Date of Publication: Dec. 29. 2021
Throughout training camp leading up to the season, center Wendell Carter Jr. had seen plenty of upside in rookie forward Franz Wagner. From his high basketball IQ to his fundamentals, there was little not to like.
The only thing that seemed to be holding him back was his confidence.
“I told him ‘Man, they drafted you for a reason. Go out there and play your game,’” Carter said. “We all kind of huddled around him, we all kind of pushed him.”
The potential that Wagner’s teammates had seen in him for months was on full display in the Orlando Magic’s 127-110 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. He finished with a career-high 38 points on 12-for-20 shooting to go along with 7 rebounds and 3 assists, further cementing himself as one of the top performing rookies of the year.
Those 38 points tied for the third-most scored by a Magic rookie, behind Dennis Scott and Shaquille O’Neal.
“I did a good job of not forcing it,” Wagner said. “In a couple of other games where, just three, four plays in a row I think I have to make the whole play myself instead of just making the easy play. I did a better job with that today.”
Orlando was heavily outmatched coming into the game. On top of facing the reigning NBA champions and one of the best players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Magic were down 10 players to injuries and health protocols. They even unexpectedly lost guard Hassani Gravett to protocols during the third quarter.
The Magic predictably found themselves trailing early and it looked like it would be an easy night for the Bucks. And then Wagner caught fire.
He scored 27 points in the second half, demonstrating his ability to generate offense by hitting contested 3s, driving to the rim and getting to the line. His scoring helped spur a 37-point third quarter for the Magic that kept the game in reach late.
While Orlando’s lack of depth eventually caught up with it, the second half offered a glimpse of what they’d hoped to see from their young, high-upside players.
“The level of professionalism, the level of what you have to do every day to make yourself become successful, that’s what he does,” coach Jamahl Mosley said of Wagner. “He shows up early, he stays late, takes care of his body. The ability to just be a pro, that’s what we keep talking about with all of our young guys. They’re growing and getting better.”
Wagner was drafted with the eighth pick in 2021. While top 10 picks typically garner much attention among their new fanbases, Wagner’s selection was somewhat overshadowed by guard Jalen Suggs falling to the Magic at No. 5.
But as Suggs — and many other Magic players — have dealt with injury and COVID issues, Wagner has emerged as an effective contributor and a potential Rookie of the Year candidate, averaging 24.8 points per game over his last five games.
He ranks third among all rookies in points per game (15.6) and ninth in rebounds (4.7). His ability to get to the free throw line also has proven effective for the Magic. He went 10-for-10 from the line against the Bucks and shoots 83% on the year.
“The best drivers, that’s what they do,” said Wagner, who has more ballhandling duties with the absences of backcourt starters Suggs and Cole Anthony “They look for contact and it’s really hard to stop that. I’ve been working on that a little bit.”
As the Magic’s injury and health issues alleviate, Wagner likely will see his role reduce to a more sustainable level after playing 36 minutes or more in three of his last four outings. But his teammates expect him to become an even bigger factor as the season progresses.
“This is just the beginning for him,” Carter said. “I feel like he has a really high ceiling.”