Franz Wagner's shooting struggles covering his mastery of the floor

Franz Wagner has had a breakout season in averaging a career-high. But he has also struggled with his shot. Those low percentages cover up his mastery of key areas on the floor.
Franz Wagner has struggled to shoot from the floor throughout the year. But his ability to attack the basket with great efficiency has elevated his game.
Franz Wagner has struggled to shoot from the floor throughout the year. But his ability to attack the basket with great efficiency has elevated his game. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The Orlando Magic's favorite pet play typically involves Franz Wagner on the wing working to get the ball into Paolo Banchero in the post.

The idea is that Wagner is not only an excellent entry passer but also a good shooter. Someone defenses will not want to leave on the 3-point line to double Banchero. But that is the catch-22, more often than not, Banchero is not someone a defense wants to leave alone near the basket.

This is the power of spacing -- or at least perceived spacing. The threat of Wagner as a shooter should have the effect of preventing teams from diving down to the post and crowding Banchero.

That is how things should go. It is why the Magic want Banchero and Wagner interacting with each other as much as they can.

Of course, Wagner has not had the kind of shooting season anybody expected. It has been the recurring story of his season. He has hit on only 28.3 percent of his threes and is coming off a March where he made only 7 of his 49 threes (14.9 percent).

Franz Wagner is not giving the team that spacing and everyone can feel the drain -- especially Paolo Banchero who feels the space constricting around him (the Magic have started using Jalen Suggs more to enter the ball to Banchero in the post).

This has become the biggest obsession and concern for the Magic heading into the Playoffs. Where has Wagner's shooting gone?

Wagner made one of two in Monday's win over the Portland Trail Blazers. But has not hit two or more threes in a game since the March 21 win over the New Orleans Pelicans and had not done that before then since the March 6 comeback win over the Washington Wizards.

But to look at Wagner's shooting and stop there ignores the impact he brings to the game. It ignores the other ways he has grown.

There has been some frustration with Wagner -- especially after an ice-cold March -- but while there are still a lot of concerns about his shooting, that regression has hidden a lot of progress Wagner has made.

Wagner has gotten a lot better and more impactful.

"Probably not shooting the ball as well, but just trying to make the right play," Franz Wagner said of his shooting struggles before Monday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers. "Trying to make the right play every time and be aggressive. Definitely not my crazy great games. But for the most part I think I'm playing solid."

Wagner is still averaging a career-high 19.6 points per game to go with a career-high 5.3 rebounds per game and 3.8 assists per game. After two years calling for Wagner to be more aggressive in hunting his shot, he is averaging a career-high 15.2 field goal attempts per game.

That is not the end of his career-high numbers.

He is averaging a career-high 11.7 drives per game, shooting a career-best 53.1 percent on drives according to data from Second Spectrum.

Wagner is in the 95th percentile with 13.3 drives per 75 possessions, according to data from Basketball-Index. He is in the 89th percentile with 6.7 total shots at the rim per 75 possessions. Basketball-Index gives him a rim shot creation rating of +1.4, placing him in the 95th percentile.

In a lot of ways Wagner is one of the best finishers in the league.

Wagner is shooting 65.2 percent on shots within five feet of the basket and 48.1 percent of his shots come right at the basket in that area. Last year, he made 63.2 percent of his shots within five feet, taking 42.8 percent of his shots from that area.

These are all career highs. His 3-point shot may not be there and Wagner may be selective with his mid-range jumpers -- he has taken only 44 mid-range jumpers this year and 95.7 percent of his shots are in the paint or 3-poiners -- but he is willing his way to the basket where he is scoring with a lot of efficiency.

"He's not just relied on his shot he brings so many other aspects to our game," coach Jamahl Mosley said after shootaround Monday. "His playmaking ability, his ability to finish at the rim. Defensively, he's been fantastic. The ability to guar dmultiple positions, switching 1 through 4 at times. What he brings to the table is so much more than just his shot."

His defense matches too.

Wagner has obviously been boosted as part of the Magic's elite defense -- still second in the league overall. But Wagner has been a big part of that. He has been a good stalwart against all kinds of different players. The Magic do indeed feel comfortable putting him on anybody.

Wagner will freely admit, as he did on The Old Man and the Three earlier this season, that he has to continue to improve and manipulate defenses better. But Wagner has found a groove and has gotten better and more efficient with his driving as the season has continued.

The only thing that has not come around this season is his shooting. And that stands out in a major way.

Wagner has increased his 3-point volume this year. He is taking 4.6 3-point attempts per game (a little bit more than he did last year). He is shooting just 30.0 percent on above-the-break threes, accounting for 86.8 percent of his total 3-point attempts.

Wagner is hitting on 29.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, according to data from Second Spectrum on 2.8 attempts per game. He made 40.6 percent of his 2.7 attempts per game last year and 37.7 percent of his 2.1 attempts per game as a rookie.

It is abundantly clear how much this year stands out. And how much 3-point shooting is the missing piece. It does overshadow everything going on with Wagner and the Magic.

But the Magic still have faith in him.

"I don't worry about it," Mosley said after shootaround Monday. "He will put the work in to put his shot where he needs to get it. It's the same concept we tell the other guys, with the work that you put in, continue to let it fly. Trust your shot, trust your process, trust the work you put in."

There will be time to evaluate Wagner's season after the Playoffs end. And Wagner's frustrating shooting will play a role in the postseason one way or the other. It is something that no one can avoid talking about or trying to figure out. It is just an odd statistical aberration.

But it still should be noted and still should be recognized what Wagner has done this season. He has become a fantastic finisher at the rim and someone who constantly pressures defenses at the rim, something invaluable to this Magic team.

Orlando for now is going to trust that the shot will turn around -- if not this season than in the summer when he gets the chance to work on his game and play at a high level again in the Olympics.

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Everything else for Wagner is working.