Franz Wagner staking his claim to stardom, picking up after his injury

Franz Wagner's ascent was interrupted by an ankle injury that knocked him out for nine games. The time off did him well. He is regaining the claim to stardom and returning to form from deep.

Franz Wagner is picking up steam, too, now that he is back from injury. The Orlando Magic are growing their second star.
Franz Wagner is picking up steam, too, now that he is back from injury. The Orlando Magic are growing their second star. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports
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The Orlando Magic struggled to find their groove in the third quarter against the Chicago Bulls. The team needed a spark. They needed a play.

This is when a team has to go to its star and lean on its best players to lift them. They need someone or something to break the rut they find themselves in.

Paolo Banchero is usually the guy to do that. The team relies on him to soak up attention, and he is increasingly finding ways to dish out of those traps and absorb that attention. He needs a running mate. Much of the Magic's struggles in January came down to not having that other scorer.

Banchero was seemingly happy to pass the baton. And the Magic have someone who can pick it up.

Trailing by seven points with nine minutes to play. Wagner took over, hitting a pull-up 3-pointer to cut the lead to four. Then he hit a stepback three over Andre Drummond from the top of the key. He flexed on his way to the other end of the court as the Chicago Bulls called timeout.

Wagner was up to nine points at that point in the quarter. He would score 14 points in the fourth quarter and 18 of his 36 in the fourth quarter and overtime, becoming the driving force for the Magic's 114-106 overtime win against the Bulls.

Wagner had another big scoring burst in Saturday's game as he looks more comfortable and confident on the ball. He has taken his game up a notch and picked up the pace he was playing just before his ankle injury forced him out of the lineup for three weeks.

Wagner is making his star case. And that is a big part of why the Magic have surged back into the race for sixth in the Eastern Conference.

"I think I'm having a good rhythm," Wagner said after Saturday's game. "Just trying to play good basketball honestly. Just see what's out there and what the defense is doing to help my team win. A lot of different things are coming together. Maybe stuff at the start of the season, some of the easy ones weren't falling for me. If you continue to work at some point that stuff is going to work out. You have to continue witht he process and stick with it."

As much as role players stepped up and the Magic had to rally together to get the win Saturday, Wagner's big burst was the kind of thing that gave the team immeasurable energy. He lifted the team and gave them momentum and energy to win the game.

That is what star players do. They ultimately set the tone for the team. And Wagner has regained a lot of his star form.

Since returning from injury on Jan. 21, Wagner is averaging 22.4 points per game, shooting 51.7 percent from the floor and 40.0 percent from three. He has games of 38 (against the Detroit Pistons), 34 (against the San Antonio Spurs), and 36 (against the Chicago Bulls) in his last four games.

Before his injury, Wagner was still scoring a ton. But his shooting numbers were horrendous. He averaged 20.9 points per game with 46.7/28.8/85.2 shooting splits. Wagner is not just playing at an All-Star level. He has regained the efficiency that characterized the first two years of his career.

That has boosted everything for the team.

"It always helps when you make shots, obviously, and they have to react to that," Wagner said after Saturday's game. "My shot has been feeling really good. When I get into the paint, there are a lot of eyes on me. I have to continue getting better at finding open people and making plays from there. I think tonight was a pretty good example of me getting some good looks and getting to the spots I want to get to. It's always easy when shots are falling. Everything is feeling a little bit better."

Wagner has been an analytics dream in his big scoring performances, scoring only at the rim, from three and at the foul line. If there is a place where Wagner has dramatically improved since returning from injury, it is finishing at the rim.

Wagner is shooting 63.8 percent within five feet this season, with 45.6 percent of his shots coming from that area. He is shooting 71.2 percent on those shots since returning from injury, with 41.0 percent of his shots coming from that area.

It is easy to see that Wagner's outburst did not take many changes from his pre-injury run. He just needed to hit shots more consistently -- especially from deep.

But the Magic needed that to elevate their game. They need Wagner's energy and intensity to help change games and give some needed relief throughout the roster.

"Just his body of work. What he's been able to do to get himself back, getting that rhythm going, the confidence that he has in his shot and getting to the basket," coach Jamahl Mosley said after Saturday's game. "And you have to realize a lot of these things are coming out of the applied pressure to Paolo [Banchero]. They are loaded up to Paolo. They double-team him on the block, and he's swinging it crosscourt to Franz, he throws one to Jalen [Suggs] crosscourt. His ability to recognize double teams and make the right play which gives the freedom for a lot of these guys to make plays."

Wagner is someone who loosens the wheels for everyone. The Magic have a +2.7 net rating when Wagner is on the floor with a 111.2/108.5 offensive/defensive rating split. That is the best net rating among the Magic's starters.

Since his return from injury, the Magic have a +7.0 net rating with a 114.8/107.8 offensive/defensive rating split. A lot of that likely comes from playing alongside Jonathan Isaac.

Lineups with the Wagner/Banchero duo post a +0.7 net rating (108.2/107.5). But since Wagner's return from injury, lineups with the star duo post a +8.0 net rating (113.3/105.4).

A lot of this makes sense. Wagner is playing better, and Isaac is playing much more with the starting groups. It is just all signs that everything is pointing up.

Wagner right now is being a lot more aggressive and playing with a lot more confidence. His made shots lead to more made shots, which leads to a snowball effect.

Certainly, having both of the Magic's stars rolling bodes well for the team as they start to pick up steam heading to the All-Star Break. Wagner is a driver and an engine for this team.

"It was so much momentum," Mosley said after Saturday's game. "Franz shows his emotion, and it's great to see that when you know how energized he is in that situation. But it's also great to see our bench and our guys celebrating him. I think after he hit the one three, the whole bench celebrated up top because they know the work he puts in and how much they trust him, and how dedicated they are to winning and not afraid of these moments."

The incredible thing is Wagner does not think too much of what he has done. Everything is about taking what the defense gives him and finding ways to make plays as they develop. Wagner is completely unassuming. It never feels like he is having a big game.

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But he is having big games again. He is taking the lead in many ways as all the attention turns toward Banchero. And Wagner has rebounded well after putting the ankle injury behind him.