Franz Wagner ready to make the All-Star leap for the Orlando Magic

Franz Wagner had a stellar rookie season and the Orlando Magic forward is n a star trajectory. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
Franz Wagner had a stellar rookie season and the Orlando Magic forward is n a star trajectory. Mandatory Credit: Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports /

As Franz Wagner walked across the stage to shake Adam Silver’s hand on June 29, 2021, nearly every evaluator viewed him through the same lens: a high-end role player.

This initial opinion is due to a variety of aspects. But particularly due to a phenomenon of player evaluation — the assumed correlation between polished players and lower ceilings.

Drafting for star variance is a valid philosophy, but players should be rewarded for already being good, not thought of as finished products.

The 2022 top overall pick in Paolo Banchero suffered from the same biases throughout his pre-draft process. Though his reputation and affiliation with the oft-overlooked Orlando Magic resulted in minimal chatter, anyone with a trained and watchful eye realizes Wagner is destined to be an NBA All-Star.

Franz Wagner turned in a stellar rookie season. He was evaluated as a finished product in the draft, but he is far from done growing and improving. He is clearly on a potential All-Star trajectory.

To become an All-Star, one needs statistical volume.

Wagner played 79 games at 30.7 minutes per game where he averaged 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He accomplished this, shooting 46.8-percent from the field, 35.4-percent from three, and 86.3-percent from the charity stripe.

He was the only rookie in the NBA to be above league average in all three of those percentages.

Much more impressively than Wagner’s season-long totals are how he fared in games where he surpassed 15 for more field-goal attempts. Wagner had 17 games with 15-plus field-goal attempts. In those games, Wagner averaged 23.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game with 49.8-percent, 38.5-percent and 82.0-percent shooting splits.

These are fringe NBA All-Star numbers.

Every opportunity he had to expand his game, Wagner scaled it with exponential efficiency –tremendous and shocking efficiency for a 20-year-old rookie.

Without any mention of physical traits, winning habits, developed skills or advanced analytics, Wagner’s raw statistical output bodes exceedingly well for his future All-Star potential.

Beyond his counting stats, Wagner’s game and projectable growth cement his status in the bucket of future All-Stars. He is a true jack-of-all-trades, master-of-most. At 6-foot-10, 220-pounds he moves and plays like a perimeter wing.

His functional size and movement are enormous contributing factors to his success and ceiling. Jumbo skilled wings are the paramount player archetype in the league currently. Wagner uses his size and physicality brilliantly on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, he uses his body like a savant, shielding defenders and reaching his long arm straight out to an unblockable position — flipping up delicate teardrops or baptizing defenders with poster dunks.

This was on full display when he dropped 38-points on the fully healthy defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in December.

Other than straight line drives toward the rack (almost always to the right, he must improve this), Wagner was exceptional at using his size to meander to the rim.

Wagner employed saucy Euro-steps, step throughs, spins and drop steps. His footwork in tight areas off the bounce at his size is just silly. This size/skill ratio enabled Wagner to create 4.0 unassisted rim field goal attempts per game last season landing him in the 92nd percentile in the league. Even more incredibly, he landed in the 95th percentile in isolation points per possession per Basketball-Index.

This was quite unexpected of Wagner coming out of the draft. But he leveraged the NBA spacing and flirted with dominating this facet of highly valuable offense.

Moving forward, this will be an invaluable asset to his game because larger ballhandlers have a much easier time transcending playoff-level defenses than their smaller counterparts do.

Defensively, Wagner’s elite size and mobility also contribute heavily to his success. His defensive versatility was mind-blowing last season.

He essentially split the time he spent defending the three wing positions — shooting guard (24.1-percent), small forward (27.8-percent) and power forward (25.3-percent) evenly. He even defended point guards on 15.5-percent of his possessions.

According to B-Ball Index, Wagner ranked in the 94th percentile in defensive versatility in the NBA and 86th percentile in defensive matchup difficulty as a rookie.

In the modern NBA — outside of elite scoring and playmaking — there may be nothing more valuable than a 6-foot-10 wing who can lineup and survive at the point of attack against everyone from small and explosive point guards to bruising power forwards.

This is something the Magic have signaled they want to do with their defense. Franz Wagner fits perfectly into that as a pair to Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter.

Wagner is a legitimate 1-4 (preferably 2-4) defensive Swiss army knife. Evaluators can presume as he packs strength onto his nicely proportioned frame that he could hang with some centers in a pinch.

On the perimeter, Wagner showed patient feet far beyond his years. He maintains an excellent corral stance and makes ball-handlers beat him, nothing comes easily.

He was excellent in transition defense, both jamming the point — forcing the recipient of the outlet pass to come back to the ball — and jamming the outlet passer, delaying fast breaks.

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Wagner was also heady at mucking up the paint, almost always maintaining awareness to tag cutters and clog the area around the nail. He alleviated pressure with this skill, freeing up Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter to help more effectively because they were not constantly circling the post and recovering to off-ball rim pressure.

Wagner could improve his ability to swarm and playmake defensively. In his aversion to taking risks — commendable for a rookie — he left some meat on the bone in the passing lanes and late-shot-clock situations. He often allowed offensive players to take normal contested shots in high-leverage possessions instead of ratcheting up the pressure and forcing live ball turnovers.

Regardless of his defensive playmaking, Wagner’s smarts, versatility, and effort on the defensive end will result in elite on/off metrics and wins, further improving his future All-Star case.

Speaking of winning habits, Wagner’s most elite attribute outside of his combination of size and mobility is his unreal work off-ball.

Wagner is a genius-level cutter and finisher on cuts, shooting 88.0-percent on field goal attempts on cuts. This is an astronomical number, especially for someone who cuts as often as he does. His understanding of live-ball court geometry and timing is unteachable.

He always maintains basic working distance with his teammates, leaving proper space and balancing the court even when his teammates were in the wrong spots. He is unbelievable at attacking weakside and backdoor cuts — patiently waiting until the right moment and then with split-second decisiveness, cutting with sound-barrier threatening speed.

According to Basketball-Index, he was in the 96th percentile in average movement speed. This puts soul-crushing pressure on defenses.

Franz Wagner’s new teammate Paolo Banchero happens to be the best passer to cutters in his entire draft class and is one of the better prospects at this specific skill to come out in years. The holy matrimony between these two skill sets will result in many young opponents getting benched.

Wagner is also a master at the diagonal-cut — after the strong side ballhandler passes to the wing, they cut on an oblique angle towards the weak side. He was hit on these multiple times throughout the season.

He also flashed inside-cut ability, upon the ball being passed to the wing the ballhandler cuts inside the wing to the corner for a shot, where he shot 43.9-percent.

Shooting improvement is one of the keys to unlocking stardom for Wagner.

He shot 37.7–percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and 32.4–percent on pull-up 3s with a 61:39 ratio in favor of catch-and-shoot attempts. He only attempted 3.4 3-point-attempts per game.

These are acceptable numbers, but to reach his ceiling he must build on his volume and efficiency. Shooting 86-percent from the free throw line is a hugely positive predictive statistic for his progression as a 3-point shooter.

He even began dipping into his self-created 3-point bag as the season went along. He hit some spectacular monster-stride step-backs into the right corner — a funnily underused spot for step-backs due to the tight quarters and fear of stepping out of bounds. This is a shot he had clearly been practicing and could not wait to unveil.

Wagner seemingly had an exclusivity agreement with the rim and 3-point line. His shot chart was red hot in those areas and essentially non-existent elsewhere.

This trait is generally favorable in the eyes of stat nerds (hand held high), but ball knowers recognize that it is crucial to offensive resiliency to have go-to spots in the midrange when defenses tighten the screws.

This is an area where improvement will hopefully come as Wanger grows in confidence and willingness to work on-ball.

Playmaking expansion is the aspect of Wagner’s game that can most quickly elevate him to an All-Star though. His shooting and scoring will come as the Magic continue to improve offensively. But Wagner will be a central figure in the offense in other ways.

At his size, his passing and ball-handling are glorious. He is unbelievably accurate on skip passes, occasionally hitting sick weakside corner whip passes akin to Luka Doncic. He is killer at reversing the ball to keep defenses in rotation and his over-the-top passing is pinpoint, eliminating defenders attempting to deny entry.

He even worked very nicely out of the pick and roll, averaging at least 1.0 points per possession with every pick and roll partner who set him at least 4.0 screens per game.

A blessing and a curse to Wagner’s game is his staunch adherence to the direct line principle. This means he was excellent at diagnosing when there was no viable defense between the ball and the basket and he would immediately attack, collapsing the infrastructure of the defense.

This mentality is excellent.

Unfortunately, he often missed opportunities for kick-out passes, opting to commit to his line drive attack despite the collapsing defenders. This is a classic feature of a rookie baller, one of the very few areas Wagner resembled a first-year player.

The question of Franz Wagner’s All-Star upside is not about his abilities. He is already good at essentially everything, which means he can simply work on building and perfecting his craft.

The question that remains is, will he be featured enough to accomplish this achievement? Wagner already saw his usage rate dip upon the reinstatement of Markelle Fultz into the starting lineup. Now, with the addition of Paolo Banchero and a full-time helping of Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony and Jonathan Isaac. It may be tough to find 17 more games with 15-plus field goal attempts.

This would be a shame. The Magic’s upward mobility will be realized by fully optimizing their two 6-foot-10 initiators.

Wagner and the coaching staff were equal parts to blame for his underuse last season. Wagner is a considerate teammate and almost always makes “the right play.”

This is a characteristic that will serve him well. But there were times last season that he was frankly over-passive. Wagner was arguably (there is not a legitimate argument for anyone else) the most effective offensive player on the team, but he only periodically acted that way.

The coaching staff strangely shied away from using Wagner as the primary ball-handler in a far greater capacity and there is warranted fear that this trend will continue — resulting in a severe opportunity cost at Wagner’s expense. His passivity and the coaching staff’s lack of recognition of his talents are Wagner’s biggest barriers to entry as an NBA All-Star.

Ultimately, Wager is a physically, mentally and skillfully gifted basketball player. He cobbled together about as well-rounded as a rookie campaign as this league has seen amidst a myriad of chaos around him.

From the German Hammer’s offensive scalability to his defensive versatility, he was lab-created for the modern NBA.

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Fans have been warned. Hop on the bandwagon now because it will be much more fun to be smug than surprised upon Wagner’s first NBA All-Star appearance of many.