guys see. I think as he continues to get summers under his belt, continues to grow and learns how to use his body, he’s going to be a superstar in this league. Right now, he has a great feel for the game on both ends of the floor. It’s just fun watching him play.”"

Fultz said Wagner is not a player who goes out there chasing stats. That is something that is endearing about him and a quality that the Magic should embrace and foster.

But Wagner and the Magic should be thinking and looking for ways to continue expanding Wagner’s game. Wednesday served as something of a proof of concept. Wagner is more than capable of shouldering more offensive responsibility.

That is about the only thing the Magic can really do to close the season. Orlando has done well to develop Wagner and have him pick his spots. They have shown how he can fit into an offense and how he can succeed when the team plays the way it knows it is capable of.

What the Magic have not done nearly enough is give Wagner the ball and see if he can create for others. They have not given him the keys to the offense and the freedom to attack and shoot.

Next. Wendell Carter will thrive no matter how Orlando Magic use him. dark

The Magic may not completely loosen those reigns. But the rest of this season, they should be eager to see what Wagner can do and telling Wagner to attack and score.