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Franz Wagner is out to make a point as a forward

There’s plenty to love about the young Orlando Magic, even while they have yet to mesh into something resembling a contending team in the Eastern Conference.

Amid every rebuilding team that is loaded with promise — the Detroit Pistons, the Houston Rockets, and the Oklahoma City Thunder being the more prominent ones — the Magic stand out because of how funky their roster building has been.

And when I refer to funky, I mean that in a mostly positive way.

The Toronto Raptors’ penchant for collecting tall and lengthy wings like no other have garnered their roster the nickname “Project 6’9.” The Magic may have one-upped them in that department by unleashing “Project 6’10” – seven of their 17 roster spots (two-ways included) are occupied by players 6’10 or taller.

The one with the highest ceiling is Paolo Banchero, whose potential as a versatile scorer with playmaking chops knows no bounds. Wendell Carter Jr. has become a sturdy and dependable center. Injuries have hampered Jonathan Isaac’s availability, but his potential as a disruptive defensive force may be too good to pass up on. Bol Bol has transformed himself from a 7’2 novelty to a bona-fide productive rotation player.

And then, there’s Franz Wagner.

In this day and age of flash and pizazz, the ones who can fly high for dunks, beat defenders off the dribble with eye-popping handles, and unleash seemingly inhuman feats are often the ones who draw attention toward the television sets and put the butts in the seats. There’s no problem with that kind of stardom — after all, the NBA is an entertainment product, and whoever produces the most entertainment deserves all the praise and attention.

Unlike his other fellow 6’10-plus behemoths, Wagner doesn’t possess the flashiest arsenal of moves. He won’t wow anyone with outlier athleticism; he doesn’t have the kind of fast-twitch burst that some of his peers possess.

But there’s something about the simple things that speak to basketball junkies’ sensibilities. A handle that isn’t inundated with “tween-hesi” type of moves, but one that completes its purpose of getting you to your preferred spots. A finishing package that isn’t circus-like in nature, but versatile enough to complete its purpose of putting the ball in the hoop. The vision and passing chops that seem typical and rote but completing their purpose of finding the open man and creating quality looks.

The common word between all of the above is “purpose” — which Wagner is slowly starting to discover in his second year. But what exactly is that purpose?

Wagner being in control of half-court possessions doesn’t hit the same aesthetic notes as it would when a Luka Dončić or Trae Young has the ball in his hands. His drives and finishes aren’t as explosive as Ja Morant’s. His shooting audacity isn’t at the same level of Steph Curry or Damian Lillard.

Take note that all of the above listed are point guards — high-usage ball handlers who command the majority of their teams’ possessions. Wagner commands the second-highest usage on the Magic, with only Banchero being higher. Wagner’s 26.0% usage rate is in the 86th percentile among all wings, per Cleaning the Glass; it’s also a five-percent increase from his mark last season.

A significant part of that uptick in usage has been the Magic’s increased trust in Wagner as a ball handler and decision maker — to the point where he’s seen minutes at point guard, albeit in only four percent of the Magic’s total possessions this season. But even with the small amount of time he has seen at point, Wagner has shown why he’s becoming such a dependable playmaker and scorer with the rock in his hands.

He’s developing the processing chops to decide in real time to create his own shot if the opportunity for self-creation is there:

Wagner methodically directs his man toward the re-screen, eventually drawing out a switch onto Myles Turner, who doesn’t seem interested in defending out on the perimeter. Wagner takes advantage by stepping back for a pull-up three.

The most striking aspect of the possession above: patience. Wagner takes his time, is never rushed, and waits for a favorable situation (late switch) before pulling up.

Pull-up threes haven’t been an area of strength for Wagner during his young career. He’s taking more of them this season (around four more per game) but is shooting at a marginally worse clip (from 32.4% to 30.8%). That number should normalize to at least league-average marks, given that his career free-throw-shooting percentage (86.3%) is reason enough to be bullish.

A dip in his three-point-shooting accuracy has been countered by an increase in his frequency of shots at the rim — from 43% last season to 48% this season. He’s also finishing at a higher rate (60% to 66%), and it’s not hard to see why he’s had so much success with paint touches, getting to the rim, and converting.

The height and length — Wagner has a 7-foot wingspan — helps in getting the ball over the tall trees. Again, he’s not the most athletic leaper, nor does he possess speed and burst that some of his high-profile peers at the wing position possess. But what he does have is craft, footwork, and ambidextrous touch.

Among 79 players with a minimum 15 games played and who average at least 30 minutes, Wagner’s 13.7 drives per game is 10th in the league. He’s getting to the rim and touching the paint almost at will. This is a level of advantage creation that not a lot of second-year players have reached — and Wagner is well aware of that fact.

He’s forcing defenses to collapse, pinch in, and send additional help to stifle his drives. Even when he doesn’t touch the paint, his ability to make the advanced read in the pick-and-roll — akin to a quarterback going through his progressions — has been a revelation.

When many others would try to thread the pass to the roller in the possession above, Wagner takes the 200 IQ route by anticipating where the help will come from. By understanding the basic principles of help defense — that the weak-side low man would cheat off the corner to “tag” the roller — Wagner punishes a defense for virtually making the correct play.

It’s not just an isolated flash — Wagner has been consistently making the most out of his paint touches and improved floor mapping to spray the court with quality passes:

Wagner’s offensive output has increased across the board. He’s scoring at a higher rate (from 17.9 points per 75 possessions last season to 20.9 points per 75 possessions this season) on markedly improved efficiency (55.9 TS% to 58.2 TS%).

But it’s his playmaking metrics that have intrigued: from 3.5 assists per 75 possessions last season to 4.8 assists per 75 possessions this year, with a significant increase in assist rate — from 15.1% to 21.1% (95th percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass).

I’m curious to see if Wagner’s development into a virtual 6’10 point forward will have a significant macro effect on this Magic team. They’re 21st in offense and are currently dead last in assist rate. Even with the amount of offensive potential they currently possess, it has yet to translate into actual efficiency.

Wagner, however, has been one of their rare offensive beacons. He’s raring to make a leap, and the feats he has shown so far — playing the point in order to make a point — indicate that it may come sooner rather than later.

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