An Analysis of Franz Wagner’s Rookie NBA Season

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

Driving to the Basket

Drawing “oohs” and “aahs” from crowds, at home and on the road, is something Franz Wagner has done quite a bit throughout this season, largely because of his unique driving style and technique.

An exception to the norm, the 20-year-old is a great driver despite not being super-fast, explosive, or elusive. It’s his footwork, which for his age is very advanced, patience and unpredictability that makes him a tough cover when he attacks the paint. Others around the league that are similar in that way are Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, Charlotte’s Gordon Hayward, and Atlanta’s Danilo Gallinari.

It's almost like Wagner is a human GPS tracker. He knows precisely when to shift left, when to shift right, when to go straight, when to speed up, when to slow down, etc. This helps him stay under control when he’s navigating downhill. He’ll never “run a red light,” so to speak. He’s been called for a charge just three times this season – and two of them were taken by Blake Griffin, one of the league’s best over the last decade at drawing charges.

Wagner has good touch, too. He’s shooting 46 percent on drives, not bad for someone with well over 400 driving shot attempts. He has a knack for “flinging” in floaters and runners. Being 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-plus wingspan gives him an advantage over many of his defensive contesters.

Considering he’s averaging a shade under three free throw attempts per game, learning to initiate more contact on his drives will be a big part of his development.

Moving Without the Ball

If you play pick-up basketball, you know there’s always that one player every game that doesn’t burn out. They move around so much that it’s almost impossible to keep track of where they are every time down the court. Wagner is that guy for the Magic.

But it’s not just his endurance and relentlessness that’s so striking. He catches defenders napping constantly. As soon as he notices that his opponent is out of defensive position or has simply lost sight of him, Wagner makes a run toward the basket. It’s kind of like when there’s a thunderstorm and it’s pouring outside; as soon as you notice a slight clearing, you run as fast as you can to your next destination before it starts coming down hard again. That’s one way to describe Wagner when he’s surveying the floor without the ball in his hands.

A little over seven percent of his shots this season have come off cuts inside. He’s shooting 76 percent on these plays.

3-Point Shooting

Wagner has been very rhythm dependent with his outside shooting. In other words, when he’s on, he’s on; when he’s off, he’s off. Here’s some data to back that up.

In the 53 games in which he has attempted at least three 3-pointers, he has shot at least 50 percent in 17 of them and under 20 percent in 17 of them.

The corners are where he’s been most comfortable. He’s shooting nearly 44 percent from the 3-point corners on 66 attempts. Overall, he’s shooting 35.7 percent from long range.

Although he’s missed a few in clutch situations throughout the year, Wagner has been dependable from deep in the fourth quarter. In those final 12 minutes, he’s shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point land.

Kickout Passing

In general, Wagner is a very good passer. He makes good decisions when he gets into the paint. One such way he was effective this season as a facilitator was locating shooters on the perimeter when driving towards the hoop.

He made 130 kickout passes that directly led to a shot attempt, per Second Spectrum tracking data, with 52 of those shots going in. Teammates shot 40 percent from 3-point range when he delivered the kickout pass.

As a team, the Magic have dished out the sixth most kickout passes directly leading to a shot. The problem has been their conversion rate. They’re only shooting 35 percent off kickout feeds, well below the league average.

Interior Passing

Earlier this season, I wrote about how Wagner draws some comparisons to former Magic great Hedo Turkoglu. That is most noticeable when Wagner is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll.

Turkoglu, particularly when he played alongside Dwight Howard, was a brilliant playmaker in the pick-and-roll. Many of Howard’s dunks throughout his tenure with the Magic came off lobs from Turkoglu.

Throughout this season, we saw Wagner form a strong connection with Wendell Carter Jr., an excellent roller inside.

Of Carter’s 90 dunks this season, 28 of them came off Wagner passes, per Second Spectrum.

Ball Security

Turnovers have been a problem all season for the Magic. They rank 26th in that category, their worst spot since the 2006-07 season when they were 29th in turnovers.

The one Magic player this season who has kept mistakes at a minimum is Wagner. He’s averaging just 1.5 turnovers, which is very low for someone with a usage rate above 20 percent.

Defensive IQ

Opponents have shot 41.4 percent from the field this season when Wagner has contested the shot, per Second Spectrum. To understand just how good of a mark that is, let’s take a deeper dive.

Among players who have contested at least 700 shots this season, that’s ninth-best in the league. The only two small forwards with a better contesting defensive field goal percentage are Andrew Wiggins (39.6 percent) and Mikal Bridges (41.1 percent).

Both Wiggins and Bridges deserve to make an All-Defensive Team, so the fact that Wagner is right there with them statistically is a big deal.

Wagner is only averaging 2.1 fouls. He’s on pace to become just the second rookie in NBA history to average 15 or more points, fewer than 2.2 fouls, fewer than 1.6 turnovers and at least 4.5 rebounds with 1,000-plus minutes logged, per Stathead.

Areas to Improve

The biggest one by far is shot creation. We know he can get downhill and use his nifty footwork to evade defenders and knock down floaters, runners and layups. But can he add more creativity to his scoring repertoire? Can he develop a post-up game, a mid-range game, or put together a more extensive dribble combination package to create separation from defenders?

This season, he’s only taken 40 mid-range shots, making 12 of them. Also, only 2.4 percent of his shot attempts have come from post-ups and 4.4 percent in isolation. He’s right now a much better catch-and-shoot guy than a pull-up guy. On pull-ups, he’s shooting just 34.2 percent on 161 attempts. Among players who have attempted at least 150 pull-up shots, that’s the 15th worst percentage in the league.

Wagner is very dribble-heavy when searching for a shot. He has the fourth-highest shot frequency when two dribbles are taken before the attempt, and in those situations, he’s only shooting 40.7 percent, the third-lowest mark among those who have taken at least 160 shots with two dribbles preceding the attempt.

Mentioned earlier, getting to the free throw line more often is crucial for him because of how aggressive he is attacking the basket. He’s a great foul line shooter (86.3 percent), so the more he initiates contact, the more opportunity he will have to increase his scoring output.