Franz Wagner ranked No. 11 on The Step Back's 2023-24 25-under-25, ranking the best young players in the NBA. Check out the rest of the list here.
The Orlando Magic are understandably left out of national NBA conversations. The team hasn't won in years and it's hard to get a casual basketball watcher riled up about the young dudes playing in a city where there's more attention paid to theme parks than to sports.
That shouldn't be the case, however, because the Magic are fun. There isn't a deeper pool of young talent in the Eastern Conference. The wins haven't come around yet, but it's only a matter of time. Orlando added two lottery picks over the summer, leaving head coach Jamahl Mosley with an embarrassment of riches.
Orlando has size and defense in the frontcourt (Wendell Carter and Jonathan Isaac), twitchy creators on the perimeter (Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony), a true No. 1 star to lead the next generation of Magic basketball (Banchero), shooting (Jett Howard), wing defense (Anthony Black), connective tissue guard-play (Jalen Suggs). If you can think of it, the Magic probably have a prospect who fits the bill.
The focus today, however, is on the prospect who combines every category above into one super-prospect: Franz Wagner.
That is admittedly mild hyperbole, but there's a real case to be made that Wagner is the true centerpiece of Orlando's rebuild. Banchero is the top scorer, but Wagner ties the entire roster together. He's so malleable, so influential in every aspect of the game, that it's hard to overstate his importance to a group that's ready to start banging on the postseason door in a vulnerable Eastern Conference.
Franz Wagner is postseason-ready for the Orlando Magic
The No. 8 pick out of Michigan in the 2021 NBA Draft, Wagner was a victim of the 'jack of all trades, master of none' criticism. His detractors saw a big, versatile wing who wasn't great on defense and who, despite a varied offensive skill set, never really popped as a self-creator or an elite shooter.
What NBA decision-makers tend to undervalue, however, is feel. Basketball instincts are often the best indicator of a player's upside and Wagner always had instinct in spades. Since arriving in the league, Wagner has ratcheted up all his strengths, becoming Orlando's top defender and a lynchpin of Mosley's dynamic offense.
Orlando has a lot of ball-handling skill on the roster, but Wagner is comfortable spearheading possessions by pushing the tempo in transition or running pick-and-rolls in the halfcourt. He's a patient and precise dribbler, using subtle changes in speed and leveraging angles to make up for a lack of traditionally elite burst.
Wagner's assist numbers ticked up last season and he should continue to receive more playmaking reps in the years to come. He's not a full-blown offensive engine, but he's an excellent No. 2, capable of spacing to the perimeter, moving without the rock, or attacking seams in the defense off the catch.
He is therefore well-positioned for success in Orlando, where Banchero will grow into alpha duties while Fultz, Black, and others shoulder more traditional point guard duties. Wagner is every inch of 6-foot-10, with craft off the bounce and the strength to finish inside. He's a dangerous pull-up shooter, especially in the mid-range, due to his size. All that, and we haven't even talked about what is arguably Wagner's best attribute right now — the defense.
He doesn't have the reputation of a stopper yet, but that's primarily because he's so far removed from the spotlight. Wagner is a burgeoning ace on defense, with a calculated mind and the strength to wage war at the point of attack. He's quick enough to fight over screens and chase guards, but he will also stonewall wings attempting to get downhill. Wagner's ability to switch one through four, combined with active hands (1.0 steal per game) and a fiery disposition, make him the Magic's top perimeter defender. He can handle the toughest wing assignments while still carrying a sizable load on offense.
"Glue guy" is a term thrown around too often in basketball circles, but it applies well to Wagner. He's a jack of all trades, which is what makes him a master. He can accentuate his teammates with more complementary skills, or step up and take over possessions when the game slows down. There aren't many players at Wagner's height who are so varied off the dribble. On defense, he's a strong team defender and vocal communicator who should work well next to other defensive staples like Wendell Carter Jr. and Jonathan Isaac for years to come.
The Magic selected two lottery picks in 2021, something of a running theme lately. Jalen Suggs was the No. 4 pick, the highly regarded college winner who was supposed to lead Orlando's backcourt into the future. Lo and behold, the real gem was Wagner all along, and he's due for a monster third-year leap that could announce his stardom to the world at large.
We got a brief taste during his abbreviated FIBA World Cup run. Now, it's time for the main course.