This was the moment every Orlando Magic fan wanted to see ever since the United States announced its exhibition schedule and saw that Germany would be the final tune-up before the World Cup.
Franz Wagner vs. Paolo Banchero.
The head-to-head matchup of the team’s two budding young stars in a competitive game (not whatever the Rising Stars Challenge tries to be).
The two young players are playing different roles for their national teams and so the expectations for their production are different. But this was basketball at its simplest. Two great players who needed to figure out how to break each other down or get a stop.
Wagner got Banchero on him on a switch but backed out to give Banchero the chance to set himself and prepare to do the thing NBA defenders have quickly learned to fear: stop Wagner when he has his eyes on the basket.
Banchero did a good job though. He stopped the initial drive and forced Wagner into a mid-post up. But Wagner is too balanced. He deked to one side to get Banchero a bit off balance and then spun back the other way for a fadeaway jumper over his Magic teammate.
Quite simply: Good defense, better shot. And something the two will surely be talking and laughing about when they return to Orlando next month.
Of course, this little play and this mini-battle is part of a larger story for both contenders for the FIBA World Cup. Yes, the United States erased a 16-point deficit behind Anthony Edwards’ 34-point effort to take a 99-91 win over Germany in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. But the game ultimately does not count with both teams looking ahead to the start of group play in the World Cup next weekend.
The U.S. defeated Germany giving Paolo Banchero the win over Franz Wagner. But the Orlando Magic’s two young stars have confronted and overcome their weaknesses to help their national teams prepare for the World Cup.
This is all about getting ready for that tournament and both teams will have plenty to review on that front — for the U.S., it will be about their pick-and-roll defense and ball movement, and for Germany, it will be about their ability to keep going downhill and not settling for jumpers. Both the U.S. and Germany figure to be contenders for the podium at the World Cup.
But for these two young stars, this game and this tournament are forcing growth. It is forcing them in many ways to confront the rough edges of their still-developing games and give a little bit more.
If there is any doubt that the World Cup will help both Banchero and Wagner, just look at the ways they have already gotten better in the process.
It is most obvious with Banchero. For Team USA, Paolo Banchero is not playing the role he will play with the Magic as coach Steve Kerr asks him to play the backup center and focus on screening to set others up and defending at a higher level.
This tournament will and these exhibition games have forced Banchero to confront many of his weaknesses from his rookie year as he does not perform the skill that made him great as a rookie — his scoring.
There have been plenty of bumps in the road — his 0 for 4 free-throw shooting in Sunday’s game was concerning, but as much a sign of how unfocused he is on his scoring and looking to attack in the half-court as much as anything else (Banchero has definitely forced some things offensively with the precious few chances he gets to attack off the dribble).
But Banchero turned in his best game of his Team USA run Sunday.
He scored only six points in the game but he grabbed three rebounds to go with three assists, two steals and a block in 12 minutes. He was solid defensively, battling Magic teammate Moe Wagner for several rebounds and making the same kind of switch onto the perimeter as he did in the clip above.
Banchero has looked much more focused and engaged defensively during his Team USA run. That has been his role for this group. And while that was a perceived weakness during his rookie season, it is an area he can clearly grow.
Team USA has forced him to grow in that realm to make an impact. And that is what he is continually starting to show.
How much of that translates when the Magic put the ball back in his hands — and just how much better he has gotten at that now that he is spending a month not being a primary scorer? That will be the question for October.
Franz Wagner too is having to expand his game.
Wagner finished with a Germany team-high 17 points, although he struggled to shoot going 6 for 16 and 2 for 8 from deep. But Wagner never lost his aggression and he has taken on a bigger scoring role for Germany this summer.
He showed no fear of attacking Jaren Jackson Jr. (who got him a few times for two of his six blocks) or going to the basket. He is experimenting once again with his shot and agression. He still moves the ball, but Wagner is not afraid to shoot.
More than that, Wagner has taken more shots in the clutch. He hit big ones against Sweden and Canada early, but even in failure that is helping him grow.
So too is his increase in rebounding.
He had 10 rebounds in Sunday’s loss, matching a feat he has reached only four times in his career (his career-high is 11). That is certainly a point of improvement for him and something he has been more engaged with this summer, grabbing more than five rebounds per game across Germany’s warmup games.
For the national team, all of these players have had to do a little bit more to help their team get over the top.
The U.S. should still be the favorite to win the World Cup. But the team has shown itself to have weaknesses and be beatable. They will fall into traps that could prevent them from winning the whole thing.
And so every contending team is forcing its best players to confront the things that could prevent them from winning a title this summer. For the Magic’s young players, this experience in international play is forcing them to improve on their weaknesses to help their teams.
There will be a lot more to develop and grow once the Magic’s training camp begins. But for now, this final stage of their offseason is about doing what their teams need them to do to win the gold medal. Both big and small.
Both Banchero and Wagner have confronted some of their own weaknesses to help their teams so far. Now the games will count and they will see if that work will help them bring home medals for their home countries.