Orlando Magic’s Franz Wagner takes command after slow start

Franz Wagner has started to take command of his game after a slow start to the season for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Franz Wagner has started to take command of his game after a slow start to the season for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Orlando Magic have had to ask Franz Wagner to do a lot. It has not always looked comfortable for the forward who seemingly makes everything look easy.

Wednesday night, the Magic were again asking a lot of Wagner.

Paolo Banchero was out, ridding the team of one of the key players that drives the team in this period where the team is playing without a traditional point guard. Wagner was going to have to take the reigns.

This all came too as Orlando confronted some of its demons. The team had struggled with turnovers but managed to keep itself in the game. The Magic had the lead and were trying to hang onto it in the clutch against a good team in the Dallas Mavericks.

This is no sweat though. Nothing ever seems to bother Wagner. And increasingly, Wagner is the one controlling the pace, giving the team exactly what they need.

After a slow start to his season, Franz Wagner has emerged as a key driver for the team and someone who can calm them down. Wagner is in complete command of his game.

With the game on the line Wednesday, facing aggressive double teams for probably the first time in his short NBA career, Wagner put the game away.

With two minutes to play and Orlando up five, Wagner attacked the middle before Dallas could bring the double. He calmly stopped midway through the paint, turned and hit the Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaway he seemingly mastered this offseason.

This was a superstar move. This was a killer move. And it was a sign of just how dominant Wagner was throughout Wednesday’s game as the driving force for an undermanned team. He lived in the paint, as he has all season.

But more importantly, he was in control. Whatever struggles Wagner was having earlier in the year as the Magic put more and more on his plate, Wagner has seemingly mastered it already. And his uptick in play shows how quickly Wagner has gotten comfortable.

"“I think he is continuing to grow,” coach Jamahl Mosley said after Wednesday’s game. “I think putting the ball in his hands, he saw something out there with he and Dell in the pick and roll and spacing the floor with shooters around. I think he did a good job of navigating. The ultimate sign of respect was that they were going for double teams and trying to it out of his hands off the ball. That’s a sign of respect for what they think he has done.”"

Wagner had the full attention of Dallas’ defense. And he got it fairly quickly.

Wagner has had bigger scoring games, but he may not have had any other game in his career where he had to control the tempo of the game quite like this.

He finished with 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting with six assists. His three turnovers were his only blemish. But many of them were from him attacking and trying to make things happen. Without Banchero on the floor to take some of the playmaking responsibility, it was all on Wagner’s shoulders.

This is increasingly an area where Wagner has gotten more comfortable. He struggled early in the season even bringing the ball up and getting the Magic into their sets as the team had to figure out life without Markelle Fultz and Jalen Suggs and then eventually without Cole Anthony. The team put the ball in its forward’s hands even if he was not ready.

His stats suffered.

In his first four games, Wagner averaged 15.0 points per game on 41.7-percent shooting and 3.8 assists per game. But in his last five games (the month of November), Wagner is averaging 23.0 points per game on 56.8-percent shooting with 5.6 assists per game.

He is making plays like this one against heavy defensive attention that were unfathomable both last year in his rookie year and even just a month ago when the season first began:

The Mavericks started in the second quarter bringing a hard double team every time Wagner tried to drive to the middle of the floor. They understood what a threat he was every time he got downhill.

As Josh Green goes to double Franz Wagner and try to prevent him from betting to the basket. Dorian Finney-Smith gets caught between Mo Bamba and Caleb Houstan. He decides to guard Houstan at the 3-point line leaving Bamba open for the dunk.

This is not a particularly strong double but Wagner is becoming increasingly good at manipulating that space and attention. Teams know Wagner is someone they need to worry about with the ball and his eyes on the basket.

He had several other moments throughout the course of the game where the Mavericks brought that double and he made a simple pass on the perimeter to an open shooter. With Wagner is never seemingly anything complex. He does the simple extremely well — dominate the simple as Mosley might say.

More importantly, he has started to look far more comfortable breaking down and reading defenses like this. It was seemingly all just a matter of time.

"“Part of it is also getting back used to the spacing which is a lot different than what I had this summer,” Wagner said Wednesday when asked about his uptick in play. “Part of it is also feeling more comfortable. Sometimes stuff just works out a little better. If I can continue to get better. I also have to shout out our bigs — [Wendell Carter], Mo [Bamba] — for setting good screens and making those reads a lot easier for us.”"

Wagner has taken advantage of all the help. He has focused on his strengths at the moment too.

He has put up all these points without much help from the 3-point line — he is shooting 24.5 percent from beyond the arc on 4.1 attempts per game.

Wagner has been a dominant driver and finisher at the rim, especially lately.

For the season, Wagner is averaging 12.7 drives per game, scoring a team-high 9.8 points per game on drives and shooting 58.2 percent, according to data from Second Spectrum. He averaged 6.4 points per game on 9.1 drives per game last year, shooting 46.0 percent.

Wagner is shooting 67.1 percent from within five feet of the rim on 7.1 field goal attempts per game. In November, he is shooting 70.5 percent (31 for 44) on 8.8 attempts per game.

Last year, he was at 58.3-percent shooting on 5.8 attempts per game.

No player has seemingly stepped up his ability to pressure the rim and get to the basket more than Wagner. And that ability seems only to be improving as he gets better as a playmaker and distributor.

Next. Orlando Magic preaching patience as Markelle Fultz recovers. dark

The game is being played at Wagner’s speed. That much is clear. He is in control over everything. And it feels like he is just getting started.