The NBA is always full of surprises. The Orlando Magic got dealt a big one just before tip-off when the team ruled Cole Anthony out with an illness.
The team, already down Markelle Fultz because of a broken toe, lost its other point guard. Jalen Suggs, fresh off missing a week because of a left knee sprain and bone bruise, was going to need some help.
That would seemingly be no problem for a team that is going positionless. A team that is as comfortable with its forwards handling the ball and being among the primary playmakers.
The team decided to try out Franz Wagner as the team’s backup point guard in Wednesday’s game. In many ways, this was something the team at least had some hints that could work. Wagner is a smart playmaker and very capable on the ball.
The Orlando Magic, short on point guards for their opener, tested Franz Wagner as the lead ball handler. While this is something the team may return to, it did not work at all in the opener.
But the experiment certainly did not work, slowing the team down and allowing the Detroit Pistons to get on the front foot after the Orlando Magic used a 19-0 run to take a 15-point lead in the first quarter.
Wagner started the second quarter as essentially the team’s lead ball handler. He played 11:18 without Suggs on the floor in the first half. The Magic went -14 in those minutes. That is how a lead disappears.
In that time, Wagner committed all four of his turnovers in the game during this stretch. It set the tone for the game. Orlando was struggling to be the aggressors and get into the team’s offense. The Magic sputtered and ultimately fell behind.
"“I think I didn’t do a great job handling pressure and getting everybody into their spots and stuff like that,” Wagner said after practice Thursday. “Obviously, it is not something I’m not super used to. I am grateful to get the opportunity but it is definitely something I need to work on.”"
Wagner said he knew teams were going to pressure him more this year after his strong rookie year. He tried to study bigger guards like Luka Doncic on how to handle the pressure. But Doncic has been playing point guard a whole lot longer. Wagner is still very new to it.
It is something he knows will only get better with experience. And the Magic are not likely to go away from the idea. They want Wagner to be the playmaker. They played that way with Franz Wagner trailing only Paolo Banchero with 64 touches in Wednesday’s game. Wagner averaged only 46.5 per game last year.
The Magic want Wagner to be more of a playmaker. It is something they believe he can do. But it was probably premature to try it in a game with such high stakes, even if the team had few options.
They trust Wagner will learn from the experience and continue improving.
"“I think it’s great,” Mosley said after Thursday’s practice. “One thing about Franz and we’ve said it from the moment he stepped in is he has a very high basketball IQ. He understands when he is supposed to come off the ball, when he is supposed to attack vs. pressure, when he is supposed to read the pressure and use that to his advantage. These are things he is still going to continue to learn. he is picking these things up.”"
The Magic opted to go with R.J. Hampton to fill in those point guard minutes in the second half. Wagner did not play any minutes in the second half without at least one of Suggs or Hampton on the floor to help with the playmaking duties.
To that point, Wagner became much more effective. He scored nine of his 20 points in the second half and the team broke even with him on the floor.
The ball is not likely to leave Wagner’s hands any time soon.
He may not be the one bringing the ball up the court, but the Magic want him to be on the ball making decisions and leading the offense. That part is not going to change. And Wagner is very capable of taking on that role.
Wagner knows he has a lot more to learn to take on the traditional point guard roles. It was probably unfair to thrust him into that spotlight even if the team did so out of desperation in Wednesday’s opener.
The Magic are likely go back to it at various times this year. It probably is not going to be something they primarily do moving forward. But it is part of their development plan for Wagner and where they want him to go.
It did not work out in the opener. But it is something to keep developing and working on.