Franz Wagner Continues to Add to NBA Rookie of the Year Resume

Franz Wagner
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO – Just a few months into his NBA career, Franz Wagner has quickly picked up a nickname from a few his teammates. “ROY,” which stands for Rookie of the Year.

It’s not a title he was given because of being a top pick – he wasn’t selected until eighth overall in the 2021 NBA Draft – or because of immense draft hype coming out of college. Instead, it’s a moniker he’s earned by his tireless work ethic, jaw-dropping performances, competitive attitude, high basketball IQ, and selfless approach to the game.

Many of those qualities were evident from the second the Orlando Magic rookie first stepped on the court for his first summer league practice in Las Vegas. Just moments into his tenure with the team and head coach Jamahl Mosley was already praising the 6-foot-10 forward for his attention to detail in drills and using him as an example for other young players to follow.

It was evident in those early instances that Wagner had a professional pedigree. His tenure playing professional basketball in Germany as a youngster, his tutelage under head coach Juwan Howard while playing for the University of Michigan, and having a brother already in the NBA, who just happens to play for the same team, had clearly paid dividends for the Berlin native.

“His advantage also is that he has his brother (Moe Wagner),” Mosley explained. “There’s a little bit of a learning curve that happens there because the brother is there to give pieces of advice. He played for a phenomenal college coach in Juwan, who gave him some of those keys to what it was going to be like as a pro. That goes a long, long way for a young man walking into his rookie year. So, all of those pieces set him up to strive to continue to be great.”

That foundation certainly provided the 20-year-old advantages for early success in the NBA. However, the level at which he’s performed over the first couple of months in the NBA has caught even his teammates by surprise.

Magic veteran sixth man Terrence Ross was impressed by Wagner’s professionalism at the summer league and training camp stage. But even he had to marvel at the quick progress the dynamic forward has made over the first few months of the season.

“Franz is a stud,” Ross said recently. “He’s good at everything. He’s really good at everything. He can shoot, pass, score, defend, and he’s six-ten, so he’s really fun to watch. He reminds me like of a Gordon Hayward, but with a lot more size and I think is a little bit better down the road. But yeah, I’m excited to see what he turns into.”

So are the Magic’s coaches and fanbase alike. Due to that aforementioned work ethic, the staff granted Wagner with a starting spot in the rotation on opening night. He’s responded with tremendous performances and has played in and started all of Orlando’s first 42 games of the season. It’s an opportunity that he has not taken for granted.

“(It’s been) huge and that’s stuff you can’t really control,” Wagner said of the trust instilled in him by the Magic’s coaching staff. “I try to give my best in every practice, and in training camp, stuff like that, but that’s where, as a young player, or any player at any level, (you) have to be thankful for getting the opportunity to play. Make mistakes and play through them.”

As a result of his effort, guidance from his teammates, and development under Mosley and his staff, Wagner has put together a rookie campaign certainly worthy of being in consideration for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.

In the month of December, he averaged an NBA rookie-best 19.5 points while shooting 47.6 percent from the floor, 40.4 percent from 3-point range, and 88.9 percent from the free throw line.

That month was highlighted by a stellar 38-point explosion against the defending champions on Dec. 28. Afterwards, he drew praise from Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer, who called the performance one of the best he’s ever seen from a rookie in the NBA.

That 38-point showing, the most by any rookie in a single game this season and the third most all time by an Orlando first-year player, also drew praise from a two-time MVP.

“I think he’s really good,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We played him at home twice (in November). He was okay. He was good. But he came out the previous game we played (Dec. 28), played really well, got to his spots, knocked down threes, got to the free throw line. He came out (on Dec. 30), he played great. Got his teammates involved. Got his shots. I think sky’s the limit for him. For real. I wish him nothing but the best.”

Those numbers also brought home national attention. Wagner was recognized by the NBA as the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December.

“I told him, ‘I’m going to start calling him ROY’ – Rookie of the Year – because that’s what he’s going to be,” said Magic point guard Cole Anthony. “I’m speaking it into existence. I just want to keep seeing him get better and I think he has a chance to be a heck of a player.”

His fantastic feats carried into the new year with a streak of 21 consecutive double-digit scoring games, the longest by any rookie this season and the second longest stretch ever by a Magic first-year player.

“We understand what he can do,” said Magic forward Wendell Carter Jr. “We saw it in practice every day, training camp he was killing, killing. I just knew it was going to happen, just how fundamentally sound he is. He has a really high IQ for the game, and this is just the beginning for him. He has a really high ceiling.”

In addition to offensive outbursts – three of the NBA’s seven-best single game scoring performances by a rookie this season have come from Wagner – he’s also flashed phenomenal playmaking abilities.

In stretches of December and January, Wagner stepped up to play point forward with many of Orlando’s guards out due to health and safety protocols or sidelined due to injury. Those opportunities fast forwarded his development as a playmaker and helped lead to a 10-assist outing against the Washington Wizards on Jan. 12. In the process, Wagner became the first Orlando rookie forward – and just the eighth Magic first-year player overall – to record 10-plus assists in a single game.

“His body of work, his demeanor every single day, his professionalism,” said Mosley. “It just goes into the work and his attention to detail and what he’s trying to accomplish night in and night out. It’s not just coming from his scoring. It’s been his ability to make the right play at the right time in big moments.”

Defensively, the University of Michigan alum is extremely versatile and capable of switching onto players one through five for moments of the game. His commitment to playing proper positional defense as well as his drive on that end of the floor have helped him emerge as one of the premier two-way players in his draft class.

“The one thing that stands out with him the most is his competitive nature to finding a way to get things done offensively and defensively,” Mosley said. “Defensively, just understanding assignments. We’ve talked about it from the beginning of the year, his ability to change matchups (by) switching onto smaller guards (or by) switching onto bigs. Just understanding positioning. It says a lot that he’s able to accomplish these things.”

What the rest of the season holds for Wagner remains to be seen. While his flashes have some fans already anticipating a future where he’s one of the centerpieces of a championship-contending team, Wagner is very quick to put a hold on all of that talk and instead take the same humble, workman-like approach that’s helped him get this far.

“There are a lot of reasons for fans to be hopeful for the future," he explained. I think we’ve got a lot of young talent. But my motivation as a player is to win right now and not in couple years. Having said that, I think part of it is realizing that it takes some time. But it’s cool to give that hope or to have people be excited for the future. But my job right now is to be in the now and try to win games.”

“What’s helped me so far is focusing on each day at a time and the rest will just happen if it’s supposed to happen.”

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