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Franz Wagner is Quickly Becoming an NBA Defensive Ace

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO - A surprise to some might be Franz Wagner’s offense. He’s averaging 14.9 points, third most among rookies, on 49.5 percent shooting overall and 41.7 percent from 3-point range.

But as advertised, Wagner’s defense has been superb. Opponents are shooting 38.4 percent from the floor and 25 percent from 3-point range with the 6-foot-10 German forward as the closest defender. Fellow Magic rookie Jalen Suggs’ defensive numbers are just as impressive (39.6 percent overall and 29.2 percent from distance).

Wagner, one of the most versatile players selected in the 2021 NBA Draft, has guarded a variety of players in the early stages of his career. That was glaring during Orlando’s game against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night at Amway Center.

At different points, Wagner was matched up against Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Dennis Schroder. Those three took a combined 10 shots with the 20-year-old Wagner guarding. Just one of those attempts went in, per Second Spectrum tracking data.

Strengths of his are his length, lateral quickness, timing, instincts, and high basketball IQ. He’s even been able to battle down low with some of the league’s big boys. Julius Randle, for example, went 2-of-7 on floor shots with Wagner as the closest defender in the two Magic-Knicks games combined.

Here are how some others have fared with Wagner guarding, per Second Spectrum:

RJ Barrett: 2-for-11
Malik Beasley: 1-for-4
LaMelo Ball: 0-for-3
Fred VanVleet: 1-for-3
Saddiq Bey: 1-for-3
OG Anunoby: 1-for-3
Anthony Edwards: 0-for-2

After a sluggish start, the Magic have turned up their defensive pressure and intensity the last few games. Over Orlando’s last four games, opponents are shooting 42.2 percent overall and 29.2 percent from 3-point land.

Eventually, just based on roster personnel and head coach Jamahl Mosley’s core principles, Orlando is going to be an elite defensive team. Let’s remember, Jonathan Isaac and Michael Carter-Williams, two of the team’s best defenders, haven’t played yet this season. Markelle Fultz has a ton of potential on that end of the court as well when he returns.

Mo Bamba is one of the league’s best shot blockers. Wendell Carter Jr. moves his feet well for his size. Chuma Okeke, as evidenced by his fourth-quarter defense on Karl-Anthony Towns in the Minnesota game, has a chance to wreak havoc on that end. Moe Wagner leads the team in charges drawn, a Magic “bell play.” Cole Anthony is second in that category. And now with Suggs and Franz Wagner playing top-notch defense, it just feels like only a matter of time before Orlando is smothering opponents in the half court on a regular basis.

“Especially that physicality point and being tough and taking people out of their stuff, that’s something that we didn’t do great especially to begin the season,” Franz Wagner said after the Magic’s win over the Timberwolves. “I think we are taking a step in the right direction. There are spots where you can be really physical during the game and then there are spots where even a little contact is going to be a foul. Just knowing that balance, when to be physical and when not to, is something that we talk about. Keeping up that pressure on ball handlers and stuff like that. It’s been a huge emphasis at practice.”

The work the assistant coaches do is also making a big impact. Watching film with the players, explaining the dos and don’ts, walking them through the proper defensive schemes and keeping their spirits high when mistakes are made are things that they have done a wonderful job of since becoming part of Mosley’s staff.

“The assistants have been fantastic, especially in the stretch of being on the road,” Mosley said. “Not a lot of practice time, but them being able to sit down and watch film with our guys, working individually before games. The practices that we do get, they are there before practice. They are staying after practice. They have done an amazing job with these guys and getting them better and developing them and helping them grow.”