2023 Orlando Magic First Quarter MVP: Franz Wagner gave it all

Franz Wagner was asked to do a lot for the Orlando Magic this season. He has seemingly accomplished and thrived through it all. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Franz Wagner was asked to do a lot for the Orlando Magic this season. He has seemingly accomplished and thrived through it all. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The worst thing you can do when it comes to Franz Wagner is to underestimate him.

The story about him coming into the Draft process was that he was a tweener forward who could do a bit of everything but no one thing great. He seemed like he would fit in as a role player — a high-level one that would help connect and make a winning team work.

Of course, that kind of label is the kiss of death. The Orlando Magic did not seem to be the right team for him. They were a rebuilding team that would need him to be on the ball.

Wagner quickly proved everyone wrong with a dynamic rookie season. He was a strong connector and shooter for sure, but also an interesting pick-and-roll option and perhaps a playmaker too. He showed tons of promise in making the All-Rookie First Team.

His Eurobasket seemed to put all of these skills into overdrive. He was a better shooter in his secondary role for the German national team as they won the bronze medal. The hints of what would come next were there with his step-backs and mock Dirk Nowitzki fadeaways.

The hints have become clearer during the start of his second season. No one will confuse Wagner with just a “do-everything” forward who simply plays a role. They all can see that he is a “do-everything” forward who does, well, everything.

Franz Wagner entered the league as a do-everything forward. But he literally seems like he can do everything and accepts any challenge the Orlando Magic throw at him.

The Magic’s first quarter of the season was filled with uncertainty and injury. Franz Wagner was one of two players to play in all 21 games (Bol Bol is the other). But availability was not Wagner’s best ability in the first quarter of the season and why he is our first-quarter MVP.

Wagner’s best ability was his adaptability. And not even just adaptability but his near mastery of everything the Magic threw at him.

Wagner averaged 19.5 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game and 4.0 assists per game while shooting 50.0 percent from the floor in the first 21 games. His assists nearly doubled from last year’s 2.9 per game last year. His free throw attempts jumped from 2.8 per game last year to 4.3 per game this year. And his usage took an incredible leap from 21.2 percent to 25.0 percent this year.

Those who thought Wagner was not involved enough in the offense last year got exactly what they wanted this year. Wagner is on the ball a lot and one of the key scorers. The Magic essentially put everything Wagner did last year into overdrive while also adding more to his plate.

Somehow Wagner excelled at that too.

Down Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony in the first game (and for much of the first quarter of the season), the Magic put the ball in Franz Wagner’s hands and asked him to be the team’s lead ball handler for long stretches (either with the starting group or with the reserves depending on Jalen Suggs’ availability).

Wagner struggled with it early in the season — and probably still struggles to bring the ball up the floor when he is put under pressure. But the amount of growth he has shown and comfort working on the ball and attacking the basket with the ball in his hand are just astounding.

Wagner showed hints of all of this in his rookie year. But to catch onto the most difficult and important position in the league and do so successfully this quickly is impressive.

Orlando likely wanted to use Wagner as a ball-handler and phase those kinds of opportunities into his game. But injuries forced them to throw him into the deep end. He not only swam, but he did tricks while diving in.

Last year, Wagner averaged 3.9 possessions per game as the ball handler in pick and rolls at 0.85 points per possession according to NBA.com’s tracking stats. This year, Wagner is averaging 7.6 pick-and-roll possessions per game as the ball handler at 0.98 points per possession.

That is an incredible leap that deserves recognition and praise. The number of those possessions may go down now that both Fultz and Anthony are slated to return to open the season’s second quarter. But the Magic know this shot should be well part of their diet.

So should Wagner’s ability to get to the basket and finish at the rim.

Wagner is averaging 13.2 drives per game and scoring 10.1 points per game on 55.8-percent shooting according to data from Second Spectrum. He was at 9.1 drives per game, scoring 6.4 points per game on 46.0-percent shooting.

Wagner is scoring 8.6 points per game and shooting 66.7-percent on 6.4 field goal attempts in the restricted area this year (6.0 points per game, 59.7-percent shooting and 5.1 field goal attempts last year).

These are the areas Wagner has taken his greatest leap. He is driving more, getting to the basket where he is scoring more efficiently and getting to the foul line. And he is far more effective in the pick and roll.

Wagner could still improve as a passer. But to see these kinds of leaps with all the chaos around him on the roster has been as stead of a drumbeat as the Magic have. He is still clearly learning the finer points of being this lead ball handler and scorer.

The only stat that seems off-kilter from last year is his 3-point shooting — down to 31.7 percent this year. But even that has shown hints of improvement. Wagner is shooting 39.2 percent in November (that least 14 games). So this just seems like his averages are catching up to his actual shooting.

Wagner is shooting a lot more pull-ups this year — 3.9 field goal attempts per game compared to 2.0 last year. And that could explain his lower percentage from deep. He is taking 2.3 pull-up 3-point field goal attempts per game.

This just goes to all the ways Wagner has been pushed to the front this season. Some of that is certainly by necessity because of all the injuries — reminiscent of what he showed in December last year when the team also faced tons of injuries.

This part is different though. Wagner is playing with the confidence of a player who knows what he can do and is not merely exploring the depth of his talent and gaining confidence.

Wagner plays with incredible control and patience. The same things that made him a “do-everything” player in the draft process have made him difficult to defend now that he is literally asked to do everything.

The fact he can do it all has only added to the excitement he has brought to start the season. And this does not even get into the fact he is reportedly doing all of this with an injured ligament in his right hand (his shooting hand no less) that has had it heavily bandaged for several weeks now.

The Magic are at the bottom of the standings. That part weighs on Wagner too. He has been as outspoken as anyone trying to push this team to win and expect more from this group. He has looked as frustrated as anybody that the team is struggling to take that next step up.

Wagner has leveled up his own game. But he does not look satisfied with that. That exemplifies what this team wants to be about.

That part will come as the team gets healthier. And Wagner will be able to get a diet of catch-and-shoot opportunities and not have to drive as much. That should not mean the Magic ramp down on Wagner at all. The team knows it has something in him.

Next. Orlando Magic have lots more to show after first quarter of season. dark

That might be the biggest takeaway from the first quarter of the season. Wagner is not merely just someone who can do anything. He is a potential star that is learning and growing by the game and by the moment.