Moe Wagner's journey: From castoff to key player for the Orlando Magic

Moe Wagner has often taken criticism for his poor defense in his early career. Some Orlando Magic fans have gone far enough to say he is simply on the team to satisfy his younger star brother, Franz Wagner. He has put all that to rest this season with his spectacular play.

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets / Elsa/GettyImages
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Moe Wagner has shown a ton of growth in his game each year he has been in the league.

Coming into the league in 2018 as the 25th pick, he had to earn his opportunity by proving to coaches he belongs. Each year, he had some doubters and it took him a while to find his place in the league.

He bounced around early in his career from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Washington Wizards (traded as part of the Anthony Davis trade) and then eventually as a castoff to the Boston Celtics, where he was cut before he played a game.

The Magic grabbed him to end the 2021 season and immediately fell in love with the energetic center. He carved out a role late in that season and stayed on the team alongside his recently drafted brother, Franz Wagner. But Moe Wagner kept grinding and found a role, supplanting Mo Bamba and sticking with the roster over and over again.

He earned his place in the league. But there were still plenty of doubters remaining.

This year, he has played so well to the point that he has quieted even the nitpicking critics about his game.

Coming off a very impressive run in the FIBA World Cup this past summer, in which he helped Germany win its first World Cup title. He has continued his great play into the Magic season, which has helped them become the second seed in the Eastern Conference with a very impressive 15-7 record.

Moe Wagner is averaging 12.5 points per game with 4.5 rebounds and a combined 0.9 stocks in just 19.4 minutes per game. That is simply absurd. To put that into perspective, per 36 minutes, he is averaging 23.2 points per game and 8.0 rebounds.

An even more impressive part about that is how efficient he has been.

He is shooting 63.3 percent from the field. He has shown improvement from 3-point range as well, shooting 36.1 percent. He is shooting nearly 71 percent on his 2-point field goal attempts.

He has the highest field goal percentage of all players who have attempted at least one 3-point shot this season. He also has the third-highest 2-point field goal percentage, trailing only Obi Toppin and Jakob Poeltl. He has a true shooting percentage of 70.2 percent.

He has been adept at attacking the rim and finishing at the basket. He is a perfect pick and roll player with his ability to pop. But he has been an excellent roller. The Magic score 1.27 points per possession on pick and rolls with Wagner as the roll man, according to NBA.com. That puts him in the 71st percentile in the league.

The best part about Wagner has been how much he has improved his defense.

This season, opponents have shot 57.7 percent at the rim when defended by Wagner, according to data from Second Spectrum. That is a much better number than last season's 75.5 percent, the worst mark among centers who played at least 41 games.

By no means is Wagner some all-defensive big man. But last season he was statistically the worst rim-protecting big man.

To improve his rim protection by nearly 20 percentage points is a big feat for any player. Even more so for a guy like Wagner who was not a good defensive big man. That was the only knock on his game.

This season thus far, he has put that argument to rest.

To put that into perspective, Goga Bitadze gives up a 52.5-percent and Jonathan Isaac gives up a 50.0-percent field goal percentage defended at the rim. They are both very good rim protectors. Wagner has shown statistically at least, that he is not much worse than them.

He has shown he can hold his own at that end.

Regardless of anything else, it is a big boost and has enabled Wagner to eat up more minutes as the team's backup center. It helped establish him and keep the defense of the league's highest-scoring bench.

The Magic have a net rating of +3.5 points per 100 possession with Wagner on the floor and a -2.3 net rating with him off. In contrast to last season, where that number was a -1.5 with him ON the floor and +1.8 when he was off.

That shows growth, something this front office and coach Jamahl Mosley have emphasized for years. Wagner has clearly taken that very seriously and showed up big time for the Magic.

Wagner has been with the Magic through their dark times, if anyone has earned the rise of the Magic, it is Moe Wagner. He was quoted earlier in the season during the Magic's win streak by talking about how winning has been a building process. This is not something the Magic built overnight.

Wagner is one of the most selfless guys in the league, always cheering his teammates on from the bench when he is not in the game. He has embodied what this team wants to be. He is exactly the type of player every team needs in their locker room.

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He can spark the Magic off the bench by going on a scoring run or even getting under the skin of opposing players. He has shown that he is belongs in this league and is here to stick around for a long time.