Franz Wagner Is No Role Player

Wagner’s scouting reports from nearly every pre-draft source sound like a broken record: “Elite role player.” “High-value role player.” “NBA Comparison: Nemanja Bjelica”.

That unwelcome “role player” label stuck to Wagner like toilet paper on a shoe. It has proven to be equally as sh***y.

Pre-draft hopes for Wagner expected an intelligent, versatile defender with enough shooting and playmaking to hang offensively. It was commonly assumed that Wagner would be a classic glue guy: moving the ball on offense, getting his points from cuts and spot-up shooting, and making his name on the other end of the court.

Instead, Wagner was arguably the Magic’s best offensive option last season.

Orlando quickly realized that they had gotten a lot more than they expected with Franz and, to their credit, empowered him to do more than sit in a corner and wait for his shot. He responded with a diverse diet of effective play types. He ran 314 pick-and-rolls last season, second on the team, and the Magic scored .84 points per possession on those plays (above the median and a very good mark for a rookie forward).

Franz drove to the hoop more than nine times per game, more often than LeBron James, fellow rookie Jalen Green, or Julius Randle, and just a tick behind Steph Curry. He was shockingly effective in isolation, able to break down defenders with a herky-jerky dribbling style and an array of long-armed finishes:

Unusually, he’s equally adept at shooting threes off the dribble as off the catch, and he started utilizing a compact stepback move as the season went on:

In motion, Wagner was as good as advertised, and he scored an absolutely bonkers 1.5 points per possession off of cuts. He has an innate sense of timing that lets him leverage open cracks in the defense with his crowbar arms:

Wagner’s passing helps unlock his other attributes. He’s not a point guard, but “Point Franz” acted as one for long stretches of the season, particularly before Markelle Fultz returned from injury. His height and court vision allow him to deliver passes in unconventional ways. Here, he catches the Wizards screwing up their zone defense and is able to uncork a one-handed cross-court laser off the bounce:

Fun! You don’t see that pass too often, and never from rookie forwards.

Wagner averaged just 2.9 assists per game, but that’s partially deflated by Orlando’s inability to play anyone who can shoot a basketball. Orlando was the 28th-ranked three-point shooting team in the league last season, which cluttered the paint and limited assist opportunities for Wagner, who couldn’t exactly pass to himself.

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The defensive side is where Wagner made his bones, however. The lanky German has superb situational awareness and surprising lateral agility for a nearly seven-foot-tall human. He can comfortably switch anything 2-4, and as he gets older and adds strength, he’ll eventually be able to guard many centers, as well.

A disciplined closeout artist who never falls for pump-fakes, Wagner is a sound positional defender who rarely gambles and therefore didn’t force many turnovers last season. His steal rate should improve with confidence and a better understanding of when to make plays on the ball, and I suspect he’ll comfortably crack a steal per game this season. He did average 1.9 deflections per game last year, ahead of more heralded defenders such as Jaylen Brown, Josh Hart, and Jayson Tatum, proving his playmaking instincts.

Franz possesses a reasonable vertical leap — just ask the Timberwolves — but he has a reluctant defensive first jump (there’s a reason he records less than half a block per game: seriously, he almost never leaves the floor. It’s hilarious.). When contesting shots, he sometimes is a beat late getting off the ground, and he doesn’t sky particularly high when he does finally launch: 

Despite that, Wagner forced opponents to shoot -8.5% worse at the rim than expected, an exceptional number. Opponents almost never blew by him, so he was always in position to contest the shot even without jumping. He uses his length to contest shots instead of his leaping ability, so he rarely fouls. Wagner had the fifth-lowest foul rate per 100 possessions of any NBA player listed at 6’9” or taller — a remarkable achievement for a rookie (his peer, Evan Mobley, is a shade lower— part of the reason Mobley is already an All-World defender).

Here is a beautiful example of Wagner at his best. He fills in the lane off of the weakside shooter, retreats as a teammate comes into the paint, comes back in when the Lakers’ Carmelo Anthony makes his move, and cleanly strips the rock before wisely re-establishing himself inbounds and picking up the loose ball:

Franz does need to polish a few rough edges. Agile as he is, Wagner still struggled to keep up with the speediest players, and like all young players, he missed some bunnies around the rim. He’s not the most fluid athlete with the ball, and he needs to tighten his handle to improve his passing and finishing abilities further. His three-point shot was average-ish overall and can be honed into a sharper weapon.

Luckily, finishing at the rim, ballhandling, and shooting are skills players reliably improve upon as they get older and put in the work. It’s very plausible that as soon as this coming season, Wagner will have no flaws to his game outside of shotblocking, a relatively unimportant skill for a wing.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to Franz’s ascendance to All-Star level is the preponderance of decent ballhandlers on the Magic. Point guard rehabilitation project Markelle Fultz was impressive last season in his scant 18 games, and he noticeably took much of the playmaking duties away from Franz. Another guard, Cole Anthony, actually led the team in scoring. Wagner’s fellow 2021 draftee, Jalen Suggs, is also a point guard who will demand on-ball reps. And incoming #1 overall pick Paolo Banchero projects to be an even better point-forward than Wagner (albeit without Franz’s shooting or defensive capabilities).

At times last season, Franz got lost a little in the shuffle, which was exacerbated by his willingness to play within the system. He’s a coach’s dream in that his skillset and mindset allow him to fill up as big or small a role as is given to him, but Coach Jamahl Mosley needs to resist the urge to pigeonhole him. Even amidst a crowded roster filled with interesting young players, Wagner needs to be a featured entree, not a side dish.

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Much of that falls on Wagner himself. He’s not a rookie anymore and needs to be aggressive in establishing himself in Orlando’s pecking order. His usage rate of 20.8% from last season is nowhere near what it needs to be this coming campaign — even secondary stars are usually around the mid-to-high 20s.

I can’t wait to see how a frontcourt of Wagner, Banchero, and center Wendell Carter Jr. look together — three plus passers with intriguingly complementary skills and unselfish attitudes. Franz, however, is the most well-rounded of the three. Even if Paolo eventually becomes the alpha dog on this team, Wagner has the tools to be the best player on the Magic next season and perhaps beyond.

We’ll have to wait and see if he’s assertive enough to take that distinction for himself. He’s had a few incandescent moments in this summer’s EuroBasket tournament but has had an equal number of games where he’s faded into the background; it’s almost as if he doesn’t realize how good he is.

Role players are role players precisely because they have weaknesses in their games. They slot into spots that maximize their strengths and mitigate their flaws. So what do you call a player with no holes in his game? A star. Franz controls the dimmer switch; we’ll see how bright he lets himself shine.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.

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