Franz Wagner has been able to stay healthy which, in the current climate around the NBA, deserves high accolades. He has played in all 35 games for the Magic, making him not only the team’s iron man, but also a bit of a saint—it takes a very good person to absorb every minute of Orlando Magic basketball, after all.
But Wagner has, of course, been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2021 NBA draft, so much so that he could now have a line on the league’s Rookie of the Year trophy. At the tender age of 20, he is averaging 15.6 points and 4.7 rebounds, making 44.8% of his shots and 36.4% of his 3-pointers. On a team many thought would be taken over by fellow rookie Jalen Suggs, who has struggled with his shooting, it has been Wagner who has stepped forth with immense potential at the small forward spot.
So much potential, in fact, that it is fair to wonder whether Wagner has pushed the one-time franchise cornerstone, Jonathan Isaac, into relative obscurity. Wagner is only getting better as he gets more confidence in the NBA, and in his last 14 games, he is averaging 20.0 points with 5.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists, shooting 47.3% from the field. The Magic allow 116.0 points per 100 possessions when Wagner is off the court, according to Basketball-Reference.com, but 113.0 when he is on. Offensively, the swing is similar: 106.2 points when he is on the floor, 98.2 when he is off.
“I think anyone would hate to say it because of the injury thing,” one Eastern Conference scout said, “but when I look at what Wagner is already, right now, I see everything that they wanted Isaac to be for years now. Isaac can be a useful guy in the NBA. But he can’t be a star, even though they want him to be. Isaac is just not at that level offensively. Wagner, though, is different. He could be that star.”
Wagner Could Be Rookie Of The Year
Wagner is a 6-foot-9 wing who has not just show flashes of potential as Isaac has, he has shown consistency on both ends of the floor. Wagner’s offensive numbers outshine most of those rookies who were drafted ahead of him, which is why he will certainly be near the top of Rookie of the Year consideration. But Wagner’s early success should also get the Magic thinking about what they can do with Isaac, long-term.
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The Magic signed Isaac to a four-year, $80 million extension in 2020 despite the fact that he had totaled just 64 minutes on the court going back to January 1, 2020. He tore his ACL in August of 2020 and is neck-deep into a rehab plan that has gone on for a bizarrely long stretch, with Markelle Fultz (who tore his ACL five months after Isaac) set to return before Isaac is ready. But Orlando’s rebuilding plan has marched on without him.
When Isaac gets back, it is difficult to see where he fits in a lineup in which Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. have staked claims to the frontcourt spots and Wagner is a surefire small forward. Bamba could go back to the bench, but one thing rings certain: Wagner will be a starter in Orlando at least for the foreseeable future. Isaac could land with the bench unit, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be happy with that for very long.
In which case, the Magic should just deal him elsewhere.
Fact is, Wagner has played himself into a starring spot with this team, which has so badly needed a two-way wing who could legitimately defend, while putting points on the board at times when his teammates are being too cautious. He is not a No. 1 option, but Wagner can be a second or third option on a playoff team. We’re still waiting for Isaac to return. Meanwhile, though, it seems Wagner has fit nicely into his role.