Franz Wagner’s Defensive Versatility Continues to Shine Bright

by Josh Cohen

NEW YORK - Whom, you may be wondering, has Orlando Magic rookie Franz Wagner guarded so far this season?

The better, and probably easier question to answer, is whom on the teams the Magic have played hasn’t he guarded thus far?

Despite being just 20 years old, Wagner has not only embraced the opportunity to defend several of the game’s biggest stars, but he’s done an admiral job overall against them as well.

There have been 29 different players through the Magic’s first 14 games that Wagner, the eighth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, has been matched up with on at least 10 different defensive possessions, per Second Spectrum tracking data. They range in skill and size, but all present challenges. Some are fast. Some are strong. Some can really shoot. Some are very crafty.

One of the craftier ones is Trae Young. Although the Atlanta Hawks guard had a strong night overall with the Magic in town Monday night, Wagner made things tough on him. In fact, Young missed all four of his shots with the 6-foot-10 Wagner as the nearest defender, per Second Spectrum.

Others Wagner has guarded in the early portion of the season include Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, and Julius Randle. Speaking of Randle, it’s very possible the two will match up again when the Magic visit the New York Knicks on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

When you have someone on the team that is committed to defense like Wagner is and is extremely effective at it, it gives coaches more flexibility when crafting defensive gameplans.

“His ability to be a position defender, smart defender, understanding gaps and areas on the floor, how he can use his length,” Magic Head Coach Jamahl Mosley said of Wagner. “It gives us such a versatile unit that we can switch at times. We can trap at times. He understands rotations. It says us a lot about us and just his ability to defend multiple positions.”

Opponents are shooting just 41.1 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from 3-point range when Wagner is the closest defender. Among rookies, he has been the closest defender to the third most shots. Only Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes have guarded more shots.

“They are going to make some throughout the game. Obviously, KD had a great game against us. Just continuing to keep the pressure up, follow the gameplan,” Wagner said. Even if they make a couple buckets, just to continue to make it hard on him. That’s all you can do.”

The Magic’s veterans have aided, too. Before playing the Hawks, Wagner spoke on the phone with Michael Carter-Williams, an elite defender himself who is back in Orlando rehabbing his ankle injury. He also watched film of MWC guarding Young from past games.

No surprise considering how young they are, but the Magic’s defense has been up and down so far. They’ve had stretches in which they’ve smothered opponents, but it hasn’t been consistent enough. For them to transform into a staunch defensive unit, they’re going to have to stay locked in for longer stretches and play with relentless energy and hustle.

Not getting down or frustrated when the opponent makes tough shots or goes on their runs is key, and it’s something the coaches and players are preaching to one another.

“Franz be getting mad at himself. It’s kind of funny to see. I do the same thing,” Cole Anthony said. “It shows he cares. That’s really what it is. I have a little more experience than him…I just try to keep encouraging him. Just let him know that he has an ability. Can’t let one missed shot or one turnover take you out of the game for eight, nine plays. At that point, we can lose the game in that amount of time. So just try to remain focused all the time. Just not let one mistake get to his head too much.”

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